The Sunday Telegraph headline "Snatch Land Rover to be scrapped by the British Army" should be a moment of triumph. But, even at a time when a coroner has at last questioned the safety of the "Snatch", over the death of Marine Gary Wright (picture below right), one is left curiously flat.
Perhaps it is the self-regarding tone of the article which, in a style typical of the newspaper, reports: "Defence chiefs have ordered an emergency review of the Army's controversial "Snatch" Land Rover after the deaths of four soldiers in Afghanistan, The Sunday Telegraph can disclose."
Another irritant is that the writer, Sean Rayment puffs the paper's favourite military renta-a-quote, telling us that "The pressure on the military to scrap the Snatch Land Rover was further raised by, Patrick Mercer the Tory MP and former infantry commander, who described the vehicle as a 'death trap', during a debate in the House of Commons."
This was the debate on 19 June, to which we referred, when for the very first time – as far as we are aware – Mercer raised the issue in the House, having been silent for the many years that this scandal has continued. There is something particularly loathesome about bandwagon jumpers, and something unsavoury about newspapers which give them space.
If any one politician should be given credit for putting pressure on the MoD, it is Lord Astor of Hever, who first raised the vulnerability of the vehicle on 12 June 2006, telling Lord Drayson, the then procurement minister, that the Snatch Land Rover was "not remotely adequate for patrolling areas where insurgents use landmines."
He asked Drayson for an assurance that the government would "provide our soldiers with equipment that is fit for this role", getting a brush off which we recorded shortly thereafter when we launched our campaign for its replacement. It was then that Drayson told the House:
I do not accept that Snatch Land Rovers are not appropriate for the role. We must recognise the difference between protection and survivability. It is important that we have the trade-offs that we need for mobility. The Snatch Land Rover provides us with the mobility and level of protection that we need.We were joined in our campaign by Christopher Booker and, a week later by The Sunday Times which ran two pieces (on on the front page and the other as a Focus piece), which had a powerful effect.
Lord Astor persevered and was joined, in the "other place" by the Conservative front bench defence team – which for once got its act together. With the insistent pressure from backbencher Ann Winterton – who persists to this day – and Owen Paterson (who asked a number of pointed written Parliamentary Questions), plus sundry others, it all came together.
Aside from a torrent of written questions, there was one debate, then another and then another. With continual posts on this blog and a further piece from Christopher Booker, the pressure became too great. By 26 July 2006, the then relatively new Secretary of State, Des Browne, was announcing the procurement of a new armoured vehicle which came to be known as the Mastiff – which was to save lives again and again.
Damningly, some of the greatest opposition to the new vehicles came from Mercer's pals in the Army and we were later able to disclose, their preference was for the lightly protected Pinzgauer Vector, which was to be instrumental in killing many more men.
What perhaps also rankles is that it has taken the death of a woman, Cpl Sarah Bryant finally to put the nail in the coffin of this dangerously vulnerable machine. The fact that at least 30 men (this is all the Army will admit to) have been killed riding in Snatches – and many more injured – does not seem to have been so important.
Certainly, there were no signs otherwise that the MoD was considering removing the Snatch from theatre – witness this photograph (right). With 45 Commando rumoured for deployment in the winter rotation, we have been watching a steady build-up of these vehicles as they pass through Arbroath on their way to the local barracks, together with a large number of Vectors on low loaders. Our sources tell us that they are (or were) destined for Afghanistan.
The decision taken – if indeed it has been – must have been very sudden. We are told by The Sunday Telegraph that "Commanders have been told to establish whether the vehicle, which was designed for operations in Northern Ireland almost 20 years ago, is critical to the Afghan mission."
The review, we are also told, was ordered by Des Browne, the Defence Secretary. At a meeting of senior Army officers in London last Wednesday. Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Lt Gen Andrew Figgures, the Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (equipment capability), and Lt Gen Nick Houghton, the Chief of Joint Operations, all agreed that the vehicle's suitability should be reassessed.
Once again, it seems, the pressure is coming from the politicians rather than the Army, with commanders in Afghanistan to be asked if there is a requirement for a light patrol vehicle and, if so, whether the "Snatch" is of the standard required. If not, the military will search for something more suitable, "which could take several months".
Already, Brig Mark Carleton-Smith, forces commander in Helmand, has admitted that Snatches are "not safe for use in high-risk areas." Asked if he would rather not have to use the Snatch Land Rover in Helmand, the brigadier said: "It's not a vehicle of last resort but it's clearly not a vehicle of first choice."
The brigadier also says that the "mine" which destroyed the Snatch and killed four of his soldiers had contained more than 220lb of explosives and would have defeated the armour of any but the heaviest vehicle. However, given that this Cougar took 300lb of explosive – and the crew walked away – a more heavily armoured Mastiff may well have kept Sarah Bryant and her team alive.
It seems that the Army will in future be relying on the Mastiff and the Ridgebacks, which are shortly to come into service, although – as always – the MoD is being somewhat disingenuous in claiming, "Through investment in Mastiff and Ridgeback we are already reducing the number of patrolling roles in which we use the Snatch" – when the Ridgeback is not yet in service.
However, both are far heavier than the Snatch and it may well be that there is a need for a lighter vehicle. There have been hints of something else, apart from the 24 Bushmasters, which we now know to have been procured for the Special Forces. Ironically, had they come earlier, Sarah Bryant – apparently on a secret mission could well have been in one of these vehicles.
For others to come though, there are still the Vectors, the Land Rover WIMIKs, the Jackals – of which the MoD has decided to buy 72 more - and it is still committed to FRES.
That is what is perhaps removing the gloss from what should have been that moment of triumph. The Army is not really doing anything other than moving slowly, and reluctantly towards safer vehicles, in response to public and political pressure. There is no "sea change". When that happens, then we will be able to celebrate.
The last fortnight has been an unhappy one for British forces in Afghanistan. Deaths reached 106 since the start of military operations in November 2001, with nine killed in the last ten days, including the first woman soldier.
Add to that the daring jailbreak in Kandahar, freeing hundreds of Taleban prisoners, and the open insolence of the insurgents who seized a number of villages in the fertile Arghandab valley, a mere 12 miles northwest of Kandahar, and a picture of gloom descends upon this troubled country. The prevailing image is of a floundering Afghan government struggling to convince the population that they have a grip on security.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that there should have been a rush of analytical pieces in the weekend newspapers. We have selected four such - two each from the Saturday and Sunday - summarising them here and, in Part II of our post, adding our own commentary and observations, using these then to develop ideas on "winning the war".
Starting with the analytical pieces from the Saturday crop, one is from Thomas Harding, the defence correspondent at The Daily Telegraph. The other, marking a completely contrasting style, is from ex-MP and columnist Matthew Parris, in The Times. From Sunday, one piece comes from ex-soldier and now MP, Patrick Mercer, writing in The Independent. The other is from Sunday Times columnist, Simon Jenkins.
Taking the Saturday pieces, the contrast between the two articles we have selected is, in fact, more extreme than would at first appear. UK-based Parris, without military experience, crafts his piece on the back of research from his paper's cuttings library. Harding, on the other hand – an ex-Para officer - writes from the perspective of having recently spent two weeks out in Afghanistan, on patrol with his former regiment, with the benefit also of having spoken with senior military officers in theatre.
Both have interesting things to say, and we are not going to argue that Harding's view – based on the realities on the ground – should prevail. Not for us is the easy sneer, the like of which was delivered by Labour MP Kevan Jones in response to Ann Winterton's recent speech on counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan.
It was then that Jones expressed his wariness of "politicians becoming armchair generals," painting a picture of Ann Winterton, sitting at home at night "going through statistics and, obviously, gaining a vast knowledge about various pieces of kit and then moving them around some fancy battlefield on her kitchen table."
