British military intervention in Afghanistan has a chequered history, making it easy to conclude that British forces will fail again
ANGELS CHASING DEMONS
The strategy is sound – but
success is not assured
Source: The Independent, UK
The Afghan surge has begun. Some 4,000 US troops poured into Helmand
province this week in Operation Khanjar, or Strike of the Sword. They
are being supported by British troops, who have been in Helmand since
2006, and the Afghan army.
The strategy of General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of
international forces in Afghanistan, is sound in conception: a military
push against the Taliban to extend security accompanied by a step up in
civilian reconstruction efforts. Each will be ineffective without the
other. Without greater security, humanitarian assistance efforts cannot
tangibly improve Afghan lives; without more reconstruction, the local
population will see no benefits stemming from the occupation.
It is encouraging that there is co-ordination with the Pakistani
military to squeeze the Taliban from both sides of the border. This has
been missing in previous Helmand operations, enabling the Taliban to
regroup in the Pakistan tribal regions. The focus on Helmand –
the Taliban's stronghold and the producer of more than half of the
country's opium crop – also makes sense. Afghanistan will never
be stable until the power of Hamid Karzai's government extends
throughout the country. Winning control of Helmand will be a crucial
step towards achieving that goal.
It is also encouraging that the focus of this surge will, we are told,
be less on killing the Taliban than winning the support of the local
population. There are indications this is not just warm words. The US
has finally ditched its counterproductive policy of eradicating the
poppy crop which catastrophically alienated Afghan farmers.
However, the fact that the strategy is sound does not mean that it
cannot fail. The US military surge in Iraq helped marginalise
al-Qa'ida. But conditions in Afghanistan are very different. The Iraq
surge was essentially an urban operation. The Taliban is a rural force.
In Iraq, the US had the support of Sunni tribes. There is no similarly
powerful local ally for international forces in Afghanistan. And what
we cannot know at this stage is whether enough troops have been
assigned to this mission to be able to hold the territory once cleared.
The other big unknown factor is civilian casualties. If this operation
results in a large number of deaths of innocent Afghans, it is surely
doomed to failure. Recent years have shown that the surest way to kill
innocent civilians is through the deployment of air power. Operation
Khanjar is primarily a ground offensive, but it is unclear whether the
US military has learned that the clumsy use of air support does more
harm than good.
The troop surge seems to have met relatively mild resistance thus far.
But this is the Taliban's usual approach: retreat, regroup, and then
hit back. The US aims to stabilise Helmand in time for next month's
Afghan presidential elections. But to prevail against a patient enemy
like the Taliban, international forces must be prepared for a much
longer stay. They had also better be prepared for the casualties this
mission will impose. We have already had a bitter taste of this with
the death of two more British soldiers this week, including the highest
ranking British officer to be killed in action since the Falklands.
Most important of all, if this twin civilian and military surge is to
stand any chance of succeeding, the international forces in Afghanistan
must learn from the mistakes of 2001, when the world assumed, quite
wrongly, that the battle for the country was essentially won. Eight
years on, they must be prepared to stay the course.