Thursday 10 December 2009

I think we said that

Referring to the daily stream of truck convoys that bring supplies into the landlocked nation, Hilary Clinton said to the Senate Armed Services Committee:

"You know, when we are so dependent upon long supply lines - as we are in Afghanistan, where everything has to be imported -- it's much more difficult than it was in Iraq, where we had Kuwait as a staging ground.

You offload a ship in Karachi. And by the time whatever it is - you know, muffins for our soldiers' breakfast or anti-IED equipment - gets to where we're headed, it goes through a lot of hands. And one of the major sources of funding for the Taliban is the protection money. That has nothing to do with President Karzai."

Yup! That's precisely what we said on 3 September and then again on 13 September of this year , on the blog and in the Booker column.

Note: "And one of the major sources of funding for the Taliban is the protection money." More troops, more supplies, more trucks, more protection money. For the Taliban, the war is self-funding – the donors being the taxpayers of the coalition nations – the US and UK in particular.

As we pointed out – it is all done under a doctrine of "plausible deniability". We do not pay the Taliban – oh no! But we build their payments into the contractors' fees, which they then pass on, to ensure safe passage.

And we think we can win this "war", the way we are fighting it? With due respect to the current CGS, he is whistling in the wind.


Tuesday 8 December 2009

Failure in Iraq

In another valuable contribution to the remarkably sparse debate on the British occupation of Iraq, MP and former Grenadier Guard Adam Holloway has published a short paper headed, "The Failure of British Political and Military Leadership in Iraq."

Holloway takes the view that the Labour Government has suborned the Armed Forces from the very top to half the way down, creating a system that often enforces what is politically convenient, not what is militarily right. This systemic failure, he argues, began with the invasion of Iraq and continues to this day. This failure, he tells us, continues to prevent us from learning from our mistakes, and is condemning us to repeat them, as we are doing in Afghanistan.

In his pamphlet, we are taken through the early political stages which led to the invasion of Iraq, against the background that, from the moment British Forces crossed into Iraq, a process of back-pedalling had begun. They were put under increasing pressure to get out, by a political leader who had committed his country to war based on his political ambitions, not the considered military advice of his generals.

We are given a useful reminder that, in the run-up to the war, the original plan had been for Britain to invade through Turkey. It was not until 24 December 2002 that the planning was switched. This, undoubtedly, affected the degree of preparedness.

Holloway then explores the vagueness of the strategic objectives for the war and the confusion between the overt objective of neutralising a perceived threat of WMD and the Bush's real objective of regime change. Caught up in fabricating reasons to invade and occupy Iraq, our leaders never stopped to set a clear and achievable goal for Britain's involvement.

The confusion and dishonesty amongst our political leaders created the central problem for our military. Post-invasion, the goals started with grand ambitions of "rebuilding a nation" and bringing peace and democracy, and deteriorated to "holding the line" so there could be "an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem". When even that could not be achieved, our political and military leaders decided to withdraw the troops and let the Americans fill the gap, while claiming credit for this "success".

The trouble was, adds Holloway, our leaders at the top of the MoD, the Chiefs of Staff and senior civil servants became caught up in the opaque, politicised confusion. This had a knock-on effect on the ground, where officers had a very poor understanding of the political and social dynamics of Basra. Even as late as 2008 the British HQ in Iraq was still only able to define the focus as "the consent of the population".

Then, in perhaps the strongest part of his paper, Holloway describes a "failure of moral courage", invoking Field Marshall Alanbrooke, Churchill's senior general. He had said of the Prime Minister: "the first time I tell him that I agree with him when I don't will be the time to get rid of me, for then I can be no more use to him". The contrast with those inside the MoD building today is damning and pervades even operational theatres.

In the middle of the fiercest battles in Iraq, our soldiers stood their ground and fought bravely but many of those at the top of the MoD failed to provide the Government with hard facts and choices and confront them with the strategic implications of under-resourcing the Army. Our soldiers were expected to give their lives if necessary, but those at the very top shrank from committing "career suicide" by standing up to politicians and telling them the uncomfortable truth.

Nowhere was this military spinning more apparent than in the way the campaign was directed. "The Chiefs of Staff realised that, for political reasons, the Government was never going to commit the resources needed to deal with the Shiite militias. Thus the Chiefs reasoned that if they couldn't fight and beat an insurgency, they had to redefine the problem. The politically driven Shiite insurgency was simply redefined as mass criminality and therefore a problem for the local police, not soldiers. Military spokesmen were keen to explain that Basra was similar to "Palermo, not Beirut".

Whilst this may have been temporarily convenient for the political-military leadership, the long-term consequence was that no coherent campaign was ever developed for Basra until 2008 and the political causes and objectives of the insurgency were never addressed. As an officer from the Basra Consulate put it in 2006 "what's the point in providing intelligence on the insurgency when the Government won’t accept that there is an insurgency".

There was also an aspect of pride. British officers had talked at such length about their expertise in counterinsurgency, after decades of experience in Northern Ireland and Malaya, that they could not be seen to have got it wrong.

The combination of self-delusion, hubris and ignorance was behind the disastrous decisions that were taken in Basra. Military commanders could not take a long-term view as they only spent six months in the job and no significant intelligence database was built. The result was that key knowledge was lost in the biannual handover and short-termism took over, a mentality that drove the most disastrous decision of the Iraq conflict – abandoning al-Amarah.

Over the period of Britain's involvement in Iraq, the graph - as it were - moved steadily downwards. But every six months there was a little spike of hope upwards. This reflected the departures of senior officers out of Basra at the end of their six month tours, as it had been left on a high note - as they presented the place in better condition at the end of their tour than at the beginning.

Short-termism coloured most decisions, The decisions to hand over provinces in Iraq were progressively driven by commanders who were being judged not by how well the job was done, but by how quickly. Corners were cut in other areas too. The decision was taken not to embed British military advisors into the Iraqi Army despite a clear history of this being advisable.

Thus does Holloway ask why those at the top did not stand up for what they knew was right? His answer is that, in the "super-politicised" environment that the MOD had become, a "good news only" culture began to emerge within the military – the culture of politically aware military advice. Pliant and conformist civil servants in uniform were systematically promoted at the expense of capable independent-minded officers. No one would get promoted for saying things are going badly. As a result, few were prepared to tell the Emperor that he was naked.

When some were extended in post, they were not being rewarded for military success, but for toeing the line and keeping mouths shut. As one senior and very well informed person put it: "when the most senior in the military stand up and says this is what happened, which of us can say otherwise?"

Matching military advice to the prevailing political wind is one thing, though, but when the heads of the Armed Forces start actively parroting political propaganda and burying inconvenient truths on behalf of the Government, a serious line has been crossed, says Holloway.

What remains troubling though is that commanders and political leaders seem determined not to learn from their mistakes. Commanders seem threatened by the idea of admitting failure and learning from mistakes. Thus, no one from the UK armed forces had ever thought to contact the retired Afghan Communist General who had managed to hold Helmand province for a full year after the Soviets left and who had been the great expert on running tribal militias to provide local security across the area.

When a serving TA officer published an extremely well researched and persuasive paper in The British Army Review (the Army's professional journal) called "A Comprehensive Failure: British Civil-Military Strategy in Helmand Province", which was damning of official attempts to spin failures into PR successes, the Assistant Chief of the General Staff intervened.

He issued written instructions effectively removing full editorial control of the journal from its editor and stipulated that political clearance must be sought before the publication of any such articles in the future, due to the embarrassment caused to politicians.

What is more worrying was his further direction that in the run-up to the Iraq Inquiry there must be no publication of "lessons-learned" from Iraq by serving officers, including those who were actually there. In effect, British officers are no longer free to propose critical and reflective ideas - fresh-thinking that is essential for success, if those proposals might embarrass the Labour Government.

This ghastly culture continues, concludes Holloway, endangering our national security. By continuing to bury the truth, we greatly reduce or even kill the chances of hard fought-for success.

