Tuesday, March 15, 2011


We've been, quite rightly, distracted by Lybia and Japan over the last week. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the killing goes on . . .


The American military has launched an investigation to find out what really happened, so it's important not to jump to judgement prematurely. Undoubtedly there must have been some good reason that, after circling over a group of nine Afghan boys collecting firewood near their home, the two helicopters suddenly swooped low. This time they began picking off the boys with machine-guns, one after another. Two families lost sets of brothers. The others were all aged between nine and 15. Even carrying wood they must have looked like children. Only one, Hemad, survived to tell the story.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai was furious. This particular bit of fury from the skies came just one week after another devastating air-strike had gone astray. That killed 65 people, including approximately 40 children. War is chaos, but other villagers were killed in yet another attack. All within a fortnight. It suggests that something far more significant is going wrong.

Less than a year ago the US commander, General David Petraeus, thought he had a new strategy that would win the war. Everyone was claiming a "surge" of US troops enabled victory – well the exit of US forces, anyway – in Iraq. It was hoped that similarly bolstering the international forces in Afghanistan might, combined with different and better tactics, enable the Taliban to be turned back.

The extra troops have arrived but they're implementing the tactics of failure. Remember how the rhetoric was once all about "protecting the people" and “building infrastructure”. The idea was to move slowly and gradually expand the area under control of the government -- clearing the towns and villages of the Taliban before unpacking "government in a box". Once this was established it was meant to prevent the insurgency returning. This would, in turn, allow the troops to expand controlled territory further and further out into the countryside.

Unfortunately, the strategy has turned to dust.

As with any good disaster there's plenty of reasons for the catastrophe and, of course, culprits. The easiest group to finger and blame for the mistakes is the Afghan government. There’s no doubt that it proved unable to establish control over the designated areas. It is corrupt. But even if its agents had been men of probity, the most stalwart members of the community, it seems unlikely they would have had much success restoring civil society. As it was the Taliban simply faded back into the population. The surge became bogged down. Instead of clearing new areas the troops kept going back over areas where they'd operated before. And each time they found new insurgents had taken the place of those they killed. Gradually, the amount of firepower -- air strikes, artillery and helicopters -- increased and with it, inevitably, the number of "collateral casualties". People who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; people who ‘looked’ dangerous; Taliban sympathisers or those who were just trying not to be shot when the insurgents returned at night; all of them accidentally targeted and killed by the very soldiers who were trying to save them.

The war had returned to being one where massive firepower had become the preferred method of engaging the enemy. The timetable quickly fell so far behind schedule it had to be abandoned. Now the strategy has changed again, although there's been no public announcement because that would mean the necessity of admitting failure.

The new technique of winning supposedly concentrates on night-raids and assassinations. These are only as good as the intelligence that identifies the targets and the cleanliness with which the strike can be carried out. No one doubts that a large number of enemy commanders have been eliminated. Unfortunately, so have far greater numbers of civilians. The result has been a further disastrous collapse of goodwill. General Petraeus has even allegedly gone so far as to claim -- behind closed doors -- that Afghani's were themselves responsible for many of the innocent deaths, fabricating or inventing stories and even, most horrifically, the story that parents burned their own children to claim a financial reward from the Americans. To some extent it doesn't matter whether he said this or not; the point is that people in Afghanistan believe these are his sentiments.

There is no strategy -- the war has reverted to brutal killing.

A couple of weeks ago the US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates gave a speech at the West Point Military Academy. He told the cream of America's future officer corps that anyone who advised the President to send a large army into Asia "should have his head examined". This stunning admission reveals the emptiness that now lies at the heart of the counter-insurgency strategy. All the different operational techniques in the repertoire have been tried, but none have succeeded in bolstering government control over contested areas. There is an implicit recognition that nothing -- nothing -- has worked.

The question now is, what comes next?

It would be fantasy to suggest that President Obama can suggest publicly that the US has been defeated in Afghanistan. The Republicans would immediately leap on such an admission: his presidency would be crippled. Obama's problem is to find a way out that will make him look as if he's succeeded, when the reality is bleak despair. Undoubtedly the need to save face will lead to further announcements of victory before the inevitable hand-over to Karzai as the US backs-out of the conflict. He is the key to America's departure.

Soon after the successful overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, Western governments became an enthusiastic propagandists, peddling the idea that Karzai was the answer to the Afghan problem. The marriage didn't, and perhaps couldn't last. Today he puts up with a succession of foreign leaders coming over to lecture him on what needs to be done to secure victory. Meanwhile, on the ground, nothing changes.

War, particularly insurgency war without a front-line, is by its very nature chaotic. Accidents happen. Worried, tired and frightened soldiers make more mistakes, creating more enemies and further escalating the violence. Soon killing becomes the currency of COIN, as COunter INsurgency is abbreviated in military slang.

And, in the meantime, more children will die.

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