From his "experience of visiting Iraq five times and Afghanistan on three occasions", he did not think "that what she said is realistic or reflects what is happening on the ground."
We are fully aware of this "I was there" syndrome, as if presence "on the ground" necessarily conferred any great perspicacity, recalling indeed that, against many accounts of the events in Basra – and especially the recent Iraqi Army operations – this blog called it right, when many commentators, including those with "experience of visiting Iraq", got it badly wrong.
So it is that Matthew Parris – unable to claim that "I was there" – relies on a historical perspective to inform us that, "The Taleban can't win in Afghanistan - but nor can we". History, he writes, "teaches us that British defiance always turns to compromise," and asks, "Why should it be different in Afghanistan?"
In short, the Parris thesis is that, when fighting insurgencies, we have in every case been able to hold our own (or better) militarily. There is no question, therefore, of "can we?" – as he puts it – contain the insurgents. Rather more important, he argues, has been the question "why" [should we], as casualties and costs showed no sign of abating and the ingrained nature of our opponent's position looked harder to alter.
After three or four years of fighting, we start to talk about a "settlement", which we describe as (and genuinely persuade ourselves to be) a progressive and honourable move. We insist, in the immediate, that the military effort must be maintained, but that the battle - a battle for hearts and minds - will not be won by military means. Give-and-take may be necessary. And in the end we withdraw, never saying (even to ourselves) that we are retreating, and wish everyone well.
This is the culmination of a process, writes Parris where, eventually, the "why?" overtakes the "can we?". In so doing. he effectively articulates the theme often expressed on this blog – that there are three "wars", the shooting war, the economic war and the "home front". We may win the shooting war, but the costs and the steady trickle of casualties rob us of our will to continue.
This brings us nicely to Thomas Harding, who perhaps is arguing on a different plane, but believes that we can defeat this insurgency. At the moment though, he asserts that "British troops [are] shooting themselves in the foot... Outdated tactics and severe equipment shortages are our worst enemies in Afghanistan, not the Taliban."
Conveying the fears of the soldiers he has so recently spoken to, Harding tells us they fear the "war of our generation" is turning into a slog. It will suck in more troops, who will require increasing logistical support, which will in turn give the enemy – which is reverting to classic guerrilla warfare "ambush" tactics - many more targets.
The problem now, according to the "some of the brightest military thinkers" on the spot, is that the British Army has not adapted its own doctrines and regulations to deal with the changing situation - which Harding sketches out in some little detail:
…the British might enter a district for a few weeks, but when they leave, the Taliban return, meting out brutal punishment to anyone who has co-operated with the foreigners. And the amount of force needed to take these towns and overwhelm the Taliban makes our own troops less nimble, thereby absorbing manpower, supplies and precious helicopter hours.Thus, we hear that "the debate is starting on the ground". Soldiers are frustrated that they can march their hearts out all day to track the enemy, only to be blown up by a mine. They query how a lumbering convoy of 100 armoured vehicles can ever surprise an enemy who knows every rock and cave in his own back yard. The time has come, suggest some, to fight the way the enemy fights – but smarter.
"The problem," says one officer, "is that we are focusing on protective mobility. We are definitely going down the road the Russians went in the Eighties, with over-reliance on massive armoured vehicles."
Here, to our delight, we actually read references to the Rhodesian insurgency, where:
… tiny units called fire forces, working in groups of four or eight, would drop into enemy territory by parachute or helicopter, unheard and unseen. With the aid of local trackers, they remained concealed for days, watching the enemy's movements and waiting patiently for the optimum time to strike. Again and again the guerrillas were horrified as their safety cordon unravelled, with colleagues falling dead around them.It is to this very experience to which we have drawn attention on this blog, several times, most recently in October, when we also provided a link to graphic accounts of some of the operations. That same month, Ann Winterton raised precisely these tactics in a Commons debate, her words apparently disregarded. Now, nearly eight months later, we hear that "some of the brightest military thinkers" are taking up the very things we have been talking and writing about for some considerable time.
By contrast with the highly mobile Rhodesian forces, writes Harding, our strategy is static and predictable, our patrols and manoeuvres carried out in full view of the enemy.
Interestingly, the lack of flexibility is in part attributed to, "… the same risk-averse culture that enveloped our campaign in Basra, where the highest priority, to which everything else was subordinated, was avoiding British deaths." And, adds Harding, for some soldiers, the excuses about excessive danger wear thin. "At times," one told him wearily, "I am waiting for someone to mention the Health and Safety Executive."
Well they might, for - as The Daily Telegraph has just discovered (we wrote about it in April) – some families of troops killed in Snatch Land Rovers are planning to sue the MoD … under health and safety law.
That apart, Harding reports that, "the single greatest symbol of what is going wrong with our campaign is the lack of helicopters." Lives are being lost needlessly because there are not enough. The MoD knows that what we have is not enough, and has done for years. But the bean counters have never listened. "If the Government really cared about troops, they would pull their fingers out and get the resources out here," says one soldier.
With that theme ringing in our ears, we come to the Sunday piece written by Patrick Mercer. This only needs a passing reference, for he simply echoes Harding's soldiers in calling for more helicopters, and also wants more armoured vehicles,
As to tactics, Mercer thinks it is "worth looking at the solutions that we used to counter the IRA". In order to stop vehicles being attacked by IRA mines, he writes, "we simply banned movement by road ensuring that every operation mounted on the Irish border was done either on foot, with helicopters or a combination of the two."
That brings us to Simon Jenkins, who focuses on tactics, telling us to, "Stop killing the Taleban." They, writes Jenkins, offer the best hope of beating Al-Qaeda:
The Taliban's chief objective is not world domination but a share of power in Afghanistan. While they cannot defeat western troops, they can defeat Nato's war aim by continuing to build on their marriage of convenience with Al-Qaeda, which supplies them with a devastating arsenal of suicide bombers.So, there we have four separate and distinct contributions. What to make of them? We'll look at that in Part II.
What is sure is that Al-Qaeda, as a (grossly overrated) "threat to the West", will not be suppressed without Taliban cooperation. This means reversing a policy that naively equates "defeating" the Taliban with "winning" the war on terror. Fighting in Afghanistan is as senseless as trying to suppress the poppy crop. It just costs lives and money.
While it is implausible for the West to withdraw from Kabul at present, the attempt to establish military control over provincial Afghanistan is merely jeopardising the war aim. Security within the country now depends on fashioning the patchwork of alliances sought, however corruptly, by Karzai. It means dealing with reality, not trying to change it with guns and bombs.
It therefore makes sense to withdraw soldiers from the provinces and forget "nation-building" in the hope that Karzai can exert some leverage over local commanders to separate the Taliban from the Al-Qaeda cells in Pakistan.
Reviewing the implications of the four pieces we have looked at in Part I, it is no wonder the general public is confused by – if not indifferent to – the situation in Afghanistan, the one begetting the other. Even this small sample presents a confused picture.
Parris, on the one hand, tells us – or certainly implies – that we should withdraw now because we are going to do so any way. Jenkins wants us to retreat to our bunkers in Kabul and let Karzai do deals with the warlords and Taleban. Harding thinks we can win the military campaign if we change our tactics and Mercer thinks likewise, but simply wants to put all our troops in helicopters.
The "opinion-formers" lacking any coherence, we have to attempt to divine our own, in which context the Parris rhetoric has to be dismissed. But his analysis carries the warning that, should the military continue to sustain casualties without there being any clearly defined progress, history does indeed tell us that the troops will eventually have to be withdrawn, their task unfinished.
It is certainly our view that, without more fundamental changes to the way the war is being prosecuted, the insurgents will be able to keep killing British soldiers. Our own government, the media and the military will do the rest - the first two by failing to present a clear picture of what is happening, within a framework of sensible and achievable aims and objectives; the military – pace Harding - by failing to adjust their tactics and equipment.