Our troops need to be adequately funded and equipped. We must look again at how we structure our national defence. But most importantly, we need to relearn the lessons of Churchill and Alanbrooke. We need a culture that encourages a system with integrity, independence and a robust relationship with whichever Minister happens to be in the MoD this season - and the rather more able ones next.


Sunday 6 December 2009

Corrupt, untrained, underpaid, illiterate

The Sunday Times laments the poor state of the Afghan security forces, with a long piece headed: "Corrupt, untrained, underpaid, illiterate: the forces waiting to take over." This is by no means the first article to draw attention to the parlous state of the forces, on which the Coalition exit plan entirely depends.

In fact – as you might expect – the problem is very far from new. In 1900, Afghan ruler Abdur Rahman was recalling the state of the army he had inherited from his predecessor, noting that it was "defective in certain respects" ...
... one of them being that the soldiers did not get their pay regularly, and had certain privileges granted them of extorting money from the subjects without any punishment being inflicted on them for so doing. The officers were lazy, steeped in indulgence and vices of all kinds, gambling, opium-smoking, Indian hemp-smoking, and other bad habits which cannot be mentioned ...
The army was in such a condition, he ventured, that it could not stand against the English army half so well as any ordinary chief.

By1900 – ten years after he had assumed the Crown - Rahman claimed (with the benefit of a considerable English subsidy) that his army was "properly organised upon the modern European military method". His soldiers were paid regularly. Every cavalry regiment and artillery battalion was complete with its sappers and miners for trench work, engineers, bands, tents, medical corps, etc.

At that stage, Rahman wrote that he was making every effort to provide himself with 1,000,000 million fighting men, armed with the most modern weapons and war material. He died a year later, his dream unfulfilled. In 1919, when his successor launched the third Anglo-Afghan war, he was only able to muster 50,000 troops.

Confronting them was Lt-Gen George Molesworth, who gave the following evaluation of the Afghan army:
Afghan regular units ... were ill-trained, ill-paid, and probably under strength. The cavalry was little better than indifferent infantry mounted on equally indifferent ponies. Rifles varied between modern German, Turkish and British types, to obsolete Martinis and Snyders. Few infantry units had bayonets.

Artillery was pony-drawn, or pack, and included modern 10cm Krupp howitzers, 75mm Krupp mountain guns and ancient 7 pounder weapons. There were a few, very old, four-barrel Gardiner machine guns. Ammunition was in short supply and distribution must have been very difficult. For the artillery much black powder was used, both as a propellant and bursting charge for shells. The Kabul arsenal workshops were elementary and mainly staffed by Sikh artificers with much ingenuity but little real skill. There was no organised transport and arrangements for supply were rudimentary.
Such is how it has always been. Most serious fighting by the Afghans has always involved large numbers of tribesmen, organised and led by their chiefs – either acting alone or in support of the Afghan army. Not ever in modern times has the state been able to field a credible force.

Patrick Cockburn, commenting in The Independent on Sunday on the late Obama plan, notes that he envisages training 100,000 new Afghan soldiers and 100,000 new policemen over the next three years.

But, asks Cockburn, where are these recruits to come from? Given the high desertion rate, the combat strength of the Afghan army is reportedly only 46,000 troops in a country that is larger than France.

Furthermore, he warns, these troops, and particularly the officer corps, are already disproportionately Tajik, the ethnic group to which a quarter of Afghans belong. The US can only increase the military strength of the Afghan state swiftly by skewing it towards the Tajiks, who were always the core of opposition to the Taliban. This will increase sectarian hatreds.

And this is what is supremely worrying about the current coalition military strategy. Its leaders, Brown and Obama included, have convinced themselves that they are going to be able progressively to hand over responsibility to the Afghan security forces as soon as 18 months. They will then take the load and maintain peace and security.

But, as The Sunday Times article points out, of the police alone – citing a police commander, talking about his recruits: "They start from such a low level. I need five years ... With all the attention of the international community, maybe three years minimum." At that is given that the system is being organised properly, which it is not.

The plan is moonshine. Coalition leaders are locked into a fantasy of their own making, relying on the creation of mythical armies with false capabilities, dreams that will never be realised. Even in decades and with more money than the US could afford, there is not going to be an effective Afghan security force in five or even ten years time.

One can live with a degree of optimism and hope, but the current plans really are based on fantasy. Nothing good can come of them.


Thursday 3 December 2009

Drop the dead donkey

Taliban fighters are using donkeys as deadly four-legged bombs to attack British troops in Afghanistan, reports The Daily Telegraph.

The paper adds that "the incident has alarmed military chiefs concerned that the Taliban are now using desperate methods to attack occupying forces." I sincerely hope that this is ill-informed rhetoric on the part of the paper. The use of a "donkey bomb" was reported by The Times in April this year, so it hardly suggests that the Taliban is now - or at all – using "desperate methods".

In fact, "animal-borne" IEDs are not new. One was recorded in Columbia in September 2003, used with devastating effect. In 2006, the Palestinians were reported to be experimenting with explosives-rigged stuffed animals.

In Iraq, animal carcasses were not infrequently used to hide IEDs and in August 2005 were reported to be rigging live dogs with explosives. But even that was not new. In the Second World War, the Germans experimented with dogs carrying radio-signal initiated bombs to destroy Allied tanks.

Nor is the use of live creatures confined to "terrorists". In one of the more bizarre scenarios dreamt up by American scientists during World War II, hundreds of tiny bats, each wearing a small napalm bomb strapped to its chest, were to descend on Japanese cities before exploding and spreading uncontrollable fires.

The experiments came to an abrupt end in 1944 when, during one test, the direction of the wind changed, blowing the bats back into the US Army's headquarters, which caught fire. In another incident, some bats hid under the car of a high-ranking US officer causing it to explode.

That their use was considered by US forces in 1944 could hardly have been a sign of desperation, and neither can the use of donkeys by antagonists in Afghanistan be thus considered. It merely reflects the inventiveness and flexibility of guerrilla forces when up against a better-equipped enemy, in a country where heavily-laden donkeys are more common than cars.

The worrying thing is that we see a narrative being created here. The local introduction of an old tactic – not met by ae particular batch of troops – is reported as "new" and then interpreted as a "sign of desperation". By such means to we (possibly the Army, and certainly the media) fool ourselves into thinking that we are achieving something more than is actually the case.


The "nomad" war

In an attempt to unravel the mind-numbing complexity of the Afghan conflict, at the heart of the "war" is actually a relatively simple – although completely misunderstood – tribal issue, compounded by the tensions between modernity and conservatism.

Simplifying this to the extent that it becomes understandable is perhaps to run the risk of over-simplification and thus distortion, but one has to start somewhere. And that "somewhere" is the historic dispute between the Pashtun Durrani and Ghilzai groups of tribes. Simply to position this as a tribal dispute, however, neither explains it nor does it justice.

The essence of the two tribal groups is that the former are the "settled" tribes – the cultivators, the shopkeepers, the educated middle-class and the administrators. The Ghilzai, on the other hand, are the nomads. Obviously itinerant by nature, they are the roving herdsmen, but also – historically - the raiders, plunderers and the brigands. They owe no loyalty but to themselves, have no code but their own and recognise no government.

Nevertheless, despite their fearsome reputations, the nomadic tribes have traditionally been very much part of the Afghan societal structure and have in the past contributed massively to the economy, rearing the famed fat-tailed (karakul) sheep from which the Astrakhan fur is obtained, on which the wealth of the nation has been built.

What is more, until relatively recently – decades rather than centuries – the two groups of settled and nomadic tribes have co-existed in a curious symbiotic relationship. This has – between the periodic bouts of violence – ensured a relatively peaceful co-operation between the tribes, to their mutual profit.

At this stage, in order to describe the relationship – from the stance of a first-hand observer – one must introduce a complication, one of a series of overlays which are needed to explain the current situation.

The complication is simply that the "settled" and "nomadic" division is not specific to and confined to the Pashtun tribes, but can and does also apply to ethnic groups. Thus, one can see settled Tajik tribes, in their mountainous northern Afghan homelands, inter-relating with ethnically distinct Pashtun nomads who visit their territories.

