The debate over Afghan strategy
When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates accused NATO forces in Afghanistan as being untrained and unready to conduct counterinsurgency warfare it set off a spasm of transatlantic recrimination. British conservative lawmaker Patrick Mercer called Gates' comments "bloody outrageous". But Gate's remarks were a subsidiary part of a much larger accusation that he made before the House Armed Services Committee in December, 2007 which tellingly evoked not outrage but silence. "I am not ready to let NATO off the hook in Afghanistan at this point," Gates told the House Armed Services Committee. Ticking off a list of vital requirements -- about 3,500 more military trainers, 20 helicopters, and three infantry battalions -- Gates voiced "frustration" at "our allies not being able to step up to the plate." Gates was baldly accusing the NATO allies of reneging on their commitments. To make the criticism even more stinging, these statements coincided with an announcement the US was about to send 3,200 Marines to cover the 7,500 man shortfall in the NATO deployments. The answer to that criticism wasn't outrage but rationalization. The NATO troops, the European allies countered, were bearing the brunt of the fighting against the al-Qaeda/Taliban forces. Bill Roggio looked at the validity of the British claim.
The fracturing of NATO over the Afghanistan deployment becomes more apparent each day. The United States has pleaded for NATO allies to deploy an additional 7,500 combat troops to Afghanistan to blunt an expected Taliban spring offensive, but with no relief available, the Washington Post reports the planned deployment of 3,200 U.S. Marines is intended to "shame" the NATO allies. Meanwhile, NATO members Britain and Canada are complaining their forces suffer a disproportionate number of casualties. ...
While the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand have high levels of violence, a look at the statistics shows the British claim is incorrect. The Taliban/al Qaeda/HIG related violence (referred to as AGE, or Anti Government Elements, violence) Is highest in the eastern, southeastern, and southern regions of Afghanistan. The eastern and southern regions each suffer 25 percent of the Taliban violence. The southeastern region suffers 23 percent of the Taliban related violence. U.S. forces are deployed in both the east and southeast, as well as in the south.
However that may be -- and the problem of determining who is bearing the 'brunt of the fighting' is a like comparing apples and oranges -- the accusation NATO forces have been fighting light has been around for a long time. Michael Yon, who has long been worried about the situation in Afghanistan, anecdotally observed that European troop contributions were coming up short. The 'tentativeness' which NATO troops are accused of displaying and the high casualties they so grimly point to may actually be a consequence of their lack of firepower and small numbers.
Our European friends are still not providing their people with proper equipment, all while the Taliban is getting stronger from the billion-dollar narcotics backwash that floods enemy coffers. As in Iraq, troop numbers are also dangerously low in Afghanistan, where the handfuls of friendly forces additionally lack sufficient air power to stretch their security resources. NATO is tentatively confronting the proximate and growing threat by sending more troops into battle, but they are sending troops with insufficient force protection. During my trip, I visited several bases. Steve needed to meet some Danish engineers who were to fly into Tarin Kot the next day by helicopter. When Steve asked an Australian Special Forces officer how to identify which helicopter the Danish engineers would arrive in, the Australian officer grimly answered, “It will be the only helicopter flying alone.”
When you are the only helicopter flying alone it is unlikely that you will be looking for trouble. Danish caution is probably due less to timidity than to realism. Given the situation it's been suggested that NATO weakness has forced them to rely on bribery and appeasement in order to hold up their end in their assigned areas of operation. The situation at Musa Qala is often cited as an example of how when you can't shoot your way out, you buy your way out. Bill Roggio has been following the controversy:
In October 2006, the undersized British and Danish contingent stationed in Musa Qala handed security responsibilities over to local elders in exchange for making it a "neutral zone" where foreign forces and Taliban fighters were prohibited from operating. The decision to cut such a deal resulted from a summer-long offensive by the insurgents who bombarded the small British outpost on a near daily occurrence.