We will return to the military shortly, but first we must address the Jenkins option. Essentially, the man is expressing classic British colonial doctrine. Traditionally, we ruled from the centre and used a network of local alliances, gauged so as to keep the warring factions roughly in equilibrium and thereby maintaining some sort of stability.
This was more or less the strategy we were pursuing in southern Iraq, giving the militias a free run – with the disastrous results we have seen, brought to an end only by the intervention of Maliki and his Iraqi Army formations. It could hardly be more successful in Afghanistan and it would be some considerable time before the Afghani National Army could intervene on the scale witnessed in Iraq. In short, Jenkins is offering a recipe for disaster.
In setting out this option, however, Jenkins provides a useful foil against which we can explore more realistic objectives. And here, it is useful to look at aspects of the bigger picture which are rarely discussed.
The essential problem with Afghanistan, one can venture, is that it has never been a proper nation – at least in a modern sense. The southern provinces, and especially Helmand, where the bulk of the British are deployed, are often described as "lawless", reflecting the fact that the writ of central government has never really extended to these areas in any meaningful way. Thus, in many respects, activity which is described as "reconstruction" is wrongly labelled. It is construction, ab initio, bringing to the table something which has never previously existed.
Thus, if the Nato military adventure is to succeed, it must have a defined end point. Arguably, that is expressed by the term dismissed by Jenkins as "nation building" – bringing the writ of central government to previously ungoverned areas.
However, government for the sake of it cannot – or should not - be the objective. Nor indeed is the government a bringer of "security". Without British or central government intervention, there is already an element of stability whereas the presence of armed forces brings death and destruction. Even (or especially) the police – all too often – have nothing to offer, other than extortion, corruption and the perpetuation of inter-tribal rivalries.
To define an end point, therefore – one which is meaningful to the inhabitants of the area rather than the international community – is a pressing need. Time and again, we hear complaints that such a definition does not exist. The military operation exists in a vacuum, lacking clear objectives which, in turn, will define milestones which will point the way to disengagement.
Therein, possibly, lies the ultimate failure. It is not so much that the military objectives are unachievable – they simply have not been defined (at least, in terms that mean anything to the population of Afghanistan and, in particular, the inhabitants of the southern provinces, where there is the bulk of the fighting).
Because this is an insurgency, those objectives cannot be expressed in military terms – such as number of insurgents killed (the "body count") or in areas occupied and thus "pacified". The insurgents are not fighting for territory and have – in relative terms – inexhaustible manpower.
Instead, the end point must be expressed in non-military terms, and only then can the military tasks be properly defined. These, in the final analysis, will be those necessary to achieve an outcome which will enable progressive disengagement and then withdrawal.
Here, one must not look at the enemy – whether the "Taleban", which encompasses all manner of factions, or even Al-Qaeda – but at the shape or disposition of the territory and its inhabitants as it is now, and as you want it to be in order that withdrawal can be safely accomplished.
Such a disposition can, of course, be expressed in general, uncontroversial terms. One looks for a stable society, one which is able to feed and support itself economically and one which offers a tolerable standard of living and levels of freedom and self-determination, compatible with cultural norms. Whether the latter means "democracy" is a moot point. Arguably, economic self-sufficiency and prosperity come first.
In order to be more specific, one has to look at the individual provinces – there is no case for a "one size fits all" solution. Thus, turning to Helmand province, one sees not an impoverished land but one which possesses – in the Helmand valley – an area of enormous fertility, with huge productive potential. It is one which, already, is 120 percent self-sufficient in cereals, mainly wheat and maize. Yet it is also an area where poverty is extensive and also one where the bulk of the opium crop is grown – the revenue from which is fuelling the insurgency.
In short, the province is basically an agricultural community with over 90 percent of the population gaining their living from the land, or activities closely related to agriculture. Yet, despite in some ways, being relatively advanced – with significant ownership of tractors and combine harvesters – the structure of the industry is primitive. As bad, the infrastructure is massively under-developed.
Factoring all this in order to define a desirable end point, the logical objective would appear to be the development of the agricultural industry and its infrastructure, increasing prosperity and ensuring that wealth reaches all parts of the community. To do that, the province needs, very badly, above all else – an effective agricultural policy and the means to deliver it.
For that, of course, the province needs a central government. With the capability to produce considerable agricultural surpluses, the province needs to trade with the rest of the country, which demands an infrastructure which the provincial government itself could not develop. The achievement of that also demands a level of security which, again, a provincial government could not deliver.
Here now, one can begin to see an intriguing problem. All the great strategic and military minds applied to the problem of the war in Afghanistan have missed the point, and are uniquely unqualified to determine the outcome. As long as they are looking for military solutions, in terms of defeating the enemy, they will fail. We need to look at how to develop the agriculture and then enlist various agencies – including the military – in pursuit of that task.
It is not thus, a question of winning the military battle, and then turning to the consequential task of "winning the peace". The military effort needs to be specifically harnessed to creating the economic conditions for prosperity, from which lasting peace will emerge.
There, Jenkins's nostrum is entirely unhelpful. Warlords and warring factions will never develop the province – they are largely responsible for the current parlous state. Equally, walking away – as Parris would have us do – is no solution.
But what of our two militarily-orientated commentators, Harding and Mercer? Here, we have an interesting conundrum. Looking at the battle from an entirely military perspective, both could be right – Harding possibly more so. But then, they may be completely wrong.
The fascinating thing about military affairs – and especially fighting formations and equipment – is that they are (or should be) the ultimate in functionalism. They should be designed specifically for the tasks they are to undertake. Unless those tasks are defined adequately – with some clarity – it is impossible to suggest either optimum structures or equipment.
What those tasks should be, and how they could begin to influence military structures and equipment we will develop later.
In Part II we argued that military structures and equipment must be defined by the tasks to which they are allocated. We further argued that those tasks should be defined by the primary objective which, in Afghanistan was economic development. In Helmand (as elsewhere), this translates into the pursuit of agricultural development.
We thus conclude that the military's primary task must be to support and facilitate agricultural development. But, to be more specific, we must step down from the lofty heights of theory and look at local agricultural issues. A good place to start is with poppy growing – an important part of the agricultural economy in Helmand. This province alone is the source of 50 percent of the world's opium supply.
Here, the task is not development, but eradication – seemingly a contradiction but in fact not so. Economic development has to be sustainable, which cannot be the case if it is reliant on the production of a noxious and illegal narcotic. Eradication, therefore, runs hand in hand with substitution.
The physical process of eradication of poppy fields – and the assets associated with the production of heroin and its distribution – is often allocated to the military, and especially the ANA. Thus it could, in theory, be defined as a task for the British armed forces except that that destruction of standing crops is thought to be counterproductive.
The theory is that this impoverishes farmers and drives them into the arms of the Taleban but, as so often, there is more than an element of mythology here. In fact, it is one of the enduring myths about opium production in Afghanistan that poverty-stricken farmers resort to poppy growing in order to eke out their meagre incomes – the destruction of their crops thereby acting as a recruitment sergeant for the terrorists.
According to a recent UN Report, there is by no means a direct link between poverty and opium growing. To the contrary, that business in Helmand is increasingly the domain of the more prosperous farmers – those with larger land areas.
Nevertheless, it should not be assumed that the poor do not benefit from poppy cultivation, even where larger land owners are the predominant growers. As this report indicates, the harvesting of opium provides jobs for itinerant labourers – as well as for small farmer and sharecroppers who are unable to earn sufficient income from their own endeavours. Furthermore, the transport and processing of opium provides additional jobs, providing valuable off-farm income for subsistence farmers.