The relationship was described to me by an academic and researcher who had spent a prolonged period with one of the northern tribes, observing their way of life in the early 1960s. He wrote thus:

The permanent residents of the area were light skinned Farsi speaking Tajiks, followers of the Shia version of Islam. Cheek by jowl with them throughout the summer months lived the more sallow skinned Sunni, Pashtu speaking, nomads. Their main summer encampment, complete with the camels that made their lifestyle possible, lay less than half a mile from the permanent village of Kaujan.

A symbiotic relationship between these peoples had proved productive for generations. The Tajiks and the nomads each gained specific benefits from the cooperation implicit in the situation. The nomads annually brought with them news of the world beyond the valley as well as a variety of trade goods, including precious tools. These were exchanged for wool from the Tajik sheep, for grain grown on the Tajik’s precarious fields and for the surplus livestock that the Tajiks could never hope to feed through the long, bitter and isolated winter months.

The proximity of the two summer settlements was part of a complex illusion for the action in summer was taking place elsewhere. Both communities, in reality, relied on distant but verdant high altitude summer pastures. These appeared and grew daily only as the winter snow slowly melted. As the months progressed and the snow receded the livestock would gradually be pastured at higher and higher altitudes.

This traditional economic pattern depended upon each community establishing, for its shepherds, high altitude summer outposts. It was here that the main summer action took place. Keeping the flocks regularly on the move to avoid over-grazing was no easy task and the elusive snow leopard was a constant threat.

Grazing on the high pastures the sheep of the nomads would gradually accumulate enough fat in their adaptive tails to see them through the dry winter conditions on the plains. As the first autumn snows returned their summer outposts would be dismantled and the flocks would descend. The Pashtun would pack up their tents, gather their children, load their camels and resume their nomadic way of life before the first snows could block the passes. Winding their way slowly down the valley towards the desert margins was their way of escaping the intense cold and the deep winter snows.
In the more remote regions, some of these relationships have survived, but in others they are under threat, if not broken down completely, the effects of which are to an extent fuelling one element of the so-called insurgency.

Here, the fracture lines are not difficult to detect. Firstly, with the Soviet invasion in 1979, the trade in Astrakhan fur collapsed, dropping to about 200,000 skins a year from a pre-invasion figure of three million a year – most of which were exported. At an average cost of US$20 per pelt, the trade had brought in over US$60 million annually.

Although the trade has staged a partial recovery, with 536,000 skins exported in 2005, a 42 percent increase on the previous year, current data indicates karakul exports reached only US$10 million in 2007 and then dropped to $8 million in 2008, with a further 20 percent fall in 2009. Furthermore, through changing consumer tastes and lack of investment to modernise production and marketing, pelt prices have declined sharply, from a high of $100 to between $10-20.

As a result of this, nomad communities have been deprived of their economic mainstays, forcing them into lower value husbandry, such as goats and less valuable meat breeds of sheep. This in turn has made alternative occupations, such as opium and hashish trading more attractive, breaking up traditional migration patterns and disrupting their relationships with settled communities.

On the other hand, the conditions of the settled tribes have also changed. With modern technology, even the remotest of communities have some contact with the outside world, through mobile 'phones, radios and increasingly television. Physical trade is a lot easier and the communities have relatively good access to a wider range of consumer goods. And they have better access to markets and are less reliant on the nomads purchasing their agricultural surpluses.

As land utilisation has increased, and agriculture – albeit slowly – has become more intensive, much of the traditional grazing area is no longer accessible to nomads, further breaking established ties. But there was another more sinister reason for reduced accessibility. The indiscriminate use by the Soviets of land mines made many of the grazing areas perilous to use, and was perhaps a major factor in limiting the freedom of movement of the nomads.

Of what was left and is safe to use, the shortage creates a source of friction between the communities as nomads seek to exercise what they regard as established rights. They are often resisted by settled communities and pitched battles have been reported.

There is now added another complication. While the traditional nomads varied greatly in their fortunes, the status was by no means associated with poverty. Some tribes accumulated considerable wealth. However, with the loss of their karakul trade, many communities are struggling. Further, through the disruption of war, a substantial number of settled communities have been dispossessed and have taken up the nomad life.

To a considerable extent, therefore, the purity of the nomad tribes has been diluted and there is now a mixture of ethnic and tribal groups who can be regarded as nomads, the whole acquiring the generic title of "kuchi". Although this stems from an Afghan Persian word meaning "those who go on migrations", it has become a derogatory term which carries a significant social stigma – not dissimilar to the word "gypsy" in Western societies. It is often associated with poverty and deprivation - and lawlessness.

While the ranks of the "kuchi" have thus been swelled by refugees and the dispossessed, other nomads have been forced to abandon their way of life and have been forced either into agricultural or manual labour – tasks traditionally regarded as servile and demeaning – or into urban squats where they survive as street vendors, beggars and casual labourers, on the fringes of existence.

Collectively, this makes for no small problem as there are variously estimated to be between 2.5 and four million kuchi in Afghanistan. Their low status, increasing poverty, their sense of exclusion and the tensions with the settled communities, plus the lack of any effective political voice (although they have reserved ten seats in the parliament), make them ideal recruits for the Taleban and, for that matter, warlords and criminal gangs seeking manpower.

In many ways, the kuchi make perfect "terrorists". Ever-present, they are so much part of the background in rural Afghanistan that they are effectively "invisible". Their way of life legitimises their presence in areas which would otherwise invite suspicion, and they can thus move unchallenged in military-occupied areas.

Where insecurity is rife, the kuchi themselves are more likely to turn to the Taliban for support, not least because they are often harassed and mistreated by the local Afghan police. And with the kuchi thus being associated with the Taliban, they are often treated with suspicion by settled communities and security forces, thus exacerbating already strained relations.

Unwittingly, the coalition may make these problems even worse. Committed to delivering development projects, its representatives are more likely to speak to the representatives of settled tribes, who often have some form of hierarchical governance, and it is to those communities that the bulk of aid and support is directed – which is often of little or no value to the kuchi.

Thus, well-intended aid can have the effect of increasing societal divisions, alienating a group which is most likely to be involved in anti-government activity.

Even when coalition representatives wish to deal with the kuchi, however, they do not find it easy. A feature of nomadic tribes is a truly egalitarian structure, where decisions are made through the medium of shuras (tribal gatherings) but which have no executive authority or chiefs (maliks) to whom authority can be delegated. Deals cannot be made with such groups, and there is no contact point, upon which relationships can be developed.

In this context, even if the Taliban were taken out of the mix, there would still be low-grade and continued violence between the communities, as indeed there already is, which might take on more organised warlike activity of the type associated with the Taliban - of which they have been accused. On the other hand, take the kuchi out of the mix and the Taliban would most probably be deprived of a very substantial pool of recruits.

The "war of the nomads" therefore, is an important, if poorly recognised part of the conflict in Afghanistan. It requires a degree of focus from both the Afghan government and the coalition, and the resolution of the problem will be entirely unaffected by president Obama's surge.


Wednesday 2 December 2009

An absolute disaster

The time zone difference between the United States and the UK meant that the Obama speech yesterday was broadcast here in the wee small hours, allowing only the briefest of analysis (and a trans-Atlantic conference call) before Morpheus cast his spell.

With the benefit of some hours of reflection, however, the "strategic review" announced by Obama looks no better than it did when he delivered it. The deployment of an extra 30,000 troops for a short period – with withdrawals planned in 18 months – appears to be exactly what it is: an Afghan "surge" on the Iraqi model. It is an attempt, as we observed at the time, to impose a military solution on a strategic problem, which has no military solution.

The newspapers today were nevertheless full of the news of additional troops, with The Daily Telegraph, amongst others, hailing a planned "new onslaught" against the Taliban. Even now, though, there are reservations about the target date of July 2011 to begin a reduction of US forces and the transfer of security to Afghan security forces. This, it is felt, would enable the "enemy" to lie low and wait for the departure of US and Nato forces.

Nevertheless, graphic accounts of the derring-do of British and American troops will fill the pages of newspapers to come, and various commentators will be claiming progress has been made. But that will be an illusion.