Except sometimes you get double-crossed. The Taliban reneged upon the deal and Musa Qala, instead of becoming a showcase for British counterinsurgency became an embarrassing symbol of its defeat. Musa Qala in fact became the only major town in Afghanistan openly controlled by the Taliban. Worse, it gave the Taliban control over the hub of the opium trade, allowing the rebels to grow even stronger. Inevitably the British came under pressure to retake Musa Qala. Times Online columnist Bronwen Maddox described how the Mullahs were rubbing it in. "the Taleban have extracted huge propaganda value from the failure by Nato and Afghan forces since then to chase them out. Britain has also suffered a blow to the central plank of its strategy: to hand over control of towns and provinces to Afghan forces. It needs to show that the strategy can hold good if it is to make almost any kind of progress across the country. ... The blooming health of the opium trade, more exuberant year after year, is more than an embarrassment; it is a measure of the failure of parts of the strategy, as well as a threat to it all." Eventually Musa Qala was retaken, but even that did not totally dispel the accusations that the British were still dealing their way out of trouble. The Guardian reported that the Battle of Musa Qala had been won with a distinct absence of fighting.
A statement from Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) said troops had been welcomed by residents after they "liberated" the centre of the town. "With the support of Isaf forces, hundreds of Afghan national army (ANA) troops moved into the centre this morning and met with little resistance," Isaf said. "Taliban commanders had earlier fled the area as their resistance crumbled. The action to retake the centre - after several months of Taliban control - was greeted enthusiastically by local residents, whose safety had been of paramount importance to the liberating forces."
The Telegraph reported that "A Taliban commander who defected hours before British and Afghan forces retook the Taliban stronghold of Musa Qala has been rewarded with the governorship of the town. Mullah Abdul Salaam switched sides after months of delicate secret negotiations with the Afghan government, as part of a programme of reconciliation backed by British commanders in Helmand." The implication was that the British had simply bought out the commander of the garrison, albeit with the consent of the "Afghan government". So bribery was still OK. But there were apparently lengths to which even the Karzai government would not go or was at least pressured not to countenance. The Afghan authorities arrested two European diplomats for engaging in unauthorized negotiations with the Taliban. The Telegraph again: "Two European diplomats, a Briton and an Irish citizen, have been asked to leave Afghanistan after they traveled to the troubled southern province of Helmand. ... President Hamid Karzai's spokesman earlier said two foreigners — apparently the U.N. and European Union officials — had been arrested. ... Karzai's spokesman, Humayun Hamidzada, said the two were 'involved in some activities that were not their jobs.' What exactly those activities were was described by Bill Roggio.
In the midst of the Afghan government’s deal with Salaam and his Alizais, another British attempt at winning over the Taliban in Helmand was exposed. This deal involved "buying" a cease-fire agreement from regional Taliban commanders and reportedly occurred without the presence Afghan officials. British reports claimed the two European diplomats expelled for allegedly engaging in back-door talks with the Taliban were in fact meeting with Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, the Taliban’s southern zone commander, in an attempt to "bribe" him and his followers into surrendering. Michael Semple and Mervyn Patterson were arrested by Afghan authorities in Musa Qala in late December 2007 with $150,000 in cash and laptop computers with documents indicating previous payments of the same amount were handed over to Helmand-based Taliban commanders, now thought to be "Tier-one" Taliban commander Mansoor and his inner circle.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown argued that these negotiations were not a bug but a feature. He said that forces were "winning the battle against the insurgency" in Afghanistan and that Britain and its coalition partners were "isolating and eliminating the leadership of the Taleban, not negotiating with them". Time will tell whether Gordon Brown is right, but the backstory behind Secretary of Defense Robert Gate's spat with the NATO allies is now pretty clear. Gates implied European NATO members have been trying to weasel out of their commitments, papering over their inadequacies by a combination of negotiation and bribery. But the Europeans may have no choice but to deal because they will never have the resources to fight. The Economist notes that European NATO allies simply can't step up to the plate. Domestic political constraints prevent them from sending any more men than have already deployed -- and even that may be hard to sustain. "The resurgent Taliban is betting that the countries sending troops to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) do not have the stamina for it. In some, the steady drip of depressing news of casualties among their own soldiers and Afghan civilians is wearing away whatever support the troop deployments ever had." This lukewarm attitude was captured perfectly by a recent op-ed in Canada's The Star. "American Defence Secretary Robert Gates may well be right when he says that Canadian and European troops in Afghanistan are not well equipped to fight a counter-insurgency campaign. But what has been lost in the controversy over his impolitic remarks is that we did not sign on to fight insurgents – there or anywhere else. ... Let America, freshly confident after its counterinsurgency successes in Iraq and Vietnam, finish its own war itself. Then Canadian troops can come back to Canada. And the North Atlantic Treaty Organization can refocus on the North Atlantic." Which would be good if NATO actually defended the North Atlantic. But the message is clear. "It's not our party. If you want it, pay for it."
