Monday, June 2, 2014

A Mound Of Sound Guest Post: The Lessons Of Afghanistan

Drawing upon his war studies course, The Mound of Sound offers the following perspective on what went wrong in Afghanistan:

Bad leadership, especially when it is political and military, costs lives. Our miserable experience in Afghanistan and its aftermath has exposed just how bad Canada’s military and political leadership has been going straight back to the Big Cod himself. I have written about this so many times over the years that I wouldn’t want to beat a dead horse but my mind was changed by a few passages out of a text from my war studies course from Kings College, London.

The book is “New and Old Wars, Organized Violence in a Global Era,” by LSE professor Mary Kaldor. She argues that, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, America and her allies sought to defeat insurgencies by employing “old war” or conventional war tactics that only achieved predictable failure.

The conventional military tactics adopted by coalition forces were a significant contributory factor to the violence. Both during the invasions and after, the United States adopted ‘old war’ tactics in what were complex twenty-first-century ‘new war’ conditions. They were aimed at defeating the insurgencies. Both in pursuing al Qaeda and the Taliban and in responding to the growing insurgency in Iraq, American military forces largely stayed in their bases and ventured out to attack the enemy. Confronted with the brutal reality of the insurgencies, coalition troops seemed to default to military logic. Like earlier similar types of counter-insurgency in Vietnam, for example, or Algeria, the excessive use of force, widespread detention and torture and abuse as a means of extracting information, and the attempts to destroy the safe havens of the insurgents through the attacks on places such as Fallujah, Samarra, Najaf, or ...Kandahar and other Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan follow from this military logic.

When our enemy, the Taliban, extended peace overtures, they were spurned.

Instead, the remaining Taliban were harassed and intimidated both by US Special Forces and by commanders like [the murderous Gul Agha] Sherzai [governor of Kandahar] who received financial rewards for killing or capturing Taliban. Arbitrary arrests, night raids and targeted killing all contributed to a profound sense of humiliation. From 2004, the Taliban began to return to the South and the South East. Operation Medusa, undertaken by Canadian ISAF forces, was supposed to clear Kandahar of insurgents: hundreds of Taliban were killed or captured. Like Fallujah, however, the end result was new recruitment and new tactics.

From the day we arrived in Afghanistan to the day we left we had no clue of what victory meant or the cost of victory. We swept those considerations away, ignored centuries of history including the stark lessons of the recent past, and banged away on our drums. We hunkered down in our garrisons and ventured out the gates to patrol for the bad guys. We had the tanks, the helicopters, the strike fighters and attack helicopters. We had the drones, the electronic intelligence and the artillery. We also had them severely outnumbered.

I knew we didn’t have a hope and that our soldiers were led by utter incompetents the day I read a quote of a Canadian colonel denouncing the Taliban as rank cowards for their unwillingness to stand in the open and fight like men. He might as well have ridiculed them for refusing to stand in the open, with their Korean-vintage assault rifles and light machine guns, while we leisurely rained 2,000 pound bombs on their heads with impunity. They were cowards, in this Canadian idiot’s mind, for choosing not to commit suicide. - Game Over. This colonel wasn’t remotely capable of thinking in terms of the Taliban’s war, the war that actually mattered, the new war that would decide the issue.

Professor Kaldor offers an interesting opinion on the real purpose of America’s (and her allies’) failed wars:

...the purpose of the war was war; it was designed to keep alive an idea of old war on which American identity is based, to show that old war could be upgraded and relatively pain free in the twenty-first century. I do no want to suggest that this was cynical manipulation; on the contrary, the conservatives in the Bush administration probably believed in American power and their mission to spread the American idea. My point is rather that they were caught up in a narrative of their own making, which resonates well with the American public and is reinforced by the American media. And it can be argued that this belief is mirrored by a similar belief among some elements of the insurgency, particularly those who espouse the idea of a global jihad, or Islam against the West.

The 3rd edition of Kaldor’s book went to press before the Afghan issue had been decided, while there was still time to pluck some measure of victory out of debacle.

There have been moments in the aftermath of the invasions when there were genuine opportunities to establish legitimate governments. In Iraq, the problem was the reliance on expatriates, the dissolution of the army and the Ba’ath party, and the preoccupation with sectarian politics. In Afghanistan, the problem was the inclusion of commanders, who had previously been defeated by the Taliban and had been totally discredited by the Karzai government. The biggest failure in both countries has been the failure to consult civil society – not just NGOs who are often financed by outsiders, but a range of local people, women’s groups, student groups, tribal elders and others. In both countries ordinary people felt marginalized and neglected as people with guns were chosen as the main interlocutors for the outsiders.

Even today (i.e. 2011) some of these mistakes could be rectified. For example, in Afghanistan, a serious attempt to arrest those involved in corrupt practices, many of whom have American passports, or to condemn fraudulent election practices, would be one way to get rid of predatory commanders and could help to provide a better environment for the emergence of democracy. Moreover, in both countries ‘islands of civility’ do exist. Greater attention to those islands as opposed to the defeat of enemies could help to spread civility instead of predation.

Our combat soldiers and junior officers can be proud of their service. Our senior military commanders should hang their heads in disgrace. Our political leaders, those who milked the last drop of political capital to be had from the dead and the mangled bodies and minds of our soldiers, should simply hang.

1 comment:

  1. People bought the idea that war was pain free. It never has been. It never will be. It's an old, old story.