Attempts to suppress violent dissidence have marked the entire history of Afghanistan. Most often, they have been conducted with greater troop numbers and a degree of brutality which modern nations could not even begin to consider, and they have largely been marked with transitory successes.

Military expeditions, by sheer weight of numbers, have been able to suppress unruly tribes, and bring peace of a sort – sometimes for decades. What no one has been able to do, however, is break the cycle – sooner or later, the violence has always returned. Obama, therefore, is treading in the footsteps of previous rulers and conquerors. His army will prevail, for a time, and then the deadly cycle will re-assert itself, We will be back where we started.

One imagines, therefore, that this is part of a deadly game of make-believe. That Obama is striving for the semblance of victory, a period of sufficient calm that will enable him to declare a "job well done" and retire with honour, distancing himself from the inevitable consequences.

Perhaps though, this is unduly cynical, as the "strategic review" is more likely driven in equal parts by ignorance and wishful thinking – mostly by an over-simplistic idea of the nature of the conflict and its drivers, and an exaggerated belief in the capabilities of the coalition to effect change.

Obama's problem, shared by the rest of the coalition members, is that he is not fighting one war – whether it is called an insurgency or not. Rather, the coalition is standing in between a myriad of local, tribal and ethnic squabbles, overlaid by regional disputes, complicated by a further overlay of global jihad, the whole reinforced by criminal activities which feed off instability and lawlessness, on top of which there are extreme social tensions which manifest themselves in violent conflict.

In short, this is not one war but many, some separate, some inter-related, some different but sharing causality, some arising as a consequence of more general disputes. And in this mix, the ignorant interfere at their peril. Well-intentioned attempts to resolve issues are as likely as not to make things worse as they are to improve them.

And it is this ignorance which seems to be at the heart of the Obama strategy, one that is, unwittingly, set to do more harm than good. To explore its weaknesses, however, it going to take more than a few separate posts, which will follow this in a planned sequence, from which we hope to offer some means of resolution and hope for the future.

As it stands though, one can only observe that the Obama strategy is an absolute disaster, one doomed to failure. If it is allowed to develop, without considerable alteration, untold misery will result.


Obama speaks

Yesterday (local time) president Obama spoke to cadets at West Point – and through them the nation and the world – to announce his "strategic review" which, his administration would "pursue to bring this war to a successful conclusion."

Revisiting the history of the 9/11 attacks, the president then described al-Qaida as "a group of extremists who have distorted and defiled Islam, one of the world’s great religions, to justify the slaughter of innocents."

Al-Qaida's base of operations, he said, was in Afghanistan, where they were harboured by the Taliban – "a ruthless, repressive and radical movement that seized control of that country after it was ravaged by years of Soviet occupation and civil war, and after the attention of America and our friends had turned elsewhere."

The wrenching debate over the Iraq War, he continued, is well-known and need not be repeated here. It is enough to say that for the next six years, the Iraq War drew the dominant share of our troops, our resources, our diplomacy, and our national attention – and that the decision to go into Iraq caused substantial rifts between America and much of the world.

The fact the war in Iraq is winding down is "a testament to the character of our men and women in uniform," he then said.

Turning to the decision he made earlier this year to increase the troop numbers in Afghanistan, he told his audience that, since then, we have made progress on some important objectives. High-ranking al-Qaida and Taliban leaders had been killed, and we had stepped up the pressure on al-Qaida world-wide.

In Pakistan, that nation's Army had gone on its largest offensive in years. In Afghanistan, we and our allies prevented the Taliban from stopping a presidential election, and – although it was marred by fraud – that election produced a government that is consistent with Afghanistan's laws and Constitution.

"The status quo is not sustainable," Obama added. But, he said, "Let me be clear: there has never been an option before me that called for troop deployments before 2010, so there has been no delay or denial of resources necessary for the conduct of the war."

This review is now complete, he said. And as commander-in-chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. I know that this decision asks even more of you, he said, addressing the military – a military that, along with your families, has already borne the heaviest of all burdens.

And that was the core ... a military solution to a strategic problem, to which there is no military solution.


Monday 30 November 2009

The shadow of history

While the world awaits with bated breath the announcement tomorrow from president Obama on his intentions for Afghanistan, coverage of the campaign has been relatively muted – although the traditional scaling down of campaigning as winter approaches doubtless has had some influence on the flow of news.

For my part, some little time ago I decided to step back from the day-to-day reporting and look at the history of the benighted land that is Afghanistan, filling in some woeful gaps in my knowledge. In some respects, I wish I had not started, as the broader appreciation not only underlines my own state of ignorance but also brings home the complexities of the strategic picture.

From the latest piece, however, is the very clear reminder that, ever since the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Afghanistan and Pakistan have been enemies, with the tribal areas and the Northwest frontier territories being at the centre of the dispute.

The crucial issue is the unrecognised border set in 1893 as the Durand line, which is as fresh an issue now as it was then. Even more recently, Karzai has made recovery of these lands an important part of his overall political platform.

This historical perspective puts a completely different light on some the current initiatives, not least the development of the supposed AF/PAK policy, which assumes that Afghanistan and Pakistan can and will work as allies in pursuit of a Western-inspired "war on terror", against the common enemies, currently designated as the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

In fact, as the recent Pakistani adventure in South Waziristan has highlighted, there is no single "Taliban". More to the point, there are different tribal factions which are fighting out a proxy war between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the whole overlaid by a global jihad which positions the Pakistani and Afghani governments as puppets of the "great Satan", the United States of America.

It is in that context that we must look at reports of the recent meeting between UK premier Gordon Brown and president Zardari of Pakistan, where the British prime minister is said to have voiced his frustration over Pakistan's apparent lack of commitment to the fight.

Much of this frustration is focused on the failure to capture Osama bin Laden, with Brown, in common with Hillary Clinton, wanting to see proof that not just the Pakistani Army but the entire government machine was committed to his capture. Brown is said to have told Zardari that much greater effort is required in Islamabad, reminding him of where Britain's interests lie, with three quarters of all plots against Britain masterminded in Pakistan.

But, if Mr Brown is frustrated, he should perhaps have regard to the Zardari's own problems, not least of which is that, the more he is seen to be supporting the Western agenda, the more resistance he is likely to meet from his own people.

The Pakistan government is having to steer a precarious course between pandering to its Western paymasters and dealing with the internal stresses which threaten to tear the country apart. A more aggressive focus on the tribal areas could bring the government down, or precipitate a military coup.

Underlying Brown's demands, therefore, is a fundamental ignorance of the fragility of the situation in Pakistan but, even more so, there is a colossal hypocrisy.

The British government is seeking from Pakistan a resolution of a problem which it, itself failed to solve – the taming of the frontier regions. Moreover, this is a problem which the British made inestimably worse, with the creation of the Durand line, its failure then to regularise the position in 1947 and its continued failure, alongside the US, to mediate in the ongoing dispute.

And therein really does lie the issue. Until the border issue is resolved, nothing fundamentally is going to change in a region which, traditionally, the Afghans themselves called Yaghistan (the land of the unruly).

Thus did Abdur Rahman, ruler of Afghanistan when the Durand mission did its work, write to the Viceroy of India, warning him of the dangers of splitting the peoples of the tribal areas. "If you should cut them out of my dominions," he said, "they will neither be of any use to you nor to me: you will always be engaged in fighting and troubles with them, and they will always go on plundering."

Within seven years, Rahman was to be proved right, with the British having to put down major uprisings, dealing with the Chitral (pictured), Bajaur, Malakand, Waziri and Afridi wars. And, having dumped the problem on the Pakistani government, history is repeating itself.

The irony is that, with the current coalition policy of expanding the Afghan Army, Rahman was arguing back in 1893 that the "brave warriors" of the tribal regions would "make a very strong force" and that only a ruler of Afghanistan could "make them peaceful subjects". Divorced from Afghanistan, they are the problem – within Afghanistan, they could be part of the solution.

