Thursday, 26 June 2008

Part XII: Putting it together

In December last, we were watching events closely in Afghanistan, as strong signals started emerging that the coalition forces were about to retake Musa Qala – vacated the previous year after a deal with the elders which ended up in the Taleban taking possession of the town.

Sure enough, the action did materialise culminating in news on 9 December that British, American and Afghan forces had taken possession of the town centre. By any measure, not least in the very light civilian casualty rate, this was a major success and one which we regarded as a turning point.

Someone else watching these events very closely was Barnett R. Rubin who, with Jake Sherman have written a report - to which we referred earlier. In their view, not only was this action a military success, it was a good example of how [properly] to integrate counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency – a sentiment with which we would agree.

The recovery followed, Rubin and Sherman wrote, "the pattern of putting access and security first, followed by interdiction and alternative livelihoods." They record:

The Afghan government and international forces carried out a joint political-military operation, gaining the support of a major Taleban commander (Mullah Abdul Salaam) and then defeating the remaining insurgents. Once in occupation of the district, government and international forces seized about $25 million worth of narcotics and destroyed over 60 heroin laboratories.

Confiscating products from the upper end of the value chain depended on regaining control of the territory. Had the government and international community engaged in forced eradication in Musa Qala before launching the operation, Mullah Abdul Salaam might not have changed sides, the local people might not have supported the government or remained neutral, and the district might have remained under Taleban control.

If eradication had destroyed locally produced raw opium, the Taleban-supported heroin laboratories could have purchased opium from other sources. Having first undertaken political and military measures to establish security in Musa Qala, however, Afghan and international forces were able to interdict high-value illicit products without harming rural communities. They now can help communities break their dependence on the drug trade.
It was interesting to note that, following the recapture, genuine attempts have been made to carry out reconstruction, led by the repair and upgrading of the road. There was also an undertaking given that the current crop of poppies would not be touched, even after the coalition forces moved in. Security has also been maintained with the positioning of a forward operations base with a permanent presence of British troops and a detachment of the Afghan National Army.

Shortly afterwards, British forces, bolstered by a substantial detachment of US Marines, were able to clear the Taleban from Garmsir. Again reconstruction is in progress, with a permanent troop presence.

Whether these situation can be maintained, however, remains to be seen. But, as Rubin and Sherman note, "Winning consent for counter-narcotics requires providing greater licit economy opportunities, and providing security for people to benefit from those opportunities," underlining the importance of holding the ground until the new economy takes root. However, they also add:

Scarce resources for coercion should be reserved for targeting political opponents at the high end of the value chain, rather than farmers and flowers.

If "take and hold" forms the first part of the strategy, then this offers the direction for the follow-up. Rather than chasing the farmers, the emphasis switches to finding and destroying the processing laboratories, intercepting the smuggling routes and disrupting the trade in opium and the heroin. This has the merit of drying up the flow of money which fuels the insurgency, without damaging the agricultural economy.

That said, the "take and hold" process itself requires "boots on the ground" and, once again in early July, we heard a familiar call, this one from Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying, "We have the ability in almost every single case to win from the combat standpoint … But we don't have enough troops there to hold. That is key to the future of being able to succeed in Afghanistan."

On the other hand, in the same week, we got US Gen. John Craddock, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, making his own declaration. The key to success, he said, was not winning by military means but focusing on development and governance.

Therein lies the essential dichotomy in the battle for Afghanistan. The military cannot win without "development and governance" but both require security on the ground before they can take root. On the other hand, the presence of foreign troops and the international aid effort themselves interfere with establishment of governance, if they undermine or replace existing structures. Once again, we seem to be going round in circles, creating the foundations for a no-win situation. We need to go back to basics.

Here, the report of an "Afghan citizen" on the Salem News website is highly instructive. In respect of the 2006 campaign, he (presumably) notes:

Many terrorists can easily get logistical support and places to hide themselves in Helmand, which local government security officials are believed to be linked to. In March 2007 Governor Wafa reported that approximately 700 terrorists from different countries like Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and etc., are in Sangin district. Now where did these terrorists come from and how did they arrive in Sangin?
He then observes:

Sangin district does not have any border with neighbouring countries, so if they have entered Afghanistan from Spin Boldak on the Kandahar border they have certainly crossed through many villages before they have arrived in Sangin, or if they entered from the southern district of Dishu in Helmand they have certainly crossed through Dishu, Khanishin, and Garamseir districts before they could get to Sangin.

