Thursday, December 01, 2011

Synchronised departures

One could be cynical and suggest that the reason we are seeing so little published about Afghanistan is that the MSM is keeping its powder dry. With 390 military deaths stacked up so far, it needs ten more to bring the figure to the magic 400, when we may expect an orgy of gushing press about "our brave boys".

More recently, we did actually see a longish piece in the Failygraph from Thomas Harding, reflecting on what had been achieved by the Army in the five years since it had been deployed to Helmand province.

And if to some his report seemed overly optimistic, that unfortunately is what you get when you rely on the MoD for your access, and have to pay lip service to the Army "spin doctors" in order to ensure continued access. In truth, though, if you want to find out what is going on in Afghanistan, the last thing you should do is ask the military, or an embedded journalist.

For a more sanguine appreciation, you would be better off reading the latest piece from Matt Cavanagh, who takes a cool look at the region as US troops continue to withdraw.

And what we do or achieve in Afghanistan is very much "under license" from the United States for, without the airpower, the logistics and the heavy lifting in some of the more bitterly contested areas, the UK forces would be a small, besieged outpost, achieving very little at all.

In his piece, Cavanagh notes that the public's attitude seems to be one of "weary resignation" and also notes that, while fatalities amongst British and other international forces are down on last year, civilian casualties are up 15 percent on last year, itself 15 percent higher than the year before.

Although modest by Iraq standards, this contradicts the pledge given by Gen. McChrystal to reduce overall civilian casualties, and marks one of the many coalition failures in a failure-strewn campaign.

But on top of the steady toll from suicide bombs and, this year we have seen a series of high-profile "spectaculars", the attacks in Kabul, notably the siege at the Intercontinental Hotel in June, the storming of the British Council building in August, a 20-hour shoot-out near the US embassy in September, and a bomb killing seventeen international troops and contractors in October.

At the same time, writes Cavanagh, the campaign of targeted assassinations has continued, including among its victims General Daud, the pre-eminent regional police commander; Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half-brother and de facto boss of Kandahar; Burhanuddin Rabbani, former president and lately head of the peace council charged with reaching out to the Taliban; and a number of district governors and town mayors.

Interestingly, and worryingly, American and British officials stick doggedly to the line that the spectaculars and assassinations are irrelevant, or even encouraging.

And then we have that great [transport] expert, Philip Hammond, the new defence secretary, tell us that his "military advice" is that the insurgency is on "the back foot", and argues that these "so-called spectaculars … rather suggest desperation".

Such an assertion might have more credibility if we had not heard something similar when the Taliban switched from direct confrontation in the platoon house phase, to asymmetric warfare, majoring on the IED.

While it caught the military flat-footed – despite plenty of warning – the brass excused its own inadequacies with such comforts, while the politicians pushed them into taking on protected vehicles and adopting other counter-measures which took the sting out of the Taliban's initiative.

But what it did demonstrate was that the Taliban was capable of thinking flexibly, and responding to changing circumstances, with a speed that leaves our Sandhurst warriors struggling.

And so it is with the "spectaculars" and assassinations. We see here, almost an echo of the Viet Cong tactics in 1960s Saigon, but with a guiding mind that clearly recognises that the coalition forces are no longer strategically relevant. The battle is now on to dominate the population once the foreign troops have scuttled back home, their chests full of medals.

Cavanagh thus offers some useful correctives to the usual shallow thinking that passes for strategic wisdom, including the caution that we should not be attempting to backfill for the Americans when they leave.

Rather than pretend we have an independent role, we should be planning to align our drawdown more explicitly with the Americans, recognising that, as they depart, so should we – and in phase. If our tactics in theatre have not always been in harmony, we need at least to synchronise our departure plans.

In other worlds, with departure on the near horizon, our politicians and military should avoid the temptation to indulge in a little local "top dogging", and concentrate on getting our people out in one piece, with as much credibility as possible.

That, at least, is what I take from Cavanagh's piece. He is perhaps a little too polite and gentle to point out how easy the military gravitates to disaster mode, especially when egos and careers are at stake. But above all, we need to recognise that the adventure is over and the only strategic gain it to recover as many warm bodies from theatre as possible, and to hold the body bags.

As for the broader politics, we have given up any hope of our dismal set of domestic politicians having even the first idea of what is going on in the region, and are fully reconciled to Afghanistan becoming a policy train-wreck within a decade of our leaving. But that is another problem, for another time. We have enough at the moment to keep us busy.