Additionally, the bribes and informal taxes associated with the opium trade fund local administrators and officials, and augment the income of very often poorly-paid police, making poppy growing an important contributor to the wider economy.
However, why poppy growing is increasingly popular amongst larger farmers is complex and rarely fully explored, but one significant problem is one of surplus production of cereals – one which has taxed developed economies for many decades - compounded by the primitive agricultural infrastructure and the lack of security.
Although Afghanistan as a whole is only ninety percent sufficient in cereals, as we have already remarked, Helmand province produces over 120 percent of its cereal requirements, leaving it with substantial surpluses. Yet, while the obvious answer would be to export the surplus to deficit regions, in practice, this proves difficult.
At its most basic level, transportation is difficult and costly, not least because of the absence of good roads and the depredations of "bandits" (sometimes the local police), and the very real risk of mines and IEDs. More generally, markets are not well integrated and deficit areas tend to rely on cross border flows of wheat. Bizarrely, the east and central regions rely on imported wheat from Pakistan because it is available and cheaper. Western provinces purchase wheat trans-shipped through Iran.
On top of this, there is a perverse incentive as well-meaning aid agencies import and distribute food from abroad, rather than source locally (from within the country).
As a result, local prices in Helmand are adversely affected by local surpluses and, in the absence of a government market intervention scheme, this incentivises farmers to regulate their production themselves – and thereby reduce supplies – by switching acreage to alternative crops. In this context, poppy growing is an attractive proposition, made even more attractive by the financial and other arrangements relating to the marketing of the different crops.
In relation to cereal crops, not only is the physical infrastructure poor (roads, etc.) marketing information is limited. Here, it is a given (certainly in more sophisticated western economies) that farmers do not make money growing crops, but by selling them at the right time to maximise the price. Sometimes, they may sell their crops "forward" before the seeds are even in the ground. At other times, they may hold off selling until after the harvest, if prices look like increasing.
Such flexibility requires reliable marketing data and good communications, neither of which exist in Afghanistan. This leaves farmers reliant on a network of "middle men" who operate an informal cartel, depressing farm gate prices to a level below that which farmers might expect in a more competitive market.
Then, while farmers are often required to deliver their produce to local markets before they receive payments – which fluctuate wildly – buyers will collect opium directly from farms at guaranteed prices, fixed in advance. Furthermore, it is easier to obtain credit to finance opium growing than it is conventional crops. Economically and in many other ways, therefore, poppy growing is a much better deal, not only for its intrinsic value but also for its role as a "market regulator", augmenting conventional cereal production and, to some extent, financing it.
Interestingly, there is anecdotal evidence that wheat production, in times of high demand, is more profitable than poppy growing. The gross income from selling raw opium might be higher, but the process is highly labour-intensive, requiring more inputs. Thus, with commodity prices at record highs, the current "global food crisis" provides a unique opportunity to promote a long-term switch from opium to food.
Now, with some of the complex background set out, it begins to be possible to identify some very specific military tasks – all within a focused strategic framework. From that could stem better ideas as to the formations and equipment needed, enabling the military to adapt to the functions which need to be undertaken. But what it also points up is that any military activity must be closely integrated with, and responsive to, a cocktail of high policy, other agency activities and government actions. How this could work in practice we will explore in Part V but, before we go there, we need to look at another aspect of agriculture in Afghanistan - the plight of the "small" farmer and the implications for containing the insurgency. These, we explore in the next part.
One of the loose approximations that blights better understanding of affairs in Afghanistan is the use of the word "Taleban" as a portmanteau term to describe the insurgents.
It takes no great exploration of the situation though to realise that the armed insurgency comprises multifarious groups. The "resistance" to the coalition forces is overlaid by tribal rivalries, so that fighters can be local groups or individuals, as well as foreigners pursuing the jihadist agenda.
Crucially, there is an inter-relationship between the groups in that the jihadists can recruit from the local populations, relying on the dispossessed, the unemployed or those whose economic interests are threatened by central government intervention. Indeed, some "insurgents" may be primarily engaged in criminal enterprises rather than politically motivated activities, working independently, alongside or in concert with the jihadists.
Whatever the finer details of the precise relationships, the problem that confronts the Kabul government and the coalition forces is that the violence is sustained by both imported fighters and by elements of the indigenous populations – of which, in relative terms – there is an inexhaustible supply.
From the military perspective, fighters – whatever their provenance – can be removed from the "field of combat" by direct action, either by killing or capturing them. Additionally, they can be deterred from participating by aggressive actions which convey the message that the possibility of death or injury is unacceptably high.
However, given the costs of employing troops and their equipment, plus the expenditure on fuel, munitions and other consumables, this is an expensive way of removing combatants and one which, ultimately, cannot succeed. As fast as individuals are disposed of, they are replaced by new recruits. Arguably, therefore, long-term success must – at least in part - depend on preventing (or disincentivising) potential fighters from joining the fray in the first place.
A distinction here must be made between foreign and home-grown fighters. Clearly, there is some merit in suggesting that each group can (indeed must) be dealt with separately. And, although the groups characterised as Taleban or Al Qaeda are ideologically driven, as far as the home-grown fighters are concerned, there is good evidence that at least some are motivated by economic grounds – gaining through the proceeds of criminal activity or driven by poverty or lack of economic development.
Under such circumstances, addressing economic motivations can be a valuable and effective counterinsurgency weapon, possibly in some instances more so than thousands of heavily armed troops if it succeeds in removing large numbers of fighters from the field.
Invariably, though, this is a simplistic assessment. By contrast, there have been many learned and some extremely well researched dissertations exploring the drivers of the insurgency and pointing to strategies for its eventual resolution. There is no shortage of high quality thinking and intellectual effort devoted to this cause.
If it is possible to summarise the general trend of thought, however, it is largely expressed in terms of the Taleban and other (ideologically-driven) insurgent groups exploiting the weakness of the central government and, in particular, claiming to offer better alternatives. Thus, the focus of the (non-military) international efforts in support of the Kabul government has been on providing the services associated with good governance, ranging from water and electricity, schools, better roads, health care and a myriad of other provisions.
Central to that effort has also been an intensive and continuing programme directed at agriculture, primarily devoted to increasing food security – i.e. production. Coalition governments and aid agencies have offering improved seed, fertilisers, irrigation works and technical advice – much of it free. Additionally, efforts have been made to supply credit on easy terms for purchasing inputs, correcting some of the more egregious distortions in the market. As a result, food production has increased substantially and many communities (or individuals within those communities) have benefited.
Therein, however, lies the problem. As one perspicacious study noted, the net effect of the flood of aid and assistance has been typically to benefit the wealthier members of communities, disproportionately so. It is not an exaggeration thus to suggest that the main achievement of the (largely) western intervention has been to make the (relatively) rich more wealthy and the poor poorer.
Perversely, the overall objective of the aid programme is to assist communities in the "achievement of social economic goals" – and to associate that achievement with the writ of central government. In practice, though, for large numbers of impoverished Afghanis, the programme becomes the main obstacle to their achieving their goals. Intervention, far from removing one of the drivers of the insurgency, is adding to it. Our efforts have within them the seeds of their own destruction.
The explanation for this is not difficult to deduce and rests to a very great degree on two factors. Firstly, the bulk of the agricultural aid has been grossly unbalanced, focused too much on improving production. Secondly, much of the land ownership structures of the country – and particularly Helmand – are such that small farmers suffer financially rather than benefit from increased production.
As to why these factors should be so important rest in turn on the thesis explored in the previous part, where we noted that Helmand province is able to produce large surpluses of agricultural produce. Yet, owing to the inadequate infrastructure, farmers are unable to export its surpluses to the rest of the country. In these conditions, local over-supply leads to substantial falls in prices, to the extent that farmers earn less from producing more. More importantly, even where gross incomes improve, net incomes fall when sale prices no longer cover the increased inputs.