Interestingly enough, al-Qaeda's analysis of the situation is almost identical to that of the Economist and the Star. Its spokesman Adam Gadahn said on January 6, 2008 that "in Afghanistan, bruised and battered NATO forces, at first willing partners in a coalition they assumed was victorious, are now unwilling to commit more than they already have and instead are preparing to pull out, despite America's urgent pleas for them to stay on to the bitter end to cover its own retreat and despite Gates master document and numerous cross-Atlantic salvage missions and visits to Kabul". The lack of domestic political support in Europe for the Afghan mission means the promised arrival of 3,200 US Marines to fill the void left by the 7,500 NATO troops that never came will not be received with shame but with relief and satisfaction.
Former Indian diplomat M K Bhadrakumar at the Asia Times makes the most interesting connection to the current dispute. He notes that "Gates' criticism draws heavily from a recent study authored by the US general who commanded the forces in Afghanistan from October 2003 until May 2005, Lieutenant General David W Barno, in the prestigious journal Military Review. ... Barno claimed the US counter-insurgency strategy during his period produced 'positive and dramatic' results" but that NATO ineptitude had thrown it all away. "According to Barno, the slide began in mid-2005 after he and Khalilzad were reassigned. Washington then decided to publicly announce that NATO was assuming responsibility for the war and that the US was making a token withdrawal of 2,500 troops."
Barno implied NATO messed up the top-notch command structure he created. The result is, "With the advent of NATO military leadership, there is today no single comprehensive strategy to guide the US, NATO, or international effort." Consequently, he says, the unity of purpose - both interagency and international - has suffered and unity of command is fragmented, and tactics have "seemingly reverted to earlier practices such as the aggressive use of airpower".
Barno makes some chilling conclusions. First, he says the "bag of capital" representing the tolerance of Afghan people for foreign forces is diminishing. Second, NATO narrowly focuses on the "20% military dimension" of the war, while ignoring the 80% comprising non-military components. Third, the "center of gravity" of the war is no longer the Afghan people but the "enemy". Fourth, President Hamid Karzai's government is ineffectual "under growing pressure from powerful interests within his administration". Fifth, corruption, crime, poverty and a burgeoning narcotics trade have eroded public confidence in Karzai. Finally, "NATO, the designated heir to an originally popular international effort, is threatened by the prospects of mounting disaffection among the Afghan people."
Barno's paper is probably the basis for Robert Gate's claim that that Britain and NATO do not understand counterinsurgency tactics. But Bhadrakumar disagrees with Barno's assertion that things were going well. In fact, he claims, the war was already being lost when NATO took over. "He whitewashes a controversial phase of the war. NATO inherited a dysfunctional war. By end-2006, it was no longer a winnable war. When the alliance's defense ministers gathered in the Dutch seaside resort of Noordwijk last November to commemorate the first anniversary of NATO in Afghanistan, the crisis atmosphere was palpable." Bhadrakumar assessment that the slide began at the end of 2006 was not yet apparent to Barry McCaffrey when he visited Afghanistan in mid-2006. At that time McCaffrey concluded that:
Afghanistan has in the short space of five years moved from a situation of mindless violence, cruelty, poverty, massive production of drugs, the absence of government, and isolation - to a nation with a struggling democratic government; an exploding economy; a rapidly growing, disciplined Army; a vibrant free press, and active diplomatic and economic ties with its neighbors and the world. The 30 million people have showed almost unbelievable gratitude for the actions of the international community and have welcomed a significant foreign presence with great hospitality and trust. Opium production has been dramatically slashed by 48% just in the past year. In less than three years, 4.4 million refugees have flooded back into the nation. 95% of the refugee camps in Pakistan have been closed. A Constitution has been adopted.
