Thursday, 27 August 2009

Fewer things better

"The more focus there is on great military offensives, the faster the money and blood is expended; and the greater the pressure for rapid results, the less chance there is that the fight will ever be won," writes Stephen Grey – author of Snake Bite - in the current edition of Prospect Magazine.

This may contradict the siren calls for more troops in theatre, but Grey's argument has an ineluctable logic. It starts with him assessing the psychology of the Army, the ability to "crack on" - its greatest quality and perhaps its greatest weakness. Commendable in adversity, it can also mean failing to challenge impossible orders, or unwillingness to expose a flawed strategy.

Many, in fact, believe the Helmand campaign to be flawed, a view expressed by a "senior Whitehall figure" who declared that Helmand "was a terrible strategic blunder." His views were not uncommon. Citing the plentiful material support in Vietnam, where there was no shortage of helicopters, Grey himself observes that, "unless the strategy is fixed, reinforcement could well make things worse."

The rot started with the fallacy that the campaign was more of a conventional than a guerrilla war (which explains the initial enthusiasm from an Army bogged down in Iraq) leading to the "mowing the lawn" sweeps which were viewed as a positive outcome, as they would have been in a traditional war.

The "lie" was exposed by Brigadier Andrew Mackay who used the recapture in December 2007 of Musa Qala to engineer a turning point. It was no good destroying a town and then arriving afterwards with cement mixers or wads of cash, as US doctrine seemed to imply. Thus, the aim was to take the town without knocking it down and by persuading the Taleban to flee, not fight.

A plan for reconstruction was devised to begin on "day one" after the town's recapture, and a battalion of Afghan troops was earmarked to garrison the town, with Nato troops kept out.

The military did its bit, taking the town with minimal civilian casualties but, as Anthony Loyd pointed out in the following July, the reconstruction was botched. The civilian agencies, including Britain's foreign office and development department, and the Afghan government came nowhere near to doing their part.

Beyond this, though Grey looks at a dimension we rarely consider – the idea of talking to the enemy to discover their motives. He also explores the need to avoid the indiscriminate killing of "Taleban" leaders. As has been rehearsed on this blog, the Taleban is not a homogenous, hierarchical group.

Through the eyes of an Irish EU official, Michael Semple, and another Irishman, Mervyn Patterson, Grey tells us that the Teleban of southern Afghanistan, was made up of bands of competing fighters, driven to fight more by a sense of tribe and nation than religious ideology. The US decision to demonise their leaders had prevented many from retiring, or switching sides. Instead they had been driven into Pakistan, where they had regrouped and forged closer ties to the remnants of al Qaeda.

"Reconciliation," Semple found, was possible and a process was initiated, effectively to be sabotaged by president Karzai. Had the British and their allies understood what was going on (and supported it), this - says Grey - might have stopped much of the fighting in the first place.

Ignorance, however, seems to have exerted itself in other malign ways, leading the newly-arrived British army unwittingly to blunder into the opium "turf wars", ending up in Sangin backing the drug mafia and driving rival tribal groups into the hands of the Taleban. British and US special forces campaigns to "decapitate" their leadership have made this worse, effectively eliminating the very people who could ultimately reconcile the insurgent groups.

Thus, while foreign secretary David Miliband now supports new talks with the enemy, three years of battles - which the Taleban were always said to lose – have brought a doubling in insurgent numbers in Helmand, making the kind of engagement which might have worked in 2006 much harder. Belated as it is, it still needs to be tried, writes Grey.

Now, farmers who last year might have supported the coalition are more likely to turn to producing IEDs and the area to the west of the province's capital Lashkar Gah has become a "Taleban stronghold." Retaking it has been the central objective of coalition troops, the British-led operation "Panther's Claw" having made a "land grab" akin to the operations of 2006.

Brigadier Tim Radford, the British taskforce commander, is "absolutely certain" that Panther's Claw has been a success. Lessons have been learned. A new swathe of land has been brought under government control - and it will be held.

Like many of us, Grey is sceptical. Nato has nothing like the troop strength to garrison the province and British troops, he asserts, meanwhile, "remain overstretched" in the zones they have held since before the summer. The Afghan army is not ready to step up and the Afghan government is not able to provide officials capable of delivering the security and services that might win over those infamous hearts and minds.

Musa Qala showed that there is little point winning ground for an Afghan government regarded as corrupt and unable to deliver basic security. "The problem with our approach this summer," one senior western official told Grey, "is that Afghanistan is neither willing nor capable of taking over the areas that Nato troops have captured … It's a fiction that they'll soon be ready."

On the domestic front, Grey sees no particular room for optimism either. He tells of how Whitehall officials seethed at what they regarded as General Dannatt's opportunism in using recent casualties to spread the blame for three years of bloody stalemate. As seen from London or Washington, the story of Helmand was more often of commanders who pushed soldiers into harm's way, sent back endlessly optimistic reports, and extended the conflict beyond the resources and political will available back home.

Their complaint, says Grey, has merit. Politicians dispatched troops to Afghanistan, but Nato generals decided how to deploy them. Most of the crucial decisions - from sending troops to defend the platoon houses, to "mowing the lawn," to Panther's Claw - have been made by soldiers. If an operation was launched with insufficient troops (or helicopters) it should not have been launched at all.

As to the US approach of "clear, hold and build", Grey dismisses it as "a tactic, not a strategy." It leaves unanswered just how much of this vast, lawless country should be cleared and held. There have already been calls for tens of thousands of more troops. Yet all of these dreamed-of reinforcements would never be enough to garrison all the areas of rebellion, never mind the whole country. Unlike in Iraq, we have reinforced before we know how to win.

The answer – or one of them – is to recognise that western intervention has limited value. Not all enemies can be dealt with at once. Do not reach for military action as the first response and pick our battles more carefully. Doing fewer things better - and letting the world know about them - can have greater effect than pouring more troops into an extended offensive.

Britain, says Gray, can still do good if it learns deeper lessons from its campaign. Its armed intervention should be concentrated on smaller areas, with a much greater emphasis on local intelligence. This must go hand-in-hand with economic development, and above all matching the scale of the mission with the resources available.

To this, we would add one caveat – nothing long-term can succeed unless the military manages to stem the flow of casualties. Without that, there is no long-term for British involvement. As we observed earlier, we have to deal with the IED.