In the specific context of Helmand, the land ownership structure of the province exacerbates this effect. Upwards of half – and maybe substantially more – of the farmers do not own their land but farm as sharecroppers. In this malign system, they are forced to purchase inputs such as fertiliser from their landlords, often at inflated prices, and hire machinery such as tractors – also at inflated prices. Then, by way of "rent" they give up the larger part of their harvests – commonly 80 percent.
Under this regime, the primary beneficiaries of increased production are not the farmers but the landlords, yet the cost of producing the extra falls on the farmers, it being they who have to finance the additional inputs. Even against a falling market price – driven by surplus – the landlord can often gain some extra income, but the small proportion of added produce the farmers keep may not compensate for the costs of production.
On the broader front, there is some recognition of the vital role of marketing but, in by far the bulk of dissertations on Afghani agriculture, this is positioned as secondary to food security and increasing production – an adjunct rather than the priority, and then only as a means of boosting production. Almost nowhere is there any serious discussion on price regulation, and the effects of over-production on incomes.
Improving agricultural markets, however, would improve the lot of the sharecropper, in that firmer prices would increase income, but perhaps only marginally. To benefit fully from such developments, sharecropping needs to be abolished, replaced either by direct land ownership or land rental at equitable rates. The need for legislation to improve the equability of land ownership has been acknowledged but, so far, there have been no changes forthcoming from the central government.
Moreover, many of the absentee landlords are domiciled in Kabul – and points more distant. Where the Taleban took over areas, their "reach" diminished and they were unable to collect their rents or dues.
This scenario, however, does not even begin to touch upon the huge complexity of the situation and, as such, makes it an almost a laughably simplistic analysis. What comes over from a review of dozens of papers from a wide range of sources, is that there are is a vast range of factors affecting land tenure, and allied issues, many of them poorly understood.
Of particular note is a paper written in 31 March 2003, part of which is worth quoting in full:
Until recently, land tenure - the holding and transacting of land - has not been more than peripherally on Afghanistan's planning agenda. This is not surprising. The Afghanistan Transitional Administration (ATA) is new, is only just beginning to function as a government and has limited authority over the country.The paper continues:
Though it is a marvel that any substantive land planning has taken place at all, what has been thought through is driven by the limited objective of helping foreign investors secure land. A more poverty-focused approach to reconstruction, within which land tenure conflicts are most visible, has been slow to emerge, which has meant that issues of land access and the concerns of the majority remain a low priority.
The new administration has also not been particularly well served by the assistance community in this area. Though a range of policy advisories have been issued and agrarian surveys conducted over the last year, they have failed to focus on basic land access, rights as a factor of production, recovery or conflict resolution.
Structural analysis about the drivers of conflict and poverty has been limited. By failing to recognise the centrality of land rights to the peace and reconstruction process and by failing to provide the ATA with valuable lessons learned from experience in other contexts, the aid community has tended to reinforce the perception that land ownership problems are too complex, bewildering or sensitive to address at this time.
Unfortunately, such a risk-avoidance strategy is a-historical and imprudent, and may temporarily suppress chronic grievances. It fails to consider the role that conflict over space - and particularly rural space - has played in driving and sustaining the internal conflict in Afghanistan over the last quarter century. As a result, current approaches to land tenure matters tend to be superficial and ad hoc.Five years later, in terms of policy development, very little seems to have changed - land reform has been put into the "too difficult" box, to deal with at a later day. However, that is not to say that nothing has changed in Helmand province and other contested areas. Although the lack of security has insulated the regions from central government and all the influences that go with better communications, the issues of land rights, disputes and farming patterns seem to have developed in an ad hoc fashion, with the Taleban maintaining an element of stability and certainty through the enforcement of their brand of sharia law.
The concern of the ATA is, however, very real. While caution is indisputably in order, it makes sense that the assistance community facilitate the ATA's efforts to understand and deal with the land rights crises that currently beset the nation. It is hoped that, sooner rather than later, this will be expressed in a comprehensive strategy, implemented with its own set of workable legal instruments and local level arrangements.
From the perspective of the small farmers – and, in fact, the population in general – the transition from Taleban rule, or even from a state of "lawnessness" (defined as the absence of central government administration), to centralised rule brings not certainty and stability but precisely the opposite. Settled issues are re-opened, the status quo is threatened and uncertainty prevails.
It would be hardly surprising if the "liberated" populations regarded coalition forces as the enemy – not because they are occupiers, foreign or otherwise – but for what they represent and for what follows in their wake. The soldiers may concern themselves with "hearts and minds", carrying out "contact patrols" and driving in open-topped Land Rovers rather than armoured trucks, but their efforts are irrelevant in the context of the bigger picture, which has a far greater influence on sentiment.
So, where does this leave the military? We can now finally get down to addressing their role, which we will do in the next part.
At this stage, where one is addressing the role of the military in defeating an ongoing insurgency, it is helpful to define what is meant by an insurgency. This is best done by contrasting it with conventional warfare.
In the latter case, one can look at the northern European theatre in World War II. There, in planning and executing the liberation of occupied territories and the defeat of Nazi Germany, the objectives of the campaign – in broad terms – was fairly straightforward. It was to engage and defeat a clearly defined – and identifiable – enemy, rolling forward progressively taking possession of enemy-held territory and occupying it. The ultimate objective was to bring down the German government, precipitating the surrender of all hostile forces.
Following cessation of hostilities, there then followed a period of military governance, the primary aim of which was no more than maintaining law and order, pending a gradual transition to civilian authorities who were then engaged in economic and political construction. As a final stage, power was handed back to newly constituted civil government of the defeated nation.
In an insurgency, the contrast could not be more extreme. The "invading" forces are not at war with the government of the nation in the territory they occupy – they are acting in support of it. There is no clearly defined enemy and there is no demarcation between hostile and friendly territory. There is no front line and, crucially, there is no formal – or any - cessation of hostilities.
Instead, while the war continues, the processes which in conventional warfare take place after the hostilities have ended have to be carried out simultaneously. In other words, there is no neat division between "winning the war" and "winning the peace" – the two have to go hand in hand. Furthermore, each aspect depends on the other, in a continuous reinforcing loop.
It is here, perhaps, that the perception and strategies in Afghanistan are wrong. Much of the thinking, it seems, is still compartmentalised along the lines of conventional warfare, with the same division of labour as between the military and the civilian agencies. First, the military goes in to occupy an area. It repossesses it from the "enemy" and then imposes "security", allowing the "reconstruction" teams, the aid agencies and the civil authorities to do their work.
However, such a strategy is not wholly wrong. The picture of the insurgency painted is too simplistic. There are, in fact, two "insurgencies". One is, in effect, an invasion by external forces, the Al Qaeda and other factions, based in Pakistan and elsewhere – largely foreign fighters. Dealing with them in some ways approximates the conventional war model and conventional means can be successful.
On the other hand, there is the domestic insurgency – albeit reinforced or aided by external agencies. In this case, the "enemy" is the population of the area occupied. Killing the enemy – or forcing its "surrender" under such circumstances, is not an option. There is no obvious – or any - way of winning a military battle and the normal metrics of conventional warfare simply do not apply.
In this environment, it is readily and constantly acknowledged that there is no military solution. Received wisdom is that the military can only "hold the ring" giving space and time for a political solution to evolve.
However, within the context of the discussion and analysis in the preceding parts, this wisdom may not hold up. The underlying assumption in the standard model is that the "invading" force – in the case of Helmand, largely British forces aided by the ANA – acts as the "liberator", opening the way for the writ of central government and the "rule of law" – and all the benefits that supposedly accrue from this transition.
