Is ‘victory’ in Afghanistan possible?

Soviet President Michael Sergeevich Gorbachev

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I’m always astounded to read yet-another scaremongering article about how NATO is ‘losing’ the war in Afghanistan. Whilst it is difficult to argue with such a prominent figure as Mikhail Gorbachev, he is not quite right to compare the current war in Afghanistan with the war that the Soviet Union

All historical and military evidence suggests that you do not ever ‘win’ a counter-insurgency campaign in the traditional military ‘win or lose’ manner. For that is what the war in Afghanistan is – a campaign to prevent the Taliban from taking hold, rather than to capture ground or openly defeat an enemy. There will never be any kind of cushing, convincing victory, no ticker tape reception or victory parade.

The British Army fought perhaps the most succesful counter-insurgency campaign in history in Northern Ireland. Whilst it could not be said that the Army ‘won’ in the strictest military sense, it did make it impossible for the paramilitaries to achieve their objectives. I’m sure that at any point the Army could have gone all-out and eliminated every terrorist that it knew of, but while this might have made for good headlines, it would have hardened a whole generation to the nationalist cause. Just look at the effect that Bloody Sunday and Internment had – any kind of bigger offensive does not bear thinking about. The objective in counter-insurgency has to be not only to improve matters, but to ensure that they do not get worse.

Another perspective I have never understood is the argument that ‘the British Army has never won in Afghanistan’. History does not bear out this argument at all. British Armies in Afghanistan did have a very hard time in Afghanistan in the Nineteenth Century, but we need to understand what exactly they were doing there. There was – and indeed, still is not – anything in Afghanistan to conquer. The British Empire was not about conquering empty countries; it was built on trade. Rather, campaigns in Afghanistan were aimed at presenting a strong bulwark against Russian expansionism in Asia, and safeguarding the North West Frontier of India. All of these objectives were achieved.

I do agree that the sooner international forces can leave Afghanistan the better, as their mere presence can be a recruiting tool for the Taliban, but at the same time there is no sense in pulling out pell-mell unless the Afghans themselves can take care of their own security. History suggests that problem states that are left along – Germany post 1918, and Iraq after the first Gulf War – will only need to be dealt with at a later date, and usually in a more bloody fashion. I do not believe either that Afghanistan will become another Vietnam - the US and the international have – or should have – learnt an awful lot in dealing with counter-insurgency since then.

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Is ‘victory’ in Afghanistan possible?

  1. x

    If everything goes to plan I might be attending a talk by a deputy director of RUSI on A-stan tomorrow night. I shall steal myself as I haven’t been on campus since I left at Christmas and it will be a bit weird……

  2. The biggest question I have, which I have yet to find a decent answer to, is “Where are the Engineers”? Yes, boots on the ground are vital. Yes, destroying certain targets is a military necessity. But if we (“we” being all the nations) simply blast the countryside into smaller pieces, then walk away, what have we done? You can’t win a heart or a mind with a bomb. You CAN win them by providing electricity, running water, sewerage, bridges, roads, hospitals, and all the other bits of infrastructure that could elevate A-stan from the Stone Age to 20th century status. Note I did not mention churches, schools, or government buildings. That way, we are (hopefully) not seen to be intruding into the socio-religious landscape. Besides, if we had been rebuilding the infrastructure immediately behind our troops, we would have an easier time of supplying the military presence – less reliance on those pesky Pakistani border crossings and the “respectful differences” we’ve had with the Kazakhs using their airbases.

    • I didn’t mean to imply that there has been NO reconstruction in Afghanistan; I know there has been some,bu I feel nowhere near enough. I feel the rebuilding should have been a major priority, running a VERY close second to the military campaign. If the IEDs in a certain area were pulled up or destroyed, and almost immediately the area be paved or have pipe laid, the residents would have a powerful incentive to keep the Taliban out and to make sure no new explosives were laid.

  3. x

    Rebuilding doesn’t work. In Iraq “our” engineers found that as quickly they built something it was knocked down for the materials.

    The only thing we should be doing in Afghanistan is burning poppy fields. (With UAVs becoming increasingly cheaper this will soon troops aren’t put in harm’s way.) That is the true threat to the West, not this abstract threat of Islamic terrorism. Growing up in the 70s and 80s in the UK on TV I saw night have night terrorist acts by various Irish factions. If “we” the British had reacted to this threat in proportion we would have had to nuke Dublin! Only jokin’. Apart from the disgusting and wicked 7/7 attacks we have had no other major attacks. But we do thousands of drug addicts commit crimes to feed their habit and placing a burden on the national health service and local social services.

    • I hadn’t heard of the Iraqis tearing things up. Then again, they had a slightly better standard of living (at least among Saddam’s cronies and families), so they’re probably a bit more money-grubbing. Actually, they sound more like New Jersey residents – every week another mook electrocutes himself stealing copper wire. OFF THE TRANSMISSION LINE TOWERS! Darwinism at its’ finest…..
      The only problem I have with blasting the poppy fields (and I do love the idea of a mass napalm raid) is what do they grow in place of it? Poppies are very much like the weeds in your garden – they LOVE the climate of A-stan, while other, more traditional crops wither in the heat or die of dehydration or cold (depending on which parts). I’ve seen a number of first-person interviews between US soldiers and A-stan residents, and the residents have always asked about infrastructure – mainly water, then power, with streets and sewers somewhere farther down the priority list. That’s why I listed all that stuff. Can I ask, in all honesty, with no insult intended, what could they grow? (“Dammit, Jim, I’m a programmer, not a botanist!”, with regards to the late D. Kelly.)