However that may be, Bhadrakumar believes that Britain grasps what has eluded US strategists: the key to winning in Afghanistan lies not in defeating the Taliban but in bringing them into the government. He makes much of the fact that despite Gate's public criticism, British politician Paddy Ashdown has been appointed the UN point man in Afghanistan. Bhadrakumar's analysis is interesting because it provides a possible insight into British and possibly EU thinking on the whole Afghan question. In this view the problem began when the Taliban -- and hence the Pashtun, began to grind their molars in defeat. This plus the curse of Iraq meant that by mid-2005 Afghanistan was already being "lost", whatever McCaffrey or Barno thought. "The slide began by mid-2005 as the embittered Taliban began regrouping. As the year progressed, as Everts and many others pointed out, the Iraq war 'sucked the oxygen away from Afghanistan'. How could Gates possibly admit all that? He would rather NATO take the blame. But then, it is a sideshow in actuality."
Why Iraq should "suck away the oxygen" from Afghanistan is unclear because in the analysis that follows, Bhadrakumar makes it clear that the real action in South Asia will happen in diplomatic circles not upon the battlefield. The troops Iraq has 'sucked away' will certainly not be needed by Ashdown, who will fix things in the 'sideshow' through diplomacy led by the UN and centered in London.
The heart of the matter is Pashtun alienation. The Taliban represent Pashtun aspirations. As long as Pashtuns are denied their historical role in Kabul, Afghanistan cannot be stabilized and Pakistan will remain in turmoil. Musharraf said, "There should be a change of strategy right away. You [NATO] should make political overtures to win the Pashtuns over." ... This may also be the raison d'etre of UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon's intriguing choice of a Briton as his new special representative. Conceivably, the inscrutable Ban has been told by Washington that Ashdown is just the right man to walk on an upcoming secretive bridge, which will intricately connect New York, Washington, London, Riyadh, Islamabad and Kabul.
The point is, Britain grasps the Pashtun problem. ... That is why Musharraf's four-day visit to London starting on January 25 assumes critical importance. British mediation in Pakistani politics may already be working. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has begun calibrating his stance. ... Britain is now called on to salvage the Afghan war. NATO at best will be a sleeping partner. The Hindu Kush is all set to be Lord Ashdown's theater. He represents the UN; the White House reposes confidence in him; he takes counseling and directions from London, which coordinates with Riyadh and Islamabad - and then, gingerly, he sets out, searching for the Taliban. Incidentally, among his many attributes, Lord Ashdown is a gifted polyglot who speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese and other languages. Maybe he already speaks Pashto.
Robert Gates' remarks ripped the lid off a simmering disagreement between NATO allies and the US over Afghan strategy. The differences are not simply over troop levels and counterinsurgency competencies but at the level of basic national interest. For some NATO countries there is nothing in Afghanistan worth fighting for at all for except the maintenance of good diplomatic relationships with America and the preservation of the Atlantic Alliance. But that will only go so far; and at any rate America can be counted on to carry the load alone because in contrast, the United States which directly suffered the September 11 attacks, sees a victory in the Afghan/Pakistani theater as a matter of vital interest. Therefore the US will carry on regardless. Even Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama periodically declare their commitment to winning in that theater. The US and the European NATO countries may differ even in their conception of victory. For the US, victory is defined as creating and maintaining friendly governments in both Kabul and Islamabad by defeating al-Qaeda and its allies. For the Europeans it may mean bringing the Taliban to power in exchange for giving up its support of al-Qaeda.
Which side of the debate is correct I leave the reader to decide. But so far as I can tell this is what the debate is about.