If, as we suggest, though, the transition brings not benefits, but insecurity and economic harm – to a significant proportion of the population – then the forces which see themselves as "liberators" will be regarded very differently by those whom they are supposedly liberating. Their very act of liberation makes them the enemy.
The continued presence of the occupying forces then makes them targets, the eventual aim of the population being to drive out their foe. Even if the bulk of the population does not actively participate in the insurgency, it will not support the government forces and those whom they see acting as their agents. They thus provide Mao's classic "sea" in which the foreign and local ideologues - the "fish" – can operate.
The response of the occupying forces then creates further instability and reduces any such "benefits" as may have accrued – such as new roads, irrigation schemes, etc. - thus reinforcing the perception that they are the "enemy" – a classic example of negative feedback.
To suggest that there is a different way of doing things, however, verges on arrogance. In many ways, the process of transition is bound to be painful and disturbance is unavoidable. The Afghanis, whether they like it or not, are being presented with a situation that is going to get worse before it gets better.
The central government, backed by the coalition forces and their governments are holding out the prospect of gradual improvement, and are thus inviting participation in what they present as a joint venture. Unfortunately, the population – or some elements of it – may see developments in a different light, almost in terms of "things are going to get worse … before they get even worse".
Putting this altogether, it seems that the essential need for the successful prosecution of this counter-insurgency campaign is to address the negative feedback loop. Populations which are brought within the remit of the central authority must deduce – from their own experiences – that their change in status is largely beneficial. In specific terms, individuals and communities must gain in prosperity, from which then improvements in standards of living then accrue. Currently, for large sections of the population, this is not the case.
The difficulty for the military, of course, is that the measures needed to bring this about do not lie within their immediate control. They can only work within the political framework dictated by the central (host nation) government, as influenced by the governments of the coalition forces and donor nations.
That said, the military do themselves have enormous influence. They can point out to their governments the conditions which must prevail for them to succeed, and also make it clear that, without those conditions in place, they cannot succeed.
To an extent, therefore, they can force policy. Then, by working within a policy framework which they themselves have assisted in developing, they can direct their energies to making it work. In other words, the military need to become, if you like, the "enforcers" and "facilitators" of national policies, not merely the "holders of the ring", a benign but essentially detached force that regards the civilian administration as something separate, outside their scope.
In terms, then, what policy does the military need, to set the framework in which they can successfully operate?
Here, we are almost back where we started. Above all else, Afghanistan is a "rural" country in that by far its most important industry is agriculture, an industry which employs directly and indirectly the vast bulk of its workforce and sustains easily 90 percent of the population. The politics of Afghanistan, therefore, are the politics of agriculture. Fix the agriculture, and you fix the nation.
Looking at this from both a macro-economic scale, and from the perspective of Helmand province, the pressing need is to rejoin the province to the rest of the country, allowing it to function as an integral part of the national – and through that – the international market.
Staying with this for the moment – we will look at other issues later – several tasks immediately spring to mind. The first is "communications", by which is meant roads. The case for a major road-building programme is made superbly by David Kitchen in a long piece in Small Wars Journal, who points out the strategic, tactical, political and economic benefits of such a programme.
The points have already been well-taken by both the Kabul government and development agencies. In April 2008, a contract was signed for a $100 million highway project in Afghanistan "intended to dramatically reduce travel time from Kabul to border areas near Pakistan's volatile tribal region of North Waziristan".
This is a 60-mile stretch of road which will link the provinces of Khost and Paktia to Afghanistan's "ring road," which will eventually circle the country. Crucially, one of the primary justifications for this project is its economic impact. The road is intended to reduce travel time between Kabul and the Khost by four hours, making it much easier for agricultural produce from the border areas to be transported elsewhere in the country.
Nor is this an isolated project. Since Nato involvement in Afghanistan began, over 2,500 miles of roads have been completed and, in the Helmand province, a start has been made on a major Gershk-Sangin-Kajaki road-building project, a 55-mile road to the strategic Kajaki dam which itself is being redeveloped to bring electricity to 1.7 million people in southern Afghanistan.
Although the bulk of these projects are not directly financed by the UK, the lesson has not been lost on the British. After the recapture of Musa Qala last December, one of the priorities has been the town's road building programme.
Nevertheless, we do not get any sense at all that road building is by any means amongst the first priorities of the British government or its military – or indeed that road building is a military function. As a small indicator, we see the disposal by the MoD of unused armoured wheeled tractors, yet these would be a valuable asset for use in road building (and other construction tasks) in hostile areas.
The point here is that there seems to be the compartmentalisation – or separation of functions - of which we complained earlier. The military seem to regard their role as to bring security to an area, creating the conditions whereby civilian agencies can move in and attend to "reconstruction" tasks. Unlike the Americans (and Canadians), they do not seem treat road-building as a counter-insurgency tactic in its own right.
Yet, pace David Kitchen (above), the driving of a road (or improvements thereto) through a contested area is something which the insurgents cannot afford to ignore. It creates a "target" against which they are forced to intervene, giving the military an opportunity to defeat them in detail. After all, one of the major problems in counterinsurgency warfare is bringing the enemy to battle on your terms, and such works create precisely that opportunity.
Furthermore, not only is the enemy drawn out on terms set by the counterinsurgency forces – distracting them and diluting their resources and thereby weakening the efforts on other targets – there is a better chance of forcing combat in uninhabited or sparsely populated areas. This, on the one hand, reduces the potential for collateral damage and the ill-will that causes. On the other, it presents the military as defending an asset valuable to the community – action more likely to meet with approval than taking over an occupied village in order to provoke enemy action.
For our Army, therefore, we need something akin to the US Army's combat engineers, equipped specifically for road building and in sufficient numbers to undertake major works and provide their own routine security.
Needless to say, reliance just on a road-building strategy will not win a counterinsurgency campaign and nor, on its own, will it achieve the economic aim of connecting farmers to their markets. As Ahmad Zia Massoud, first vice-president of Afghanistan once, rather sourly put it, "Millions of pounds have been committed in provinces including Helmand for irrigation projects and road-building to help farmers get their produce to market. But for now this has simply made it easier for them to grow and transport opium."
Much, much more needs to be done, other diverse and important activities in which the military needs to be involved, some in a leading role, others on the periphery. We will look at more of these in the next part.
Developing the themes discussed in preceding parts, we have come to the conclusion that the key role of the military should not be defined in terms of "fighting the war" but "fighting the peace". There should be no artificial (or any) division between classic warfighting and associated activities (such as patrolling) and development (and/or "reconstruction"). In dealing with the Afghan insurgency, the two are indivisible parts of the same strategy.
In fact, we go further. Development activities should be the military priority – the only priority - driving all the activities in theatre – but particularly that directed at facilitating or promoting economic activity.
The first of those priorities, we asserted, should be road-building – for the well-founded strategic, political and economic reasons set out by David Kitchen. Crucially, in the economic context, roads allow produce to be pulled into the marketplace, as opposed to production incentives and support, which push product into a system that cannot cope with it, creating price distortions which, all too often, perpetuate the poverty and dependency which the aid system is supposed to overcome.
The effect of good communications and market access is demonstrated vividly by a Foreign and Commonwealth Office report, addressing the failure of the opium eradication programme in Helmand where, despite massive expenditure and local incentives, poppy production had increased.
In so doing, the report notes that the district of Lashkar Gah in northern Helmand – serving the provincial capital where there happens to be situated a large British Army base – was free from opium poppy cultivation. Instead, the district enjoyed some of the most diverse cropping patterns in the region, with extensive cultivation of high value crops such as water melon, tomato, cucumber and onion.
