An analysis by James Morton that is well worth reading, lifted from the comments replying to The deteriorating situation in Helmand, by Jonathan Mueller (29 July 2009).
It’s interesting to note that Jonathan Mueller feels that the UK army is not on the same page as the US and have abandoned their clear-build-hold strategy. I came across this article by the M.O.D. — “Armored thrust clears final Taliban from ‘Panther’s Claw’“, 27 July 2009. Strangely I kept hearing the voice of Bob Danvers Walker (the voice of British Pathe News back in the day) while reading this article. Very triumphalist piece where it seems we have prevailed over the enemy and cleared the Taliban out of the region. The article reads as if the operation was conducted against a conventional opponent and not a guerrilla army, that will disperse against overwhelming odds to hit back at another location and at a time of their choosing.
But we have to aks ourselves what extacly is the clear-build-hold strategy? Those 3 little words that the UK government and UK armed forces state so clearly as talking points in every interview. How exactly was it to be implemented?
That seems to be about getting them out of the area and cutting them off from the locals. According to my government and the UK armed forces this has been done, so we can all sleep more soundly tonight — but (and this is a big but) this part of the plan always seems to assert that the Taliban are somehow “alien” to the rest of the population, not least in the Pashtun south. The reality, whether we like it or not, is that the social and cultural values represented by the Taliban have large areas of cross-over with substantial sections of the rest of Afghanistan. That logically means that what is being earmarked for destruction represents often commonly shared values.
Regardless of the above, This is the stated policy: that those opposing the coalition are simply to be destroyed and removed. This is based on the belief that the people can be split into categories. The good peace loving Afghans, the moderate Taliban who don’t fight us, so its ok to hold talks with them and the bad Taliban who have chosen the path of violence and can never be reconciled. It ignores as I have said those strong clan & religious based relationships.
If clearing suggests the removal of the bad, irreconcilable elements of Afghan society, then second stage of the operation is equally challenging when examined. Despite 8 years in Afghanistan, and a procession of campaigns, US and UK forces are no closer to holding the ground than they were 3 years ago. Mueller is correct that we don’t have enough troops to do the “Hold” part of the plan. Which is why previous operations have failed. We chased the Taliban out, declared victory, left the region and the Taliban magically return.
We keep hearing this in the media and in Government announcements: Resurgent Taliban or the Taliban have returned. I always hold that the Taliban never left, and that includes areas were we have supposedly driven them out.
So obviously it is vital to introduce elements of the Afghan army and police into the region to assist in this. But this is the problem. Where are these forces coming from? there is no such thing as local constabulary, or for that matter local army units. Let me clarify. By where? I don’t mean numbers of men and resources. I mean from which region do they come from? If they are not local, and by local I mean Pashtuns, but for example say we bring Tajiks recruits and police from the north of Afghanistan then we are going to have problems. These men will be regarded every bit as foreign just as we ourselves are seen as foreign. They won’t speak Pashto, and the culture will be alien to them.
We’d have to build up local police and army units; but I can’t see that happening, sadly.
I will be honest this is the part that is difficult for me to visualise. There seems to be a disturbing tendency by the politicians and military: to assume that if the first two parts of this plan works, the third will happen automatically. While politicians and military alike talk about strengthening institutional capacity towards the building a strong, democratic state, it is hard to see what that state would look like when we consider how fantastically corrupt it currently is. You must also consider the panic that was induced in the west when that same “democratic” government of Afghanistan came within a gnats hair of passing a “Marital” rape law. Then you begin to see how hard a slog it’s going to be.
Obviously various government departments including the DfID should step in. But their record is somewhat patchy in this regard and they seem to be incapable of following up the Army programme because, as Mueller stated, they have decided to try and help the Afghans help themselves…which means wasting time and resources working with corrupt Afghan government departments. Which means little actually gets through to where it is needed most. We cannot rely on NGOs to fill the gap. We continually forget that these groups are made up of volunteers from civilian life and we cannot expect them to follow us into areas were security cannot be guaranteed.
Finally there are once again comments about British success in Malaysia. It does have to stated that the communist insurgency largely came from ethnic Chinese in the region. These were hated by the Malayans and so the CI doctrine worked well here. In Afghanistan we are dealing with a region of disparate ethnic groups, built along tribe/clan based loyalties, strong conservative religious and cultural values, and last but not least different languages. This is led, and I use this word in its broadest sense, by a weak, corrupt central Government that cannot extend its writ and the rule of law very far beyond the borders of Kabul.
In my own humble opinion, the lesson we should learn from successful CI operations is not to delude ourselves that there is such a thing as a one size fits all approach to democracy. I would also add to this the possibility that there is also no such thing as one size fits all approach to Counter Insurgency operations. Every situation will be unique and just as we should never judge a future war by the ones we fought in the past, we should also apply this to Counter insurgency.
About the author
Scottish, but born in Hanover, Germany where his father served with UK armed forces. Currently working as a civil servant with the Land Registers of Scotland as a legal case officer.
Please share your comments by posting below. Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them civil and relevant to this post. Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling). Posts over 250 words will have a fold inserted (putting a “more” button in the comment), so make the opening text an interesting summary of your comment.
For information about this site see the About page, at the top of the right-side menu bar.
For more information from the FM site
To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp interest these days:
- About America’s national defence strategy and machinery
- About Iraq & Sub-continent Wars – my articles
- About Iraq & Sub-continent Wars – studies & reports
Posts about the War in Afghanistan:
- Quote of the day: this is America’s geopolitical strategy in action, 26 February 2008 — George Friedman of Statfor on the Afghanistan War.
- Another perspective on Afghanistan, a reply to George Friedman, 27 February 2008
- Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
- We are withdrawing from Afghanistan, too (eventually), 21 April 2008
- Brilliant, insightful articles about the Afghanistan War, 8 June 2008
- The good news about COIN in Afghanistan is really bad news, 20 August 2008
- Pakistan warns America about their borders, and their sovereignty, 14 September 2008
- “Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” by George Friedman, 31 January 2009
- A joust between two schools of American military theory, 19 May 2009
- Troops without proper equipment in 2004, troops without proper equipment in 2009 – where’s the outrage?, 20 May 2009
- New bases in Afghanistan – more outposts of America’s Empire, 21 May 2009
- The simple, fool-proof plan for victory in Afghanistan , 1 June 2009
- Advice about our long war – “It’s the tribes, stupid”, 9 June 2009
- An expert explains why we must fight in Afghanistan, 11 June 2009
- Real experts review a presentation about the War (look here, if you’re looking for well-written analysis!), 21 June 2009
- The Big Lie at work in Afghanistan – an open discussion, 23 June 2009
- The trinity of modern warfare at work in Afghanistan, 13 July 2009