Saturday, March 28, 2009

"The situation is increasingly perilous"

So said Obama , launching his new AF/PAK strategy. This includes an extra $5 billion in direct aid for Pakistan in what is billed as a "stronger, smarter" strategy.

Additionally, a further 4,000 troops are to be deployed, on top of the 17,000 already promised. These "top-ups" are to focus on training Afghan security forces, with a target of bringing the strength of the Afghan National Army to 134,000 by 2011. In the same period, police expansion to 82,000 is also planned.

The Obama strategy has invoked reports British Forces could also be reinforced, with suggestions that up to 1,700 more troops could be sent.

This in turn has provoked a rare response from Cameron on matters military, his view being that sending more troops would only be worthwhile if they were able to deal with problems "on the ground" such as tackling corruption and drugs.

"More troops," he says, "could be part of the answer but in our view they should only be sent if they are sent with the right equipment, with the right number of helicopters and the right civilian back-up and support so we deal with the other problems in Afghanistan like corruption and drugs. It is no good just pouring in the troops if you do not deal with the other problems on the ground."

However, this anticipation may be ill-founded. Quoting "Whitehall sources", Thomas Harding of The Daily Telegraph suggests that the maximum "uplift" could only be as many as 300. It could even be less, and that conditional on the Army being able to make a case for more troops.

Harding takes a more sanguine view of the utility of adding to the existing forces, noting that the solution in Helmand is not just numbers on the ground but "how to use them appropriately rather than in the belief that there will be a magic cure by throwing in more men." Foremost, he adds, we need the logistics in place to support the troops but in addition "we have to adjust our tactics accordingly." He continues:

Having more foreigners could just as easily work against us if the local population do see any benefits.

Firstly we really have to commit to a significant road building programme. This will allow farmed goods swift access to markets before they rot and make non-opium products more popular. When that happens the Taliban will attack the roads which will mean they will come to us and we will regain the initiative.

In tandem we also need to deploy the well-honed Rhodesian Fireforce counter-insurgency tactic using very small numbers of troops agile enough to swiftly interdict the enemy.
It is no good, he concludes, going in and "smashing" a Taliban stronghold one week only to leave and abandon the remaining population to insurgent retribution. The military needs to spell out clearly what its strategy is in Helmand, now more than ever because the doubts over its direction are growing.

The reference to the Rhodesian Fireforce counter-insurgency tactics is well founded, from which the British could learn a considerable amount. And the lessons were spelled out by the Rand organisation in a remarkable report, published in 1991. The report includes such gems as this:

We concluded that low-tech and improvisational solutions can be effective in LICs (Low Intensity Conflicts) and that, moreover, LICs need not entail huge expenditures. The Rhodesians, for example, made innovative and inexpensive modification to ordinary military and commercial vehicles that dramatically reduced the deaths and injuries suffered by passengers travelling in vehicles that struck land mines (e.g., filling tyres with water and air to dissipate the explosive force). Such modifications had the additional benefit of instilling confidence in the troops and enabled the security forces to retain control over the countryside by defeating the guerrillas' attempts to force the army into a "garrison mentality" by making road travel dangerous (if not impossible).
Also, confronting the US attitude to counter-insurgency, also prevalent in British forces, it noted:

Army planners … have paid scant attention to the essentially low-tech requirements of LICs, assuming as a matter of course that by preparing for the largest (even though it may be the least likely) contingency, a range of responses could be sized downwards to fit any lesser contingencies.
This wholly flawed idea was addressed fully, making it clear – as we have constantly averred – that such conflicts cannot be treated simply as a scaled-down big war, using the same equipment. And, as for the other myth, that the forces are underfunded, the report notes:

The Rhodesian security forces functioned under severe financial constraints that limited their access to late-model, sophisticated "high-tech" weapons and to large quantities of material. The Rhodesians’ ability to overcome those constraints by embracing innovative strategies and tactics, including novel techniques in road security, tracking and reconnaissance, small unit tactics, special operations, and intelligence gathering, suggests that the successful prosecution of counterinsurgency need not entail huge expenditure.
Those who complain of "overstretch" could also do well to note that this was the most recent example of a successful counter-insurgency and that:

The tactical achievements were all the more impressive given that the balance of government forces to insurgents was roughly 1:1 – a ratio far below the 10:1 balance normally cited as necessary for the effective prosecution of a counterinsurgency.
This is where Harding is pointing – and he is not alone. The constant politically-inspired complaints on the problems facing our forces are wide of the mark. Having never having clearly defined its own strategic aims, the Army also has not delivered a new counter-insurgency doctrine, while is current operations seem ponderous and ill-suited to dealing with a highly mobile and adaptive enemy.

Until the Army can demonstrate that it is itself adapting to the conditions in Afghanistan and adopting tactics (and equipment) which will enable it to prevail, then any decision to withhold further troops is probably well-founded. As it stands, even those we have in theatre could be doing more harm than good. Lacking the numbers and the cash, the Rhodesians found they had to fight smarter. We need to do the same.