Yet, while Mr Brown is laying down the law to president Zardari, this issue is not even on the table. To his cost, the British prime minister will find that, in this region, you cannot ignore the shadow of history.


Friday 27 November 2009

The forgotten country

Having briefly returned to the Iraqi war, we come back to our review of Afghan history. Before our diversion, we were exploring the US incursion into Helmand Province but, before that, we had left the general history in September 1953 when Lt-Gen Mohammad Daud Khan had just taken over the post of prime minister.

In many ways, Daud's take-over was a classic part of the Afghan cycle which characterises the history of this nation. Not only do we see the interplay of tribal politics (if that is what it can be called), we see also the long-standing tension between the push for modernity and the forces of conservatism.

Daud's predecessor, Shah Mahmood, had been from the "liberal" wing. He had introduced a number of reforms, which had included free parliamentary elections and the introduction of a free press. His period of rule had also seen the emergence of a number of political parties, developing in the Western mould as a free opposition.

Daud, therefore, represented the forces of reaction, where many of the freedoms introduced were withdrawn and many of the activists in the emergent political groups were forced to flee abroad. But his innate conservatism was perhaps reinforced by the fact that he was a strident Pashtun nationalist, dedicated to the reunification of the tribes across the Durand line, making Pakistan his natural enemy.

In waiting, he had formed his own ultra-nationalist party called the Union for the Freedom of Pushtunistan which then became the National Club, which formed his political base on assumption of power.

With tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan still high when he took office, Daud was not the man to calm things down. Moreover, his antagonism towards that neighbour could hardly have been calculated to win him support from the United States, which had emerged the dominant regional power, replacing the vacuum left by the departure of the British.

At the time, the US focus was very much on the Cold War, the priority being to create a band of sympathetic states surrounding the USSR to contain its expansionist tendencies. From Turkey on the fringe of Nato, the US had recruited Iraq, Iran and, on the south Asian flank, Pakistan, which provided both a bastion and a listening post into India, which was falling into the Soviet sphere of interest.

Pakistan was linked to the US by the Mutual Defence Treaty of 1954 as well as by membership in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954. Further bonds were forged by the Baghdad Pact, in 1955 first known as the Middle East Treaty Organization (METO) and, after the withdrawal of Iraq, as the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO).

In 1959 Pakistan and the United States signed the Bilateral Agreement of Cooperation which provided for assistance to Pakistan in the case of aggression and, by the late 1950s Pakistan allowed the construction of a then secret air base in Peshawar, from which U-2 intelligence aircraft made reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union.

Daud could hardly have been unaware of the close if somewhat troubled relationship between the US and Pakistan and one therefore wonders what was in his mind when, in pursuit of is his own preoccupation – the modernisation of the Army – he approached the US for assistance.

Having made his hostility towards Pakistan so clear, he surely cannot have been surprised when it was denied – although some contemporary documentation suggests that his expectations of support were slight. It is said that it was always his aim to draw closer to the Soviet Union. In so doing, he was seeking to play a dangerous game, exploiting the tensions of the Cold War by playing off one superpower against the other.

This was a game the USSR was prepared to play. In 1954 it provided $3.5 million in economic aid to build grain silos and a modern bakery in Kabul – with one bakery elsewhere. These were high visibility projects, completed quickly – unlike the longer-term US project in Helmand – and did much to raise the profile of the Soviets as benefactors.

Alongside that, funds were provided for modernising the Army, together with offers Рwhich were quickly accepted Рto send officers to Soviet military academies for training. Grants were also provided for students and government officials to study in Soviet institutions, the aim being to build a sympathetic clientele amongst the ruling élites.

Even then, Daud kept his options open. By March 1955, relations with Pakistan had deteriorated to such an extent that the border was closed and it was to remain so for five months. But it was to the US and its client Iran that Daud turned for help, requesting the US to facilitate access to the Iranian port of Chabahar close to the border with Pakistani Balochistan.

Given the role of Pakistan in the US strategic plan, again it seems entirely unrealistic of Daud to have expected US intervention, and it was not forthcoming. But, whether expected or not, the Afghan government had no choice but to request a renewal of their 1950 transit agreement with the Soviet Union, allowing goods to be shipped through Soviet territory.

Ratified in June 1955, it was followed by a new bilateral barter agreement. After the Soviet leaders Nikolay Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev visited Kabul in 1955, they announced a US$100 million development loan for projects to be mutually agreed upon. Some $25 million was also provided for military aid and the Soviets agreed to build military airfields at Bagram, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Shindand.

Internal politics in Pakistan at the time were hardly settled and 1958 brought a military coup to that country, with power assumed by General Mohammad Ayub Khan. Arguably, this might have afforded Daud an opportunity to repair relations with his neighbour, but they did not improve. In early 1959, the Afghan foreign minister went to Pakistan for talks, but the mission had not been success and differences between the two countries became more noticeable.

The immediate result was that Afghan propaganda in Pakistan territory intensified and, after some delay it was countered with Pakistani propaganda beamed at Afghani listeners. As relations worsened, the Afghans took to official harassment, refusing to grant – for instance – residence permits to Pakistani nationals.

Finally, in September 1960, there were armed incursions in Pakistan by Afghan irregulars disguised as tribesmen. In May 1961, a similar force launched an abortive raid in support of the Nawab of Dir, on the Pakistani side of the Durand line.

In August 1961, Pakistan, citing harassment of its consulates in Jalalabad and Kandahar, shut down those missions. At the same time it demanded that Afghanistan should close its missions in Parichinar, Peshawar and Quetta, on the grounds that these were fomenting sedition in Peshawar. The Afghans, on 6 September 1961, broke off diplomatic relations and the border was closed.

Propaganda then gave way to actual fighting. The Afghan government offered bounties to Pakistani Pashtuns for each empty shell case and grenade pin claimed to have been used in battle against regular Pakistani forces, and also provided replacement munitions. These were believed to have been financed by the USSR.

The border closure for Afghanistan was potentially disastrous as two of Afghanistan's major export crops, grapes and pomegranates, were ready to be shipped to India. Seizing the opportunity to extend its influence, the Soviet Union stepped in and undertook to buy the crops and airlift them to hteir destinations. What the Soviets did not move, Ariana Afghan Airlines flew to India in 1961 and 1962.

At the same time, the United States attempted to mediate the dispute, although its ties with Pakistan were a stumbling block.

In addition, much of the equipment and material provided by foreign aid programs and needed for development projects – particularly in the Helmand Valley Project - was held up in Pakistan. Another outgrowth of the dispute was Pakistan's decision to close the border to nomads (members of the Ghilzai, variously known as Powindahs or Suleiman Khel), who had long been spending winters in Pakistan and India and summers in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani government statement denying the decision was related to the impasse with Afghanistan appeared disingenuous, and the issue added to the brewing conflict between the two countries. Afghanistan's economic situation continued to deteriorate. The government was heavily dependent upon customs revenues, which fell dramatically; trade suffered; and foreign exchange reserves were seriously depleted.

This was a situation which could not continue and, as the dispute dragged on in 1963 it became clear that neither Daud nor Ayub Khan of Pakistan would yield; to settle the issue one of them would have to be removed from power. Despite growing criticism of Ayub among some of his countrymen, his position was generally strong, whereas Afghanistan's economy was suffering.

In March 1963, with the backing of the royal family, King Zahir Shah sought Daud's resignation. Because he controlled the armed forces, Daud could have resisted the king's request, yet he went quietly. Muhammad Yousuf, a non-Pashtun, German-educated technocrat who had been minister of mines and industries became prime minister.

For a brief period then, Zahir Shah took direct rule, in what was known as the "constitutional period", when once again the country entered on another cycle of liberal reform. However, Daud had already done a great deal of damage. In opening up the country to Soviet influence, he had paved the way for the Communist revolution which was to tear the country apart in 1978.

As significantly, through his antagonism with Pakistan, he had distanced his country from the United States, the only country which could perhaps have countered the Soviets.

