Losing Because We're Not Winning

The International Institute for Strategic Studies, (a think tank),  today published a paper that recommends that British troops should be withdrawn from Helmund. They contend that, "long wars with “heavy, large, military deployment,” should be seen as “an attitude for other times, other centuries.” They go on to suggest that British troops should be withdrawn to the north and only redeployed if the Taliban pose a threat to Kabul or al Qaeda return to use Southern Afghanistan as a haven. They further suggest that the deployment has suffered from "mission creep," and the aims of the combat role are not consistent to the threat posed by the Taliban.

It is difficult to disagree. Indeed, if we continue on the current trajectory of losses resulting from the broad scope nation building aims, we are running a very high risk of being bogged down and ultimately losing the war. Some might suggest, that is already happening.

Given President Obama's ill advised statement that US troops will start to draw down next year and the equally misguided commitment by the British government to withdraw by 2015, it is clear that ISAF forces are at the peak of their likely strength and if considerable in roads cannot be made in the next nine months they probably never will be. ISAF would probably then reverse engines and shift to a policy of containment, but it is fair to ask why we do we not skip the middle part, and all the casualties, and move, as the IISS suggest, straight to the final phase.

It would be a mistake to compare the current US surge in Afghanistan with the 2007 Iraq surge, for the campaigns differ in many respects and the Iraq situation is a long way from playing out the end game, particularly where the malign influence of Iran is concerned. Moreover, attempting to accelerate a medieval society's development into the modern age with national institutions which have never before existed is a breathtaking goal, and probably unachievable if judged by Western standards.

Yet in Afghanistan the original 2001 aim, the elimination or removal of al Qaeda from that country, has been achieved. As Stratfor, (US geopolitical analysts), say in a recent paper,

"the enemy in Afghanistan is no longer al Qaeda. It is the Taliban, which controlled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and provided sanctuary for al Qaeda until the United States and the Northern Alliance ousted them from power. (It is important to note that the Taliban were not defeated in 2001. Faced with a superior force, they declined combat and refused to fight on American terms, only to resurge after American attention shifted to Iraq.) But it is not the Afghan Taliban per se that the United States is opposed to, it is their support for transnational Islamist jihadists -- something to which the movement does not necessarily have a deep-seated, non-negotiable commitment."

Unfortunately, the Taliban are not some amateur, shifty and swarthy looking brigands, far from it. Right out of the Insurgents Handbook, Chapter 1; they enjoy broad support across Afghanistan and critically, particularly amongst the Pashtun which comprise 40% of the population. As Stratfor again point out, they are light infantry with superior knowledge of the ground, superior intelligence and are committed to a long term insurgency. Somewhat ominously, they also see themselves as winning now, and perhaps they are. Stratfor again,

"The Taliban are winning in Afghanistan because they are not losing. The United States is losing because it is not winning. This is the reality of waging a counterinsurgency. The ultimate objective of the insurgent is a negative one: to deny victory -- to survive, to evade decisive combat and to prevent the counterinsurgent from achieving victory. Conversely, the counterinsurgent has the much more daunting and affirmative task of forcing decisive combat in order to end hostilities. It is, after all, far easier to disrupt governance and provoke instability than it is to govern and provide stability."

The current surge is undoubtadly designed to force the Taliban to the negotiating table to create a settlement whereby everyone agrees to be nice, which would facilitate a swift and politically expediant withdrawal. Indeed, negotiations at different levels and with different factions have probably been going on for some time. That may look good on a powerpoint presentation in Washington or Whitehall but the insurgents don't do the powerpoint thing. The problem for ISAF is that in a land with a multiplicity of factions based on tribal grouping, negotiations between all parties, including those under the influence of Pakistan and al Qaeda, will be driven by what they perceive as the probable military outcome. Given the publicly announced deadlines from the US and UK governments for their exit, that outcome is very much in question.

Meanwhile, on the domestic front both the US and UK governments enjoy only limited criticism of the operation at home. Although there is growing disquiet over the casualty numbers the public are generally supportive, especially so of the troops themselves. This is partly a result of lack of knowledge. Apart from two newspapers, (the Independent and Guardian), and a former soap actor turned documentary maker, the public has had little input. In fact, the generally sterile reporting contrasts greatly to the more in depth coverage that all the UK media gave the Vietnam war some forty years ago. This will change but perhaps, like Iraq, not until it's over.

In the meantime, our young men continue to patrol in the devils kitchen; some, going out on patrol with tourniquets already strapped to their thighs in readiness for the inevitable flash and bang of an IED. It's about time we started supporting our troops not just with a pint in the pub and a donation, but by asking questions, for the reality is that we're all getting into a state of bovine acceptance that, "we're here because we're here," which has echoes of another conflict that we're collectively sworn never to forget.  



Stratfor excerpts are reprinted with permission of STRATFOR, and the full report can be read here online here.