      • James Daly

        I think the poppy fields are a real tricky issue. Of course on paper we should blitz the lot right away. BUT it would be such a problem for Afghan society, and as has been mentioned, what do they grow instead? What else would exist in those conditions and yield the same profits? Its a toughie but will need resolving in the long term if Afghan is to calm down eventually.

        • x

          The green zone around the river is well irrigated. And I suppose Western (or developed) nations could buy the opiates.

          Paying farmers not to grow poppies is madness.

          And is there a connection with just how our international aid budget is actually spent? That some ends up in the pockets of ne’er do wells.

          I think it is an us and them question. While we put them first we are losing.

          It is hard being a Realist. :)

    • James Daly

      I do think that while reconstruction will never stop an ongoing war, it will usually cement a new peace by removing the reasons for young men to take up arms. A young bloke with a job and good quality of life is less likely to pick up an AK-47, you would think.

      • That was one of the topics of discussion between village elders and GIs I’ve seen on TV and online. Several of the elders have stated that with an infrastructure there would be jobs; without there is only the Taliban. I’ve also seen several Afghan farmers state that they would rather grow something else, but without irrigation and fertiliser delivered by pipe and road respectively, they can’t “make a go” of it with any product other than poppies. That’s why I asked X about prospective crops. I’m a big-city boy – dirt’s what you wash off your car, or what you use to cover up your “problems”. (As the line from “Stripes” goes, “Oh, Chicago! Bang-bang!”)

  4. X, my friend, the aid money question is a whole ‘nother can of worms. The problem seems to be that the US (I’ll give my people the blame on this one) grabbed the first flunky off the street who didn’t have “Taliban” tattooed on his forehead, then told him to form a government. I have yet to see a single set of professional qualifications for ANYONE in Karzai’s government. And while you can explain away the “bags full of cash” issue by the lack of a banking infrastructure, it conjures up a level of corruption that would shame a Chicago politician! (Sorry, feeling a bit homesick today. Hence all the Chicago references.) While the Afghan people (or most of the world) would not look kindly on the allies running A-stan like a European colony, it would give the allied military a reasonably honest and non-nepotistic government to put the country on its’ economic and policing feet, allowing a quicker turnover of counter-insurgency operations AND government to the Afghan people.
    Oh, and my congratulations to you. By putting forth the thorny question of aid spending, you found the perfect way to duck my question on what to grow. ;) lol

    • James Daly

      International Aid is something that we really are, in my opinion, getting wrong in the twenty first century. I have no problem at all with redistributing some of our wealth where it can make a difference, but too much of it has no strings attached. I get the feeling international aid is doled out by Governments at conferences like a game of upmanship. It needs perspective – why were we ever giving money to countries such as Russia, India and China? These are not poor countries… its madness. And why is international aid ringfenced in the spending review?

      I’ve always felt that aid is better spent where it can make a difference, such as in turning around failed states or in disaster relief. We shouldn’t breed a culture of dependence on handouts, nor should we allow ‘empire guilt’ to shame us into handing over money. In any case, our aid options will be severely curtailed with no aircraft carriers and minimal amphibs, the usual platforms for aid relief.

      • International aid, at least here in the States, is very much a “legacy” system. The basis of much of our international aid goes back decades, if not actually centuries. And, at least in US politics, most aid packages are passed either as part of a larger domestic necessity funding package, or they are set up so that a bill must be passed to stop the funding (i.e., the funds are distributed unless specifically stopped). Most of the language (and even the location of this language in other bills) is so arcane, even long-term governmental lawyers have problems comprehending how to stop the funding without bringing necessary domestic funding to a halt. And remember that, only 70 years ago (not very long for slow, creaky western governments), China and Russia were in danger from the Axis, and India was still a colony. I won’t speak specifically to the IMF – I’m not terribly familiar with that equally byzantine organisation!

      • Sorry, James, missed your second paragraph. As to the points you make, there are a couple of sad truisms. First, it’s easier to hand out money. While it makes more sense to “teach a man to fish”, it also takes more time and involvement. “Giving a man a fish”, while it “only feeds him for a day”, is a simple matter – wire them the money (or drop bags of cash!) and a government has no more ties – no military on the ground to supply, no infrastructure to build. It’s always easier to send in money than to get your hands dirty! And with the cuts to Britain’s amphibious capability, and the uncertainty in US capabilities with the problems surrounding the EFV and the LCS, western governments will have a strong incentive to “phone it in” rather than get involved in person.

  5. Way, WAY off topic question, but I thought that, since attention was here, I would stand a better chance of an answer. Any idea what the status of the Type 26 frigates is? I’m having trouble finding information online – most of the information I can find is out of date. Thanks in advance for any assistance all of you can give me!

    • James Daly

      It is very much at the concept stage at the moment, BAE systems have been awarded the design work but little else. There is no idea about how many we will order, nor how many will be C1, C2 or C3 variants. Our PM stated the other day that we are apparently ‘building the most advanced frigates in the world’… initial design work is hardly building. In any case, EVERY weapon ever built is described by its Govt as the most advanced in the world… they cant all be!

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