Furthermore, the US was not prepared to take over the colonial role from the UK and would not intervene in the dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan – despite a direct appeal from Zahir Shah when Eisenhower visited the country in 1959 (pictured). Relatively modest financial aid was the limit of its involvement, leaving a dangerous geopolitical void.

In effect, Afghanistan became the forgotten country.


Monday 23 November 2009


The one thing that worried me about the emergence of more detail on the British occupation of Iraq was that the great labour in writing Ministry of Defeat would somehow be invalidated.

But, with the release via The Daily Telegraph of the Army's review of operations, I need not have been concerned. So far, what I have written stands up well against the inside information now being revealed.

What we have so far is a review of the earlier part of the occupation, under the title: "Stability operations in Iraq (OP Telic 2-5) – An analysis from a land perspective", which effectively covers the first two years of operations, up to mid-2005.

However, while we have been treated to some tantalising glimpses of the conduct of operations, this is no comprehensive evaluation. There is no great heart-searching and no recognition of the broader failure, which even then was becoming apparent.

In fact, what comes over is precisely the proposition which we have been at pains to portray – that the Army was (and still is) dangerously complacent about its own role and its failings, admitting only minor and incidental problems. That much we are told in the opening passage of the document, which tells us:

Some of the analysis ... may look critical when set against the achievements. Professionally, however, the Army has a duty, enshrined in doctrine, to learn from experience so that it can maintain and build on its success.
That itself confirms the thesis but, with much material to trawl, in 105 closely printed pages, we are going to have to look at the offerings piece by piece, in order to demonstrate just how accurately I managed to identify some of the key failings.

In that context, leaping out of the pages is an observation covering the very start of the occupation, where it is noted that government departments and some officials in MoD:

... took some persuading that they would have obligations under the Geneva Conventions (1949) if or when the UK became an Occupying Power: the implied tasks or responsibilities were very significant in size, range and complexity.
We then read a dissertation about how planning was not in place, and then another observation, that "The lack of planning ran counter to Geneva Convention obligations and the principles of contingency planning."

Whatever else the Chilcot Inquiry does, it most home in on these observations, which are quite staggering in their implications. But what the Inquiry must also do is pick up on a statement made by General Sir Richard Dannatt in 2008 after the all-but final withdrawal of British Forces from Iraq had been announced. It was then that he sought to defend the performance of "his" Army and the military generally. Speaking specifically of Basra, he said:

It's a city of huge size, however many British troops or coalition troops have been there we would never have been able to impose a regime and we had no intention of doing that. It was always going to be an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem, and what we had to do was to enable that to happen …
Now, the point here – as I wrote in the book, is that the occupation brought obligations under international law, specifically the Hague Regulations of 1907 and the fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. They set out the responsibilities of the occupying power, which Britain now was.

Amongst those was the requirement "to restore and ensure as far as possible public order and safety," and there can be no misunderstanding on this point. These are absolute obligations and, furthermore, they are ones to which the UN Security Council resolution of 21 May 2003 referred, when the Council – of which the UK is a member – called upon all concerned" to comply fully with their obligations under international law including in particular the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Hague Regulations of 1907."

And therein was the genesis of the failure for, if Tony Blair took these obligations seriously, he made no mention of them and there was no attempt made to ensure that the resources were available to honour them.

That much was clearly a political failure, and it is one for which Blair must be held accountable. But, as Dannatt's statement indicates, the Army cannot be absolved from responsibility. In the world of May 2003, nothing said or written at that time suggested that the military was simply "holding the line" to buy time for an Iraqi solution.

Crucially, though, what Dannatt then had to say complete ignored the obligations under the Hague Regulations and the Geneva Convention. Thus, even to this day, there is quite evidently a mismatch between what was expected of the Army and what it could actually do. It may have seen its role as to "hold the line" but its legal duty was very much more.

Where the Army then needs to look at itself very closely comes with another passage in the analysis, which tells us:

In the event, the rapid fall of the Saddam regime led to an unexpected and precipitate breakdown in law and order. Lack of planning and resources resulted in delays before reconstruction of essential services could start, and before new government and security structures in Iraq could be established. 1st (UK) Armoured Division's declarations that essential services could be restored quickly proved hopelessly optimistic ...
One can argue as to whether the breakdown in law and order should have been "unexpected" but the crucial issue that that the Army Command in theatre was "hopelessly optimistic" about what was needed to remedy the situation.

That, in fact, is the defining characteristic of the first stage of the occupation where the Army, basking in the afterglow of an easy victory, completely missed the signs of an emerging insurgency, insisting on interpreting the increasing violence as a public order issue, and failing to take the steps needed to prevent an escalation.

Whether it had the resources to do so is moot. In all probability, it did not, but in the analysis, there is a further clue as to what was going on, with the bland admission that: "Planning was not done in sufficient depth and at the outset of Phase IV little finance was requested (and approved) for reconstruction purposes."

Here, one needs to home in on the key point, that little finance was requested. Whatever the culpability of the politicians, what was also evident at the time was a false optimism, where the Army was glossing over the problems and under-estimating their severity. In many cases, it did not get the resources it needed because it did not ask for them. To a very great extent, therefore, the politicians did not react to the deterioration in security because they were being given false signals.

That simple point, though, cannot be left without further exploration. We have seen this dynamic before, where the politicians are told what they want to hear, by people who knew different but lacked the moral courage to insist that they heard the truth. If we look to the service chiefs at that time, we see no warnings from them that the situation was so badly amiss.

With that, though, even this relatively anodyne analysis points to a problem which should, undoubtedly, have been flagged up urgently and remedied. During OP Telic 2-5, we are told,

... the Divisional Headquarters evolved onto a trickle posting basis. The evidence suggests that it was not always manned by the appropriate quality of British Officers (and one stage it contained very few Officers with formal staff training) and one GOC took remedial action through the Military Secretary. One Chief of Staff ... commented: "We had no British staff-trained SO2s in the headquarters when I arrived and it was more like a Volksturm headquarters, manned by people with the weakest penalty statements".
This is a crucial finding, the importance of which cannot be exaggerated. Right at the heart of the Army's command structure, we see – for reasons not of their own making – substandard and thus inadequate staff. Far from furnishing the best and the brightest, to run a complex and demanding operation, the Army failed to supply the people it needed to make the system work.

Whatever thus emerges from the Chilcot Inquiry, therefore, what we must see is the conclusion that there were multiple failures in Iraq. The fault, of course, must lie with the politicians – and in particular Tony Blair. But the Army cannot and must not escape its share of the responsibility.


Sunday 22 November 2009


The Sunday Telegraph is carrying reports of leaked documents, attesting to the lack of preparation for the "nation-building" phase of the Iraqi conflict in 2003.

In particular, we have Maj-Gen Andrew Stewart writing: "The pessimist in me says that Iraq is a missed opportunity … at the strategic level we had poor judgment, thinking there was time ... My greatest fear is that, should the political and development process fail, we may become the focus of hostility and resentment from the whole spectrum of Iraqis."

Even two years into the occupation, however, Gen Stewart thought, "we and the Iraqis will somehow muddle through." But it was not to be. By 2007, the Army had lost control and was hunkered down in Basra, virtually under siege.

The point is, of course, it was never going to be. The invasion had removed the lid from a pressure cooker and before even the occupation had formally started, on 1 May 2003, there was the makings of an insurgency under-way. Within six months, the Army had effectively lost control and never regained it.

The interesting thing is that, now the Chilcot Inquiry has started, and evidence is coming out in the open, the "leaks" are starting, the players quite obviously aiming to get their disclaimers in quick, before they are caught in the glare of publicity.

But if the truth is starting to come out in the media, those of us with longer memories will recall how, in early 2003 the Army was accepting plaudits for its "skill" in dealing with the post-war situation – unlike the clumsy Americans. Thus we had USA Today telling us how the "British postwar approach provides model for US", with the military lapping up the praise for its "soft-hat" approach.

Then, even in August 2007 – long after Basra had gone belly-up - we were hearing how Maj-Gen Jonathan Shaw was lecturing the Americans on how best to conduct counter-insurgency operations, citing the fabled Northern Ireland experience.