Later in the report, it then goes on to note, in respect of the more northern areas of Afghanistan:
In the districts nearest the provincial centre, Baghlan and Pul e Khumri, high-value vegetable production has the potential to generate higher returns than opium poppy cultivation. There, the asphalt road has brought access to markets in Kabul and Mazar, stimulating vegetable production.The effect of poor communications is amply illustrated by the fate of the Hazaras - recounted by the National Geographic. They are the inhabitants of Hazarajat - an isolated region in Afghanistan's central highlands to the east and north of Kabul – and despite accounting for up to one-fifth of Afghanistan's population, promises by the government and international donors to pave the roads from Kabul to Bamian and Bamian to Yakawlang have not been kept.
Most of the roads in the region are still glorified mule tracks and, even in the best of weather, farmers cannot get crops to market. Cited by National Geographic is Chris Eaton, CEO of the Aga Khan Foundation's Afghanistan office, who says: "We tried taking melons and peaches to Kabul, and it was juice by the time we got there."
The case for more and better roads, therefore, is unassailable, yet the progress of the road-building programme is and has been disappointingly slow – as evidenced by the experience of the Hazaras. In part, this is due to shortage of financing, but only in part. Some of that problem is more a reflection of the way aid is allocated. For instance, some £130 million has been allocated to (ineffective) opium eradication programmes. That same amount of money directed at road-building could hardly have less effect in terms of reducing poppy production and would leave something tangible to show for the expenditure.
In the FCO report, there is additional intelligence offered, to the effect that, in areas where alternative cultivation thrives, "vegetable traders are mimicking many of the advantages of the opium trade." They are offering cash advances to farmers and purchasing crops at the farm gate, thus absorbing transportation and transaction costs. This suggests that, where a market and good communications exist, traders themselves can secure their own sources of supply, without the intervention of aid or other agencies.
On terms of the road-building programme though, much of the delay – certainly in areas under Taleban control, or where insurgency activity is recorded – is attributed to lack of security. Therein lies the central problem to which we have alluded. The civilian aid and reconstruction programme cannot operate in insecure areas, while the military is too busy rushing off to fight its own war and does not have the resource to provide security for all the development activities.
It is this that makes the case for "self defending" military reconstruction programme – as with the US combat engineers who can undertake civil engineering programmes such as road-building, while being able to take on the insurgents should the need arise. Alternatively, there is perhaps a role for "security consultants" to provide protection, although these can be extremely expensive and, on occasions, unreliable.
Nevertheless, provision of the entire resource from within the Army – which would be expected to be the lead Service – would also be costly and could hardly relieve the "overstretch" about which we hear voluble complaints – although other coalition forces allocate substantial resources to construction tasks. However, the military effort is augmented by units of the ANA, which are both trained and "mentored" by coalition forces.
The Afghan formations include combat engineers trained by the Canadians and the United States. And there are also examples of the military setting up and controlling projects, using locally recruited labour (see page 19).
Sensibly devised, a change of strategic direction should not impose an excessive burden and the feelgood factor of military contributions to engineering works is of significant value (see page 7 and 12).
Moving on, there is an issue allied to any road-building programme, also rehearsed in the FCO report. This retails how a bus in Helmand was stopped by "bandits" and passengers were relieved of their cash, watches and mobiles. Workers have been shot at in a location when they failed to stop at a police check post to pay "tax" and, in other cases, mobility has been restricted by Taleban incursions and general "insecurity".
Even where there is no Taleban activity, the police forces themselves can be a considerable problem. The incidence of checkpoints and the imposition of "taxes" on cars and trucks by the Afghan National Police is a common complaint. It is reported that there have been as many as 40 checkpoints between Herat and Kandahar city, each charging trucks up to $10 for safe passage.
Where needed, therefore – at least in the interim, until the police issue can be resolved - is a system of convoys with armed military escorts for commercial vehicle collecting from farms, backed by the sophisticated resources of the military, such as UAVs and reconnaissance aircraft.
Ostensibly, the bulk of the escorts could be provided by the ANA, supervised or "assisted" by coalition force mentors who will attend, in effect, to ensure that the escorts themselves do not double as "tax" collectors or bandits, or collude with those who have nefarious intentions.
In terms of implications for military equipment, one could expect some of these convoys to become targets, open to direct attacks, mines, IEDs and even suicide bombers. This places a high premium on the availability of mine resistant and ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles. It also demands dedicated route clearance teams to minimise danger to road-bound traffic.
Equally, convoy duties have implications for the military formations employed. Typically, infantry are used for this role, which imposes a considerable burden on already stretched units, but it also represents a misuse of this specialist resource. In US practice, it is not uncommon to employ dedicated units of military police, who are specifically trained and equipped for convoy escort duties, thereby relieving pressure on infantry units.
So far, then, we have identified to specific roles for the military, related directly to economic reconstruction. To look for further roles, we must go upstream in the agricultural marketing chain to see where intervention can confer added value.
Here, there is good evidence that there is a serious shortage of suitable bulk storage – especially for wheat but there is also a need for cold stores for vegetables and fruit. In terms of wheat marketing, this is apparent in the substantial seasonal fluctuations in the price of grain, with prices at their lowest around harvest time, when supplies are plentiful, and higher towards the end of winter and in the spring before the new crops are harvested.
So acute is this shortage in some districts in Helmand, that grain is exported to neighbouring Pakistan – where government subsidised storage is available – only to be returned later in the season, attracting a premium price which is borne by the consumer without conferring any benefits to the original producers.
Clearly, a network of storage centres – linked, of course, to a good road system – is an urgent priority. That much is well recognised by aid and government agencies, who are well aware of the need. The provision of such storage is a key objective of the multi-agency Rebuilding Agricultural Markets in Afghanistan Program (RAMP), which is already devoting much resource to increasing capacity.
Once again, though, an important obstacle is lack of security. The Taleban is well aware of the economic significance of such centres and could be expected – as indeed they have – to interfere with attempts to build such facilities and, when they are built, they become prime targets.
Given the vital economic role these facilities play (which can also house government crop laboratories, advisory centres, plus seed processing and storage units) that creating the security environment needed for their establishment, preventing interference while they are being constructed, and then providing ongoing security, must be high on the list of military priorities.
That said, it also must be recognised that a huge amount has been done already, some of which is recorded here and, for example, here (see also pic, above left - a rebuilt bridge). Nothing of that progress is allowed for in the analyses of Parris and Jenkins, with which we started this post. Viewed through their pessimistic lenses, the impression is of loss, trauma and despair.
Thus, in some respects – as always – the higher priority is promoting more and better publicity about what is being achieved, confronting the naysayers who would have us quit before the job has been done. Nevertheless, one does not get the sense that just the three issues discussed in this part are British military priorities – and there are more we would wish to put on the table. However, in the next part, we have to interrupt this exploration, to look at once again at the wider issues.
As one researches further into this issue, in what has become a journey of discovery, one meets the constant refrain from diverse sources that, "there is no military solution".
Whimsically, however, we could find ourselves disagreeing. The military - for the moment at least – should suspend their battle against the Taleban and other "anti-government elements". Instead, they should turn their guns on the ranks of foreign NGO personnel, government aid agencies and other "hangers on", and drive them out of the country. If necessary, they should shoot some of them, pour encourager les autres to expedite their departure. That alone would do probably more to promote the cause of peace, and the prosperity of the Afghani people than other activity one could possibly imagine.
More particularly, one would send a large military detachment to Brussels where they would be tasked, selectively – or indiscriminately, it matters not – to slaughter EU commission officials responsible for formulating trade policy. When they have finished there, they could, with advantage, turn their attentions to the US Congress.
Unfortunately, such diversions – while undoubtedly entertaining – would be unlikely to gain approval. In any event – given the complexity of modern government and the labyrinthine diffusion of responsibility – they probably would not work.