These people are entering Afghanistan unknown across a border which the Afghan government claims is not secured, but the local districts and villages are under the control of the Afghan Government, so when these terrorists from different nationalities were crossing so many districts where was Afghan intelligence, the ANP and ANA? It is completely impossible that unknown people should cross so many villages and that the government which has intelligence, national police, and national army, should not be aware of it!
During the fighting in Kandahar during the summer of 2006, the Taleban fired an estimated 400,000 rounds of ammunition, 2,000 rocket-propelled grenades, and 1,000 mortar shells. These had arrived in Panjwai, a district in Kandahar province, from Qetta over the spring months. Ammunition dumps unearthed after the battle showed that the Taleban had stocked over one million rounds in Panjwai. Nato estimated the cost of Taleban ammunition stocks alone at around $5 million. "There is no way the Taleban could have done this on their own…", the Salem News correspondent writes.

Arguably, had the coalition forces known of these movements, they could have acted against them – and not necessarily with ground forces. The capabilities of Reaper and other UAVs armed with Hellfire missiles is well known, these assets providing excellent weapons against small, dispersed groups of men.

But, in the first instance, the coalition forces need to find out this information. The most cost-effective, if sometimes the least reliable source of that is known as HUMINT, human intelligence from local communities. The question is why they should give that information to forces which are seen to be propping up a government which has done nothing for them, and which threatens their economic survival.

Arguably, then, two issues arise. Firstly, in the absence of good intelligence from local communities, the coalition forces must generate their own. Secondly, the coalition forces must direct their activities at measures which create real growth in economic wealth for the populations in the areas in which they operate, in order promote a flow of intelligence.

This is not so much building trust or any sort of relationships between the forces, on the conventional "hearts and minds" basis. Rather, it is the more tangible process of demonstrating to local communities that their economic interests are aligned more closely with the government forces than they are the insurgents. As far as the military is involved, the activities, in the main, amount to road-building, the restoration of power supplies and then assuring the security of the road system – plus ensuring the protection of key economic assets.

As to direct intelligence gathering, the coalition forces have a considerable number of technical aids to assist them – everything from satellites, surveillance aircraft such as the Nimrod R1 and Rivet Joint, plus UAVs. The UAVs, in particular, have been introduced late into theatre and in insufficient numbers. Not for nothing did Craddock recently call for more UAVs, as well as more surveillance aircraft.

However, there is also great merit in the Winterton/Harding thesis (discussed in Part I) – based on the Rhodesian experience. This requires the use of small, long range patrols backed by their own organic air power in the form of light assault helicopters – which gather intelligence on insurgent movements and guide other forces (whether air power, heli-borne or ground forces) to engineer their destruction.

While one must acknowledge that the coalition forces do already carry out a considerable amount of intelligence-gathering, they have been notoriously reluctant to employ light helicopters, or to consider allocating these resources to deep reconnaissance units. Given the success in Rhodesia arising from their use, the case for them is unarguable. The Taleban and their supporters cannot be allowed to feel that there is any territory within Afghanistan that they can consider safe enough to operate openly.

Putting this all together, we can now – at last – begin to think of a coherent force structure, and start thinking of the equipment mix to match.

Taking it, if you like, in the order in which events will unfold (and have been unfolding), the first and most obvious priority is for "conventional" assault forces to retake areas which have been seized by the Taleban. However, with the recapture of both Musa Qala and Garmsir, and with no notable towns currently held by the Taleban, the need for such forces is limited.

Secondly, there is a need for engineers to construct forward operations bases for "garrison" troops, in which to maintain a presence in retaken territories, their purpose primarily to deny their use to the insurgents. Such activities are already well established in the coalition campaign, and therefore need little further exploration – other than to say that the use of Warrior MICVs has proved invaluable and, bearing in mind the Canadian experience on Operation Medusa, we could benefit from having a medium tank on the inventory.

From here, the primary tactic which seems to have been adopted by the British forces is then to extend the radius of the occupied perimeter, launching patrols and armed sweeps into hostile territory, the aim being to bring the Taleban to battle and then, gradually to pacify the area. The idea then – as with Laskar Gah, is that the centre can then be left free of coalition forces - relatively pacified area in which development can then take place.

It is our contention, however, that this strategy is not always the most effective. Extending the "perimeter" is time consuming and dangerous, and manpower intensive. As the area expands, the demand for troops then increases and the coalition forces find they need more and more troops just to keep the ground they hold. This is the problem highlighted by Admiral Michael Mullen. And, in the meantime, the Taleban move in behind to undertake asymmetric warfare, undermining the security of the areas and thus delaying (or preventing) reconstruction.

