Tuesday 5 May 2009

Different realities - 1

National interest is never so obvious as when newspapers are reporting on the deeds of the military in foreign fields.

Thus, while we have a major counter-insurgency going on in Afghanistan, involving troops from many different countries, today the Wall Street Journal offers us a detailed account of the exploits of US troops while, predictably, The Times gives us an equally detailed account of the exploits of British troops.

Neither of accounts, viewed entirely from the national perspective, can give us an overview but, thanks to the internet, we can see both. By reading and contrasting both, we can in fact build a more comprehensive picture than either newspapers offers.

Add to that an overview afforded by primary sources that the media do not report, and build in other less mainstream reports and the image expands. Perhaps a more coherent picture emerges. But the caveat "perhaps" remains. It is still incomplete, still filtered and distorted by the inherent selection bias.

The problem is trying to work out what represents reality. Each of the journalists who files reports gives us a tiny snapshot. Each of the other sources only give us a fraction of the totality of events happening over a wide range of territory. And much of what is happening is not reported at all.

With that in mind, in this first of several linked posts, we look at the "reality" offered by WSJ reporter Michael M Phillips, that of the Jalrez Valley, where he gives us a preview of surge, telling us that: "US Calms Afghan Valley but Peace Is Fragile".

The piece is worth reading in its entirety, retailing how "A single company of fresh U.S. troops has turned this insurgent haven into a laboratory test for President Barack Obama's Afghanistan troop surge." It would be otiose either to reproduce it here, or to offer an edited version. More useful is to draw some observations from the narrative.

Here, we see an essentially lawless district, dominated by the Taleban, into which has been inserted, by helicopter, a company of American infantrymen who have set up outposts along the valley. Previous, limited incursions have been met with bloody fighting but this time, with troops arriving in force, they met virtually no resistance. Since the soldiers arrived, insurgents have twice fired rockets and once taken potshots at them. They have encountered just two roadside bombs.

Jalrez itself, with a population of 75,000, "sits astride an important if heavily decayed stretch of road that runs west to Herat and eventually Iran" and, "taking advantage of the calm, construction crews funded by the Italian government are preparing to pave the valley's pitted dirt road." Afghan and US officials hope this will allow locals to more easily send apples to market in Kabul or Pakistan, and remind them that their interests lie with the government.

The force commander Lt-Col Kimo Gallahue hopes that, as the Jalrez settles into "quiet stability" he can expand the US footprint, moving into some of the subsidiary valleys. He is, however, conscious of locals' fears. "If the coalition left, the Taleban would come back and kill me and everyone else who worked with the US government," says Sayed Ali Abas, the 40-year-old commander of a new US-backed neighborhood-watch brigade in Jalrez.

Pashtun villagers, some of whose sons are thought to be part-time insurgent fighters, are particularly reluctant to be seen supporting the US and the government. Others tell a US officer that they can't risk taking sides, for fear of retaliation. "We can't fight you, and we can't fight the Taleban," said one of the men.

Then we are told that the insurgents, "unable or unwilling to fight face-to-face, have resorted to scare tactics." At night, they tack warnings to mosques and houses. "We consider anybody cooperating with the infidels to be their slaves," said one such night letter left at a Jalrez Valley home. "Those people who work for the infidels and invite others to work for them ... will be slaughtered and hung on trees by the road."

Looking at the bigger picture, Lt-Col Gallahue's battalion represents an enormous increase in the US presence. But he still has only so many soldiers and there are a lot of valleys.

Just 25 miles to the south of the Jalrez Valley, insurgents are a powerful force in Chak, where the Army fought the two-day battle in late April. Each of the 13 sub-districts of Chak had its own Taliban commander and a sort of parallel government. In a district of 114,000 people, there were just 30 police officers and no permanent US base.

The effect of Lt-Col Gallahue's efforts, therefore, has been to push the insurgents into Chak. He would like to leave a permanent force in there but, despite increased force levels, does not have enough men to spare. Gallahue looks at a map and scans the valleys his men hold and those he wished they held. "That's depressing," he says. "Chak is burning."

Looking at this in the round, several observations come to mind. The first is that the "take, hold and build" strategy currently touted clearly has its limits. Although 21,000 troops are to be added to the current force of roughly 41,000 US soldiers, that is still a pitifully small number when some estimate that it would take 500,000 troops fully to hold all the contested territory in Afghanistan.

Secondly, one wonders why Gallahue is "depressed". If the Taleban are following the classic Maoist three-phase model of guerrilla warfare, then he should expect them to retire in the face of superior, better-equipped forces.

Further, should his forces ever move on to challenge them on their new ground – and in so doing vacate the current area of operations – then he should expect the Taleban to reoccupy that ground. That is the essence of guerrilla warfare.

Thirdly, one notes with interest the plan to pave the valley's pitted dirt road, to "allow locals to more easily send apples to market in Kabul or Pakistan, and remind them that their interests lie with the government." Here, the thinking is obviously sound, but it raises some interesting questions.

For instance, one might ask what the cost of transporting Lt-Col Gallahue's troops into the area were, and what the total costs of maintaining them in place will be. Then one could ask what the cost of sending a unit of combat engineers, those troops slowly moving up the valleys, rebuilding the roads and dealing with insurgent interference as it happens.

One suspects that the overall cost might, in fact, be less and it is useful to speculate whether the net effect might be very much the same. If the game is to remind people "that their interests lie with the government", would that objective have been any less well served by simply building the road?

The answers are, of course, not clear. But the fact is that the locals are right to be wary. Lt-Col Gallahue's troops are there now but how long will it be before the political winds change and they are gone? And what then?

One thing for sure, troops may come and go, as they have done for centuries. A properly built road, linking the valley to the markets and to government, will most probably last a whole lot longer and have a more powerful effect.