British military intervention in Afghanistan has a chequered history, making it easy to conclude that British forces will fail again
ANGELS CHASING DEMONS
Covering Crucial Afghanistan Operation
Source: Huffington Post
Kabul, Afghanistan - Having been in Afghanistan for four months,
traveling around the country and reporting on the war, now the "crucial
operation" of the war is in full swing. And where am I? In the brutal
grip of one devastating hangover! In the empty Mustafa hotel - the
other journalists fled to the "biggest operation of the war."
In boiling hot Helmand Province, the fellow journalists are
investigating every footstep, every footstep allowed to be reported;
shooting pictures from every angle, every angle allowed. Some
4,000-plus US Marines are storming down the Helmand River Valley in
"the mother of all Afghan operations," to borrow a phrase from the
recent past. Yet, I'm not wondering why I'm still in Kabul. What I'm
wondering is why all the other journalists left the party. It doesn't
make sense. What they are now reporting in that miserably hot desert
they could have reported on from the comfortable and cool lounge of the
Here is my report, from the comfortable and cool.
This large Marine force is being divided into small groups and are
establishing fortifications on the edge of towns and villages. After
the Marines, with Afghan forces, establish initial security --
actually, the area is already secure, enforced by the Taliban - then
will come development projects. Small public projects, water spigots,
irrigation ditches, repairing school roofs, weekly medical clinics.
Small projects that the Marines hope are greatly appreciated by the
Afghans. If security holds, then the NGOs will arrive to manage larger
projects, such as electrification, road improvements, crop substitution
programs, etc. At the same time, private contractors will work to give
some coherence to the political system.
First, however, are Marines are organizing meetings with village
elders. They understand white hair is greatly respected in Afghanistan.
The Marines will ascertain the needs of the villages and decide what
they and the reconstruction teams can deliver. But there is a catch, a
crucial catch. For community improvements to happen there must be
ongoing security, which requires the cooperation of local Afghans. They
must become the E&E -- the eyes and ears -- of their communities
and furnish intelligence to security forces. Otherwise the Taliban will
be the E&E of the community and....
Finally, the Afghan Army and government are being presented as partners
with the Marines and US reconstruction teams. The security forces and
development improvements are intended to enhance the image of the
Afghanistan government -- the national government, but also provincial
and district governments. The ultimate goal is to bring local Afghans
closer to their government. Not an easy task. The Afghan government has
never done anything for these citizens, especially in the Taliban
controlled south, and the government's closest representatives, the
police, are rightfully viewed as parasites.
So that is the overall plan of this new campaign now storming through
the stronghold of the Taliban. Success will obviously take several
years, if there is any success.
So, why did my fellow journalists race to southern Helmand Province?
This is not a conventional war, but an irregular war. The focus is not
on killing the enemy but on protecting the people and enabling
development. They won't see any serious fighting -- only brain-dead
foamers believe the Taliban will go head-to-head against large numbers
of Marines, with their mean Apaches circling overhead. A few hundred
Marines, one company, would have been sufficient to dampen any Taliban
enthusiasm to fight.
In fact, in the last two days -- since this "crucial" operation in the
south shot out of the starting blocks -- more NATO and US soldiers and
Marines have been killed in the eastern part of the country along the
border with Pakistan than in the south.
As for the Taliban's plan - they've had months to craft one since for
months everyone has known the Marines were going to storm south -- step
one is to evade the storming Marines. The Taliban has melted into the
friendly population while others are squirting across the border into
Pakistan. Forget the Pakistan Army blocking the border; it's a "forest"
in the desert. Those Taliban remaining in southern Helmand will be
crucial for intelligence and logistical support, while many of those
leaving Afghanistan will later re-infiltrate to fight. That is step
two, fight later. This is as far as the Taliban strategy goes. It's as
far as any insurgency ever goes: disperse, unite, disperse.....
