Tag Archives: war on terror

What next in Afghanistan?

With the onset of President Obama’s surge, and a change in Government in Whitehall, 2011 could prove to be a pivotal year for the future of Afghanistan, as this article on the BBC website suggests.

History shows that the only way peacekeeping forces can leave any country in which they are engaged is by enabling that country to look after itself and stand on its own two feet. Until that point, critics will be able to look upon foreign forces as ‘occupiers’, whether this is the nature of their involvement or not.

Progress in Afghanistan does seem to have been slow, bearing in mind that US and coalition forces first entered the country in 2001. Admittedly for several years the country was overshadowed by Afghanistan. But quite rightly questions are now being asked about whether enough progress is being made by the Afghan Government and security forces in moving towards taking responsibility for their own future.

The usual allegations about the US and NATO being imperialistic do not wash where Afghanistan is concerned, as there is nothing in the country to be imperialistic about. Much as in Britain’s Afghan wars in the Nineteenth Century, the aim is secure and stabilise the region. Afghanistan’s turbulent past shows that it is not a country where any foreign forces should want to linger any longer than they have to. Of course it would be great if we lived in a world where no countries ever failed, but sadly on occasions countries do become a threat to regional and global security.

But by the same token, we should be wary also of bailing out on a country before the job is done. If Saddam Hussein had been deposed in 1991 when the coalition had much broader support than in 2003, years of harmful sanctions would have been avoided – and not to mention the fracturous effect on world politics.

Its not difficult to see that pulling out of Afghanistan before it has a strong and stable Government would leave the country as a vipers nest that would only cost many more lives in years to come. A collapse in Afghanistan might endanger Pakistan, where the border region districts are controlled by either the Taliban or tribes. With Iran on the other side of the country the region is in danger of bubbling over into insecurity, and Afghanistan could be the first domino. And not only is interational security a big concern, but more needs to be done to knuckle down on the poppy growing trade, and the effect that it has on international crime and drug addiction.

Therefore the role of international forces has to move to words enabling as soon as possible. The problem with this is the state of the Afghan Government – can Karzai do enough to tackle corruption? Much rests on the ability of the Afghans to take over their own security, and to make it possible for ISAF to take a back seat and then eventually leave.

History has shown also that sooner or later the Afghan Government will have to sit down and talk with the Taliban, especially its more moderate elements. After 1945 in Germany many former Nazi party members played a role in rebuilding the country. In Northern Ireland progress was only made with the peace process once Sinn Fein was brought to the negotiating table. By contrast in Iraq after 2003 the US disbanded the Iraqi Army immediately, and embarked on strict de-Bathification,and chaos reigned.

As a recent British Army booklet on irregular warfare stated, the trick is not the defeat the enemy, but to make it impossible for them to win and thereby force them to the negotiating table. To do that ISAF and the Afghans will have to demonstrate that they can provide a more stable and peaceful future, thus cutting off the Taliban’s grass roots support and making their armed stuggle impossible.

But as General Mchrystal so rightly mentions in the BBC article, often in military history the turning point in a war ends up being competely unexpected. Thats why it wound be unwise to set any target dates for withdrawal based on domestic pressure.

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Learning lessons in counter-insurgency

Browsing on the RUSI’s website I found this very ineresting article by Huw Bennett, entitled ‘The reluctant pupil? Britain’s army and learning in counter-insurgency. It is extremely relevant to the current conflict in Afghanistan, and I think it is worth summarising here with my own thoughts.

Often the failures of armed forces, especially in counter-insurgecy campaigns, are blamed on the inability of the miltary to learn and absorb the lessons from past conflicts. Looking at the example of past wars should demonstrate that our forces and commanders need to develop an ability to react flexibly to the unique nature of each campaign. Learning is crucial in military command and leadership. Particularly when we are all too aware that the cost of lessons not learnt is counted in lives lost. This is one sphere where military history can have a real impact on doctrine.

Post 1945 the British Army found itself involved in one counter-insurgency campaign after another, notably in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Northern Ireland, and most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of these examples are hallmarked by initial failings, before classic doctrine comes into play and varying degrees of success were achieved. Isnt it ironic that the British Army’s experience in the second half of the Twentieth Century was spent overwhelmingly in counter-insurgency, yet looking back we get the feeling that operations such as Northern Ireland were an unpleasant necessary, while the Army would rather have been fighting a real war?

History suggests that rather than being a new conflict out on its own, the current war in Afghanistan is in strong continuity with other counter-insurgency campaigns, albeit with its own unique local nature. It has been lumped under the banner of the war on terror, but that is down to US-political factors. The UK as fighting terror long before 9/11. There are strong lessons that shine through all campaigns. Hearts and minds matter, and civil-military co-operation is important. If you are going to ‘do’ nation breaking, then you have to do nation building. There will be no victory parade like in ‘real’ wars. Excessive use of force causes more problems than it solves. The objective is to make the enemy’s objective impossible, and to remove the factors that allow then to exist and operate.

But why is it that military culture struggles to learn these lessons? Does change – in particuar with looming cuts and restructuring – need to embraced rather than shyed away from? Certainly, deeply held beliefs and cultures, such as those found in an organisation like the Army, shape military beaviour and stifle abstract thinking and innovation. All too often a convenient orthodoxy reigns, and all thinking outside of it is frowned upon. Although there is also a strong culture of pragmatism and ‘muddling through’, is it the case that if we were pay more attention to history, then we might not have to? After all, how come the US military got their approach to Iraq so badly wrong, when there were ample case studies from their time in Iraq and the British experience in Northern Ireland?

Bennett’s conclusion is most interesting:

Historical campaigns should be studied as an exercise in analytical thinking for commanders, rather than being expected to serve up easily transferable generic lessons. Failure at a counter-insurgency campaign’s start is structurally inevitable, and is thus no cause for demoralisation. The trick is to recover, and learn about a new situation, fast.

Recovering and then learning quickly is likely to become a common theme in a time of cuts and overstretch. It will be impossible for the armed forces to be all things to all people all of the time, expecting the unexpected is likely to become the norm in an uncertain world. In the twenty-first century, has the unconventional become the new conventional?

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