And at the end of last year, just before we had been told to get out of Iraq, we had the likes of Gen Jackson claiming that everybody else was to blame, except him and his Army – right down to the Iraqis having "unrealistic expectations" and the "security vacuum" caused by "appalling decisions" in Washington.

In the New Year, this was followed by a brace of generals claiming that the military task had been achieved and: "We have created a secure and stable environment for social and political development to take place."

The current protestations might be a little more credible if there had been some earlier acknowledgement of the problems. Almost to this day though, the official view has been that Iraq was a "success".

But, if the Chilcot Inquiry is now calling "time" on the delusions, a certain book, which no one wants to talk about, got there first. And a little bird tells us that the Chilcot staff are avid readers.


Friday 20 November 2009

Development blues

A central part of the quest for "hearts and minds" of the Afghan peoples is the ongoing development programme. Nowhere is this more vital than in Helmand province, which sustains the heart of the Taliban-based conflict and where much of the fighting is currently taking place.

Helmand, though, is no stranger to development projects. From 1946 to 1979, it was the subject of one of the largest and most expensive schemes in the history of Afghanistan, known as the Helmand Valley Project.

Yet, far from providing the untold benefits, it was – as one commentator put it - "doomed to failure". It was, he says, a factor (if not the factor) in pushing Afghanistan a step closer to the USSR and therefore to the Soviet's subsequent invasion of Afghanistan.

That latter assertion is perhaps an exaggeration, but even if that was the case, it is not difficult to see why the project was launched in the first place. Its importance stems from the river itself, the River Helmand. It is the longest in Afghanistan, carrying forty percent of the country's total water as it snakes down from the Hindu Kush for 350 miles, to join its major tributary, the Arghandab, at Qala Bost – now called Lashkar Gah.

It is this river, flush with the meltwater of the northern snows, which forms the Helmand Valley as it carves its way through south-western portion of Afghanistan. From there, it continues another 250 miles to the Sistan Basin, spanning the Iran border, losing itself in the salt marshes and lakes of the region, without ever reaching the sea.

Crucially, in Helmand province itself, it serves an area with a mere four inches of rain a year. Without the life-giving waters – which also feed some of the numerous boreholes in the area – there would be little to support the current population estimated at 1.07 million. Most of these - either directly or indirectly – earn their livings from agriculture.

The densest agriculture in the central area, the so-called "green zone". This, coincidentally, provides cover for Taliban movements, while a close network of irrigation ditches and canals makes movement difficult and provides natural fighting positions, from which to ward off coalition troops.

Yet it is this irrigation system which was at the centre of the Helmand Valley Project, including a system of reservoirs and dams, the largest dam being further north at Kajaki, also fitted out to provide hydroelectric power.

Nor even was that the first attempt at development. Some of the original system goes back into antiquity, with tales of an ancient "Sughra" Canal in the Seraj region. The first modern development was actually started in 1910, when some of the old irrigation canals were reconstructed. In 1914, the government also constructed the new canals. In the 1930s, with German and Japanese assistance, nine more miles of canals were dug at Boghra.

The purpose of the development, then and later, was two-fold. It was to improve the water management and thus increase agricultural productivity in the region, but it also aimed to bring in a substantial area of land into production, especially in the flood plains, where the water would be channelled and the drainage improved.

Precisely that was achieved in the 1930s, when the land in the Seraj district was opened up. The government then took the opportunity to invite Uzbek and Turkamen settlers to farm the land, with unexpected results. Where perhaps 1000 settlers had been anticipated, about 10,000, including other Afghans from the Helmand area, moved in.

Here may lie one of the seeds of discord. Pashtun nomadic pastoralists had since time immemorial grazed their animals on the best of this land during the winter before returning to the green mountain pastures in the summer after the snow melt. Bringing in Uzbeks and Turkamen, some of whom whom had traditionally been cultivators, from the north would have done nothing to mollify the local Pashtun who regarded the land as their own - even if they only used it for a few months irregularly each year.

This had the makings of a classic clash - like the Bushmen of the Kalahari - the Israelis taking over Palestinian "wasteland" - or the European settlers of "Happy Valley" in Kenya - marginal Maasai land.

Not until after World War II, however, did the really major works get underway, although the Afghans themselves managed to add another 16 miles between 1941 and 1946. By then, local engineers were coming up with plans of larger schemes, which required the use of modern equipment and engineering techniques far beyond that which the Afghans themselves could supply.

With a healthy surplus of foreign currency – mainly in dollars - arising from reduced wartime imports and healthy exports, the government had enough funds to hire foreign expertise. The defeat of Germany and Japan ruled out those countries and Russia and Britain had long been considered foes. But the United States appeared sufficiently remote, disinterested and well equipped to meet the need. So the government turned to the Idaho firm of Morrison-Knudsen, initially as a purely commercial partner.

From detailed accounts of the technical progress of the project, and a (somewhat polemical) historical overview, it was clear that, right from the start, there were grave technical problems which, had they been heeded, would have resulted in a far more limited project.

Not least of the problems was the nature of the subsoil, and the lack of drainage, the combined effects of which brought heavy saline deposits to the surface, considerable waterlogging and silting. With the inherent poor quality of the soil, its lack of conditioning and previous tillage, the land was far from suitable for primitive subsistence cropping, yet that was precisely the purpose for which it was intended.

Alongside the civil engineering works, there was to be a major element of social engineering, resetting Pashtun hill tribes, weaning them off their nomadic existence and introducing them to a more settled, peaceful way of life.

That indeed was achieved. By January 1958, 20,624 acres in Nad-e-ali were settled by 1248 new families, averaging 5-8 persons, and another 100-150 families were awaiting settlement. Each family had an allotment of about 15 acres within one kilometre of the village, as well as a small garden plot adjoining the mud-walled, multi-family home. According to contemporary reports, between 1953 and 1973, 5,486 farm families were settled. Then, from 1973 to 1978, just over 4,000 families were moved in under an accelerated programme.

Before that stage was reached, however, the project had to overcome numerous hurdles, not least as the scope of the scheme expanded, costs spiralled to the extent that by early 1949 the Afghan government was running out of money.

It could, of course, have called a halt to the half-completed works, especially in view of the soil and drainage problems which were becoming apparent, but this would have resulted in a serious loss of face for both the government and the contractor.

The alternative was to turn to the United States and the government-owned Export-Import Bank, which was done in February 1949 with a request for a $55 million loan. This was rejected although a smaller loan of $21 million was approved in November 1949. This was not accepted until April 1950 and it was actually March of 1951 before the government could draw on the loan funds.

It was only at that point that the Afghan government, unable to provide the technical and administrative expertise to continue the partnership, was pressured to hand over the entire responsibility to Morrison-Knudsen which, by December 1952 led to the established the autonomous Helmand Valley Authority (HVA) based on the Tennessee Valley Authority model. The Authority was later reinforced by US government aid employees and Peace Corps personnel.

It took complete authority over processing settler applications, determining plot sizes, farms and village locations. It also helped the settlers construct their homes, prepare their land and follow superior cropping and water use practices. It had become, effectively, an all-American project.

Lashkar Gah became a replica of a modern American suburb, to the extent that it was known as "little America". Mainly, it housed American staff and professional Afghan workers brought in from the capital and other provinces, creating an enclave where there was very little mixing - or communication - with the local population.

April 1953 saw the inauguration of the Kajaki Dam, towering 300-feet above the valley, spanning an 887 feet gorge was holding back a 32-mile long reservoir holding 1,495,000 acre-feet of water. But even then, the project was unravelling, as costs spiralled and engineering problems mounted. From 1946 through 1963, to costs reached $150 million, including $60 million or 25 percent of the total US aid to Afghanistan.

As to the settlers, the original policy was to locate related family groups in single villages, maintaining a degree of tribal and ethnic homogeneity. However, in the early 1970s, after problems with draining the unlevelled fields, the Authority decided to repossess much of the land allocated in order to carry out grading works. The villagers, unconvinced that their land would be returned, met the bulldozers with rifles and refused to be budged.