Now, instead of blitzing the desert, why didn't the Marines simple
unfold themselves over several weeks? It would have been easier and
more efficient and possibly safer, right? There is no reason to stretch
resources and tax humans when not absolutely necessary.
This current mad dash in the south is reminiscent of the mad rush to
Baghdad, both predicated upon "faster is better." Strange, since the US
military is a huge bureaucratic machine that doesn't do anything fast,
which is probably why they want to do something fast. But in the mad
rush to Baghdad, the Marines and Army refused to stop and secure
hundreds of munitions depots - "time is of the essence!" Yet, those
left unguarded explosives were soon blowing up Americans. It was a
stupid plan, with deadly consequences.
But I'm missing the real story of this mad blitz into the desert.
Moving large numbers of troops, pressing relentlessly forward, the
stress and strain, the bold goals proclaiming this is a "decisive
operation!" Simple and dramatic in short time frame. It's made for TV!
Ideal for newspaper headlines! Great for brief radio dispatches! The
audience back home gets hooked. Ratings go up!
Not this time, however. Americans are tired of war stories, having too
much reality in their heads. But the media is desperate, so they have
rolled out as a big-time story the the "largest operation of the war."
War stories generally hide more than they expose. What seems to be
exciting and important is most often the preface to the substance of
war. The truly important - in Helmand the establishment of trust
between two sides, the building of projects, the deepening of trust,
the building of institutions -- unfold painfully slow over years, and
never in a straight line, never without frustration and disagreements.
Before the first success is even recorded our pumped journalists will
be long gone.
When they have left, I will leave Kabul and catch a flight down to
Helmand. Then the Marines will be in full operation. The civil affairs
teams will be delivering their first projects. The NGOs will be having
their projects approved. The Taliban will be laying IEDs and conducting
hit-and-run attacks. The training of the Afghan police will be in
full-swing. The real war will have started. The real war is the war to
win "the hearts and minds" of Afghans in the Taliban's strongest
stronghold. Then the real reporting needs to happen. Meanwhile, I'm
staying put in the Mustafa Hotel's lounge. Hey, for now I have it all
The problem with conflict is that the way we describe it does not
necessarily conform to reality. We think in terms more appropriate to a
bygone era: by the desire to seize, destroy or conquer. The present war
in Afghanistan is a case in point. We have been encouraged to believe
that with the application of sufficient military force, backed by some
state building, victory can be achieved and the country can be
transformed into a modern democratic state after our own ideals.
The thousands of US troops, backed by their British allies, who have
fanned out into Helmand province are propelled by two equally flawed
ideas. The first is that the Taliban can be defeated in a conventional
sense. The second is that by displacing the Taliban's activities during
the run-up to August's presidential election a political space can be
created that will legitimise the corrupted Hamid Karzai government
which the West has for so long, and so obviously, propped up.
If the campaign in Helmand appears purposeful at all, it is because we
choose to make it seem so through a combination of how it is presented
(depictions of military manoeuvres devoid of real meaning), and because
for too long we have uncritically accepted that the end is achievable -
in Gordon Brown's words, "democracy must win".
But the reality is that the war in Afghanistan is increasingly aimless
and lacking in coherent strategy. Brown's notion that a strong Afghan
state can be quickly forged is contradicted by the nature of the
competition for power inside Afghanistan: between Kabul and the
regions; between the Pashtu-speaking south and the rest of Afghanistan;
and between weak state institutions and powerful social affiliations.
To "win" a war in Afghanistan requires that we know what winning might
look like. Not the idealised picture imagined in distant western
capitals, but an end state that would leave Afghanistan best equipped
to deal itself with its own myriad internal challenges. This means a
final burying of the rhetoric of "war on terror" and the idea that what
happens in Afghanistan presents a serious security threat that
challenges us in an existential way.
What is equally urgent is a serious debate about what we are doing in
Afghanistan, and what we can - and cannot - realistically achieve.
Without that, the war in Afghanistan can only drag on, with deaths on