However, while the sentiment is whimsical, there is a serious point behind it – illustrated by the chart published at the head of this part. This shows that (legal) Afghani exports, from $1.3 billion in 2003 – modest enough then – have collapsed to a mere $247 million (estimated) for 2008. More authoritative figures show that exports as a proportion of GDP have declined from 42.7 percent in 2003 to 25.6 percent in 2006, confirming the trend shown in the graph.
As far as the European Union goes, one sees great enthusiasm for insisting on a "broad-based, gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic and fully representative government", when it comes to trade agreements, one sees the damning words, "There are as yet no sectoral agreements (trade …) between the EU and Afghanistan." As regards trade volumes, one then sees:
Afghanistan is entitled to benefits under the General System of Preferences (GSP) and the Everything But Arms Initiative (EBA). However, in spite of this favourable treatment, trade volume from Afghanistan to the EU has remained limited, actual trade remains minimal: EU imports from Afghanistan in 2005 were €26 million and exports were €321 million.These broad figures, though, conceal an even more dire position when it comes to agriculture. Reference the chart (illustrated right), we can see that in 2006 – the latest official figures available, the EU 25 imported a mere €23 million-worth of agricultural products from Afghanistan, yet exported €64 million-worth to the country, leaving it with a balance of trade deficit of €41 million.
Afghanistan is entitled to benefits under the Everything But Arms Initiative (EBA) of the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP). Trade between the EU and Afghanistan has almost tripled between 2002 and 2006 but overall remains small. EU imports from Afghanistan increased from €19 million in 2002 to €36 million in 2006. Exports during that period increased from €133 million to €418 million. Whilst the EU is Afghanistan's second most important trading partner after Pakistan, Afghanistan ranks only 129th as regards the EU's major trading partners.
Now, if this seems to be digressing from the military campaign, bear with me. We turn to Barnett R. Rubin who is Director of Studies and Senior Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation (CIC) of New York University, where he directs the Afghanistan Reconstruction Program. Having made a clear link between the counter-narcotics programme and the continuation of the insurgency – the one fuelling the other – he argues in his own blog that there is no military or even law enforcement solution to the drug economy in Afghanistan. He then writes:
This is the result on the ground of a one-dimensional military policy. All we hear is, not enough troops, send more troops. Then you send in troops with no capacity for assistance, no capacity for development, no capacity for aid, no capacity for governance, and you get a lot of head scratching. Of course now there is nothing they can do. Because they think it is a military problem, they send in the Marines during the fighting season, which is also the harvest season. Why didn't they send them in during the planting season with development aid? Because they don't know about planting and harvesting, or at least they have no idea how to integrate these very basic political and economic considerations into their planning.In a comprehensive report, he then states:
If they attack the farmers of course they will lose control of the area. They should try to co-opt as many of the local small traffickers as possible to keep them from selling to the Taliban (believe me, the local administration knows who they are) and then launch a big aid program for next year.
After all this time, they still have no idea what they are doing.
Alternative development for counter-narcotics must start from macroeconomic plans to create employment by linking Afghanistan to licit international markets, especially through rural industries based on agricultural products.There we have it: the theme we have addressed in previous parts of this dissertation – the way to salvation is through international trade. Although the Lashkar Gah "miracle" worked when good access to a local market allowed farmers to diversify into higher value produce – leading to an abrupt halt in poppy cultivation – in many areas, this equation does not work. The problem is, amongst other things, that the local populations lack the purchasing power to buy more expensive products. In order to grow them and then to gain the economic benefits from them, farmers must have access to export markets. Europe, with its high purchasing power, is an obvious outlet, but the trade, as we have seen, is minuscule.
Returning to Rubin's report, we then find that the original cash crop produced in the irrigated areas of Helmand, before the Soviet invasion, when Afghanistan had a healthy export trade – was cotton (pictured).
But, we are told, that crop is not competitive with opium poppy as long as US and European Union producers drive down the price by dumping subsidised cotton on the international market. And, although estimates of the price impact of these subsidies vary, Rubin notes that total US cotton subsidies total over $3 billion yearly, more than total US development aid to Afghanistan.
Even then, if the US and EU subsidies cannot be eliminated due to pressure from domestic political constituencies, there is an alternative. Subsidies could still be provided in Afghanistan. However, under pressure from the World Bank and others, the Afghan government is required to adopt the very "free market" principles which its benefactors reject. Therefore, Helmand farmers who have asked for government cotton subsidies as an incentive to shift from poppy to cotton, have been told they do not qualify for exemptions from the discipline of the "free" market.
Still, there is another alternative. Even if cotton alone is not competitive, it has been suggested that textile and garment production would be competitive. Rubin writes that establishing textile quotas for Afghanistan in major markets and investing in simple garment factories in Afghan cotton-producing areas could increase employment. The appeal of a certified "Made in Afghanistan" (or "Made in Afghanistan by Afghan women") label could offset the increased costs of production and transport. Similar opportunities exist with carpet production (pictured). Yet, progress there has been none.
Then, should subsidies prove impractical under Afghan conditions, Rubin adds, another approach is to expand local procurement by the international community in Afghanistan combined with attempts to encourage contract growing of high value horticulture. Again, progress there has been none.
And it gets worse. To soak up labour displaced by the transition from opium production to the licit economy, there is a desperate need to create rural industries (needed as well to halt the population drift into the cities), but – in order to thrive, these must be linked to regional and global markets with assured access to those markets.
Still, it gets worse. The US State Department is soliciting proposals under their new Economic Empowerment in Strategic Regions (EESR) programme to provide alternative income generation for farmers in south western Afghanistan through production and processing of agricultural fibres, oilseeds, and feed products.
But USAID reportedly refuses to fund such initiatives on the grounds that they conflict with the Bumpers Amendment. "Until there is an official declaration of Administration policy regarding the amendment, those qualified to submit proposals will be reluctant to do so," Rubin writes.
Explained here, the Bumpers Amendment was a measure passed by the US Congress in May 1986 controlling the distribution of foreign aid by US authorities. It stipulates that "none of the funds to be appropriated … may be available for any testing or breeding, feasibility study, variety improvement or introduction, consultancy, publication, or training in connection with the growth or production in a foreign country for export if such export would compete in world markets with a similar commodity grown or produced in the United States."
Nor is this by any means an academic issue. Reported in February 2008 was the fate of two Afghan-American brothers, Yosuf and Abdul Mir, with a textiles factory in Kandahar.
In 2005, they developed a plan to renovate the factory, on the basis that it could give opium farmers an incentive switch to growing cotton. Arguing that they could provide as many as 18,000 jobs, as well as a guaranteed cotton and wool market for local farmers, they won the support of the Afghan government and got more than 2,000 farmers to sign pledges agreeing to switch from opium to cotton.
Then the put their case to USAID officials for a $1.5 million grant for their project, under the alternative livelihoods programme, and got what they believed was a tentative agreement in 2006 from Chemonics International, a Washington-based company that administered USAID projects in Afghanistan.
A year later though, in June 2007, Chemonics rejected the project without explanation. A letter in October from the head of the State Department's Office of Afghanistan, John Fox, then said the refusal was prompted by a congressional ban on funding projects that would compete with US farmers. That was the Bumpers Amendment in practice.
All of a sudden, the carefully structured argument about the military making development activities their priority – the only priority – come screeching to a halt as they crash into the political realities of government aid and protectionism. Yet, in Part III, we asserted that "any military activity must be closely integrated with, and responsive to, a cocktail of high policy, other agency activities and government actions."
By the same token, "high policy, other agency activities and government actions" must be closely integrated with, and responsive to military activities and needs. What we are learning from this journey of discovery is that they are not. In fact, so far do they deviate from what is absolutely necessary, the indications are that, whatever they do – short of the action proposed at the beginning of this post - the military are unlikely to succeed.
We are going to have to go away and think about this … it does not look good.