Following that, the HVA adopted a policy of settling ethnically heterogeneous groups, to avoid strong group loyalties. This not only weakened the settlers politically, it eroded tribal discipline, to the extent possibly that thirty years later, young men were easy prey to Taliban recruiters.

Such a dynamic might have been strengthened by the social inequalities unwittingly perpetuated by the scheme. Existing farmers, used to the soil and the conditions, were better able to adapt to the availability extra water. Many of the settlers, however, often without farming experience, produced lower yields, exacerbating social divisions.

In the absence of a properly functioning financial system, poorer farmers found it almost impossible to get credit, the richer farmers thus being able to afford tractors and other equipment, further widening the social divide and creating, in effect, a social underclass which transcended tribal divisions.

At the end the project was a failure in other ways. Of the 539,834 acres of land that was aimed to be irrigated as a result of the project only 170,000 (about 31 percent) acres actually received adequate water and most of these were already being farmed. Of the several ambitious objectives only flood control seemed to have been achieved.

Of the land settled, between 1956 and 1967 period, some 7,000 acres had been abandoned and, despite the many years of continued effort and enormous subsidies, a large number of nomads left the valley because they could not make a living due to the poor quality of the soil. Many of the yields were lower than before the dams had been built.

Between 1963 and 1965 investigators were finding low crop yields, poor agricultural practices, minimal mechanisation, low fertiliser usage, major weed infestation and poor control programmes. Prices paid for many of the crops were low and marketing limited, while credit was difficult to obtain and the rates exorbitant. Taxes were low, but even then delinquency rates were high.

Interestingly, at that time, no opium was being grown. But already the problems were multiplying. In 1973, inadequate maintenance and water management was being reported, a situation which was to grow worse with the Communist revolution and the Soviet invasion.

By 1988-9, as the Soviets departed, the canal and infrastructure in an advanced state of disrepair and surveyors were finding large acreages of poppy growing.

Nearly ten years later, in the Seraj District where it had all started, almost a hundred years previously, a report found poverty and a weak local economy due to high unemployment rate and low agricultural and livestock production levels and quality. The majority of local residents relied on agricultural and livestock activities as their primary source of income but they lacked adequate access to modern farming methods such as improved seeds and chemical fertilisers.

The district also had a high illiteracy rate and most of its schools suffered from the shortage of essential education equipment and teaching materials. The area had limited number of health centres, most of which were inaccessible to residents of remote areas, who further suffered from the uncontrolled spread of infectious diseases.

In 2006 a consultant was despairingly writing that security in the region had deteriorated. In part, he noted, this reflects the farmers' dissatisfaction with local government actions and services. This, he ventured, related to the growing belief that things were not getting better under the present system and that the promises of massive reconstruction were hollow.

He added that, in areas where military operations and bombings have killed civilians, especially women and children, no amount of reconstruction funding will help "re-win the hearts and minds of the people". If you kill a relative of an Afghan, you have made an enemy, and Pashtuns have VERY long memories.

In can be no coincidence that this and the other areas in the Helmand Valley which have had the most expensive and prolonged "development" in the whole of Afghanistan are now the major poppy-growing areas in Helmand, and the seat of the Taliban power.


Tuesday 17 November 2009

Then as now

In October 2009, we saw a survey of more than 50 servicemen who had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. It concluded that the 5.56mm calibre rounds used by British soldiers "tailed off" after 300 metres yet half of all Helmand firefights are fought between 300 and 900 metres.

We were told that the British soldier couldn't attack the Taliban "with any certainty that if he hits the enemy he will kill or incapacitate him." The study thus claimed that, for want of a rifle with a longer range, Javelin anti-tank missiles, costing £100,000 each, were often fired at lone gunmen.

If we now go back to 1844, we find a "narrative of the late victorious campaign in Affghanistan" by Lt Greenwood, retailing the account of the British punitive expedition under Gen Pollock, in the wake of the slaughter of Elphinstone' army during its retreat from Kabul in 1842.

Amongst the other things Lt Greenwood had to say, he passed comment on the accuracy and range of the rifle fire from the tribesmen, remarking:

It is astonishing at what an enormous distance the fire from their long rifles is effective. Our men were continually struck with the Affghan bullets, when we could reach the enemy with nothing under a six-pounder. Our muskets were useless when playing long bowls.

The fact is, our muskets are as bad specimens of fire-arms as can be manufactured. The triggers are so stiff, that pulling them completely destroys any aim a soldier may take; and, when the machine does go off, the recoil is almost enough to knock a man backwards. Again, the ball is so much smaller than the bore of the barrel that accuracy in its flight, at any considerable distance is impossible. The clumsy flintlocks, also, are constantly missing fire.
At times, it seems, the more things change, the more they stay the same.


Here we go again

... reinventing the wheel. The Times is running a story headed: "Army tells its soldiers to 'bribe' the Taleban", revealing that a new army field manual published yesterday is telling British forces to buy off potential Taliban recruits with "bags of gold".

The edicts, which are contained in rewritten counter-insurgency guidelines, will be taught to all new army officers. They mark a strategic rethink after three years in which British and Nato forces have failed to defeat the Taliban. The manual is also a recognition that the Army’s previous doctrine for success against insurgents, which was based on the experience in Northern Ireland, is now out of date.

Hilariously, we have Gen Newton, Assistant Chief of Defence Staff Development Concepts and Doctrine, telling us that "new ideas" were needed to cope with the media-savvy insurgents who are fighting in Afghanistan and that there was no place for arrogance on the part of the British military hierarchy, relying on their experience of past campaigns.

Yet, in the bribery stakes, it is the Italians who have been ahead of the current field. It was only in October however, that the media was waxing indigent about the discovery that their forces in charge of the Sarobi area, east of Kabul, had been "been paying tens of thousands of dollars to Taleban commanders and local warlords to keep the area quiet."

However, as we noted at the time, the payment of "bribes" or "subsidies" to Afghan tribes for good behaviour is a well-established tradition and had by the early 50s developed into a highly formalised system, copied from the Raj and administered by the Pakistani government in the tribal areas after partition.

In this system, there was a hierarchy of payments which started with the maliki. This was a hereditary allowance to the head of a tribe, paid subject to "good conduct" of the heir of the Malik (head of the tribe), and approval of the government.

There was also the lungi, a personal allowance for individual service, which could be modified on the death of the lungi holder, and then there were mawajib allowances which were paid to the entire tribe biannually.

The important feature of the system was that it involved continuous payments, the purpose of which was "to maintain amicable political relations with the tribes, to bind them to the government of Pakistan by excluding other 'influences' and hence outside interference in the area." It was found that one-off payments had little effect.

Now that the Army is being officially sanctioned to make such payments again, we are back in the days of the Raj, revisiting techniques which had been introduced over a century ago, which have provenances very much older.

Not everyone agrees that the newly discovered system will work. Tory MP and former army officer Adam Holloway says the idea is a matter of "shutting the door after the horse has bolted". He adds that he knows that a number of generals thought in 2006 that, rather than send a British brigade to Helmand, they should buy off people in the tribal areas. "Now," he says, "it's too late."

Holloway is not wrong. As we have already recorded, the tribes have already built up a structured system of their own, involving illegal taxation, tolls, extortion and protection, from which they generate substantial revenues. The amount of money the Army can deliver locally will be struggling to compete with such riches.

Furthermore, there was another side to the "bribery" system. In the event that the tribes failed to deliver on their side of the bargain, a punishment system was in place, most often involving collective punishment, ranging from the imposition of fines on the errant communities to village burning - and latterly aerial bombing.

But there was still another component. Payments - and very often decisions on punishments - were made by a network of "political officers", career officers in the service of the Raj, who had an intimate knowledge of the peoples, the languages and the political terrains. With the best will in the world, short-tour Army officers cannot hope to replicate the skill and experience of these men, and risk blundering in to situations about which they know little, doing more harm than good.

Thus, only a "carrot and stick" process, guided by highly experienced political officer, has any chance of working. Even then it was not particularly successful. As it stands, we will simply be throwing good money after bad, possibly feeding the conflict rather than resolving it.