Sunday 4 February 2007

Realism 2

As the command of Nato forces in Afghanistan passes from British Army General David Richards to his American successor, General Dan McNeil, you can take your pick of what to believe as to how the campaign is going.

According to Christina Lamb writing in The Sunday Times, the message from the outgoing British commander is very much "mission accomplished". Richards has been telling anyone who will listen that, "In many respects I think we've been more successful than I anticipated … Not only has Nato unequivocally proved it can fight but actually, militarily, it has defeated the Taliban."

Nevertheless, the loss of Musa Qala is regarded as something of a dampener but it is only this very recent incident that is allowed to cast a shadow.

Even then, the ISAF press office would prefer you to focus on its more recent success, the air strike which has killed a Taliban leader named Mullah Abdul Gafoor, and some of his associates, while they were riding in a truck through a small village just outside Musa Qala. He is said to have led the attack on Musa Qala, which wrested it from the control of the elders.

"Through this precision air strike, we have shown superior capability and we will continue to execute our plans at the time and place that is most advantageous to the Government of Afghanistan and to the peace and security of the Afghan people," says ISAF spokesman Squadron Leader Dave Marsh.

By contrast, memories are conveniently short when it comes to the recent attack on Jugroom Fort where the two Apache helicopters were pressed into service to recover the body of a L/Cpl Ford. Yet, as we pointed out, the attack was a failure. British forces were repulsed by a numerically inferior force of Taliban and, from the silence about the fate of the Fort, we must assume that it has yet to be recovered.

Thus, while, according to Christina Lamb, Nato headquarters in Kabul is saying of Musa Qala that, "We will take it back but in a manner and timing of our choosing … It's a question of if, not when," one conscious of certain uncomfortable facts. At Jugroom, some 30 Taliban saw off 200 of our √©lite Marines, while in Musa Qala we are told there are 200 Taliban.

Inevitably though, much of what comes from ISAF, the MoD and the British government will be propaganda, and obviously so. While we struggle to assess the current situation, the main preoccupation of the official information providers will be to hold the line. Thus we get the MoD website jibbering about the news that two Harrier GR9s (the latest version) have arrived in Afghanistan. Says the MoD:

The Harrier is part of an agile and adaptable Air Force that, person for person, is second to none. It is able to provide a winning air power contribution to joint operations in support of the UK Defence Mission.
Other than to say wearily, "Oh! P-leeze!" at such misguided jingoism, one does not wish to spend too much time and effort on this, except that the MoD then elaborates on "the strengths of the Harrier". One of these is its "versatility", demonstrated recently, it says, when an aircraft delivered 1,000 lb bombs released from ultra low level in poor conditions, in support of ground forces.

Such detail reveals a great deal: one of the acute restrictions on the operation of the Harrier fleet is the limited types of weapons available, not least the 1,000 lb bomb which requires such a substantial safety margin that it often cannot be used for close air support. Our armed forces desperately need smaller bombs, so that the Harriers can work closer to troops under attack.

With the MoD making a virtue of a deficiency, we can reliably assert that any information from - or authorised by - an official source is suspect. And even then, Richards's protestations of success are undermined by Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who said of the outgoing commander, "He's tried hard and the situation is much better. But I don't think we can declare victory."

This brings us back to the issue of air power for, such success as Richards has achieved has been heavily dependent on close air support. This is from a general who, before taking command, had criticised the American forces for being "too kinetic", yet he ordered more than 650 air strikes in September alone.

Karzai is known to be unhappy about the level of bombing and the number of innocent people being killed. Yet, without air support, there are not enough troops with the right kind of equipment to hold even the ground they occupy, much less prevail against Taliban strongholds.

Even now, according to The Observer today, Richards admits that his crucial battle at Panjway, close to Kandahar, against the Taliban last autumn was "a damned near-run thing". The Taliban came close to forcing heavily outnumbered Nato forces to give up their attack.

One official admits that Nato planners are trying to make up for a lack of people on the ground with air power. But, he says, "that can only go on for so long."

Now, as the snows begin to melt in the mountains and passes of Afghanistan, the Taliban is promising a bloody spring offensive in what is likely to be a decisive year in the battle for this country. We are 80 percent prepared and "are about to start war," says Taliban leader Mullah Hayatullah Khan. He warns that: "This will be a bloodiest year for foreign troops", adding: "Now there is great enthusiasm for suicide attacks among the Taliban and these attacks will increase in future."

Putting all this together and adding some of our own analysis, we see a situation where troops are ill-equipped for offensive operations and are not even holding their own in defensive operations. Yet they are about to face a resurgent Taliban, which seems far from being cowed, while we – the public – are forced to rely on obviously skewed propaganda in order to judge how they are faring.

What is especially disturbing here is that British tactics seem best to be summed up as a policy of "running away". We saw this in Iraq at Al Amarah. After some extremely violent fighting and incessant attacks on the base at Abu Naji, the British response was to abandon the base and take up a nomadic existence out in the desert of Maysan province, avoiding any serious contact with enemy forces.

In Afghanistan - described in detail by Pak Tribune - after pulling out from the platoon house at Musa Qala, British forces changed tactics in an uncanny parallel with the activities in Maysan province.

Instead of holding territory, they started operating out of small armoured vehicles, bedding down in the desert under the stars. Their units are called MOGs, "manoeuvre outreach groups", and the marines and soldiers say they are MOGging - living for weeks on end in the desolate moonscape that Baluchi tribes named the Desert of Death.

The paper cites Major Ben Warwick, commander of C Squadron, the Light Dragoons, whose light armoured reconnaissance vehicles were brought to Afghanistan last October. "What these mobile assets bring to the operation is the ability to appear in one place and then disappear into the desert and appear again somewhere else," he says.

That sounds terribly familiar. These are the type of tactics adopted by the then newly-born SAS in the Western Desert by its founder David Stirling - in the Second World War. But his were small, special forces operating against a conventional enemy, mainly attacking airfields where there were large numbers of vulnerable aircraft.

In guerrilla warfare – as in counter-insurgency operations - the security services have the problem of finding an elusive "hit and run" enemy. The common complaint of operations in VietNam was that the enemy was invisible and could never be brought to battle. Yet, in Afghanistan, the enemy made themselves known – and vulnerable – by attacking fixed points occupied by the British, losing large numbers of their fighters. Had we been able to sustain the "platoon house" strategy, the Taliban would have lost even more.

So, in what seems an optimal scenario for the security forces – in this case the British – what did they do? Well, they disengaged and drove off into the deserts to play at MOGging, no doubt to the strains of the theme tune to Lawrence of Arabia.

Cynical that may be but, in the context where the official organs are spinning like mad, the media is offering incomplete and partisan accounts - with analyses of such stunning triviality that many are not worth reading - we need to rely on basic principles. And these, in major respects, seem to have been ignored and continue to be ignored.

This might be acceptable if we had the "best armed forces in the world", which would mean that they would also have to have the best equipment, the best logistics and the best leadership. Then an element of innovation might be welcome. But, as we argued in our earlier piece, some of our personnel and units might be world class. Overall, however, our armed forces are seriously deficient in all manner of things – not least, it would seem, in their tactics.

That, in the face of a ruthless enemy on its own ground, seems to be a recipe for failure. Thus, once again we find ourselves warning that of the need to break out of the mould. Instead of complacently applauding ourselves for having the "best armed forces in the world", we do need a little bit a realism. In short, we need to be worrying that, in the next few, crucial months of the Afghan campaign, we could very well have an unacceptable number of dead armed forces.