We would aver, therefore, that this strategy should not be attempted. As we have explored in earlier parts, the military should focus on the "reconstruction" programme. This, however, should be radically curtailed, basically focusing on three things – the building of a cohesive network of roads, developing and improving electrical power, and, in the central areas, building storage and distribution hubs, with an administrative and support base for agricultural officials and technologists – all directed at facilitating the export of high value produce.

The road programme should be published, signalled clearly in advance and either executed by the Army or managed by it and under its direct protection. Crucially, it should then be carried out, irrespective of the security situation. If the Taleban choose to interfere, and have the resources so to do, then that serves the purpose of bringing them to battle and weakening them.

Here, Gen. Petreus, in his counterinsurgency manual is very clear about the principles involved. The first is about managing expectations – the second is one of delivery. The coalition forces should not promise more than they can deliver but, having made promises, they should be kept, come what may.

In this context, the building of schools, community centres, mosques, and even wells and other civil works – not directly and immediately focused on generating wealth - should not be carried out by coalition forces or international agencies. Instead, communities should be encouraged to define their own improvements and to seek financing from their own government, either at local, regional or central level.

On the other hand, at political level, aid funds should be ring-fenced for such projects and perhaps paid after completion, on a reimbursement or match-funding basis. Alternatively, the National Solidarity Programme seems to have promise and could usefully be extended.

As to and when roads are completed and/or upgraded, coalition forces should then seek to assure security of transit along them and over the rest of the network. This may include preventing intervention by local police seeking to extract bribes and informal taxes. If necessary, the coalition forces should provide transport – or manage transport contracts – to ensure that communications are maintained.

Outside the hubs, one then sees a number of independent, free-roaming reconnaissance and interdiction forces – one (of two) of their objectives being to seek out organised Taleban formations and to destroy them. Numbers are not wholly the issue here – it is more a question of equipment and structure. As Craddock observed: "An infantry battalion in Afghanistan without tactical mobility, without intelligence support, surveillance capability, reconnaissance, is very limited".

The second objective needs to be more on police lines of tracing and intercepting the flow of money, opium processing, and the smuggling of drugs and guns. Inasmuch as these activities are carried out – or protected by – armed gangs, often with the support of the Taleban, it is difficult always to separate them from military action.

However, John Sullivan recently wrote an interesting paper on "Expeditionary Law Enforcement", where he advocated a "third force" in between the military and the civilian police, along the lines of European gendarme forces. This has interesting possibilities and could relieve some of the pressure on the military, while making up for some of the inadequacies of the Afghan civil police.

So, putting it all together, we believe, in summary, that the following changes must be implemented (or at least, considered and only rejected if proved unsound).

Firstly, the whole provision of aid should be reprioritised. By far the bulk should be directed towards rural reconstruction, specifically and tightly focused on generating high value agricultural exports. Aid to other activities should be curtailed and given only where necessary for the most basic functions of government to continue – with one exception. A major programme should be developed to set up and administer a taxation system which will allow the various levels of government to fund it activities from its own population.

Secondly, in contested areas – at the very least - where the military are directly engaged with the Taleban or other anti-government elements, the aid programme should be further curtailed, to the provision of vital reconstruction of the economic infrastructure, and then executed or managed directly by the military.

Third, in areas retaken from the Teleban and generally where there is a risk from armed intervention, resources should be directed at securing the communications network, enforcing security and ensuring the safe flow of traffic.

Fourthly, the military surveillance and reconnaissance capability should be greatly enhanced, while the Taleban should be harried and destroyed wherever it operates, by highly mobile independent teams, operating with their own organic air assets.

There is, of course, then the question of the "safe havens" for insurgent in both Iran and Pakistan, and the larger question of intervention by ideologically-driven foreigners who are using Afghanistan as an opportunity to confront and weaken (mainly) American and other coalition forces.

Here, we would argue that, while ideology is a factor in this current insurgency, a drive for economic prosperity amongst the rural communities – with real evidence of delivery – would do much to weaken the insurgency, and isolate the ideologues. The road to victory, as Petraeus would have it, is the battle to convince the population to "accept the legitimacy of the government mounting COIN and stop actively and passively supporting the insurgents."

A former US president put it more succinctly: "It's the economy, stupid". Economic regeneration is not an optional extra in counter insurgency, and nor is it something separate from, or subordinate to military action. It is an integral part of the whole. The military have to learn to deploy economic weapons with the same skill and dedication as they do their martial arts. Otherwise, all their skill and bravery will be for nothing. As Petreus warned, "lives and resources may be wasted for no real gain."