Sunday 3 May 2009

Corporate self-deception

After last week's piece, Booker returns to the subject of Afghanistan with a vengeance this week, taking on the man signing himself "Praetorian", claiming to be the Operations Officer for 3 Commando Brigade which has just returned from Helmand.

It was last week that Booker argued that "our military humiliation in Afghanistan is a scandal - and the cover-up is an even greater one," under a strap line, "The under-funded British Army is being forced to make the same mistakes in Afghanistan that it made in Iraq". Praetorian did not so much disagree as simply, in lofty style, dismiss Booker's arguments outright, stating that he did not recognise the situation that Booker described, claiming he was "out-of-date and ill-informed."

We are not at all ill-disposed to argument and discussion, although a rebuttal was denied us when The Sunday Telegraph published two lengthy comments from Praetorian but failed to post either of the comments I had placed on the site. What is not acceptable though is this lofty dismissal, claiming with the authority of rank and position and on the basis of supposed experience, a situation that simply does not accord with the facts.

Thus it was that Praetorian had it that we – the British military mission - had secured the five major population centres in Helmand and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams had "exploited this security to deliver tangible, effective and sustainable reconstruction and development." During our tour, the man added, "you could count the number of security incidents in these areas on the fingers of your hands."

That tour, as we recounted in a separate post, started on 8 October and, within days of taking over, in just one of those "major population centres" – Lashkar Gah – the Brigade was pitched into battle with major Taleban forces attempting to take over the provincial capital. With US and Canadian forces called to assist, an additional 1400 Afghani troops were also drafted in and it took ten days of continuous fighting before victory was declared.

During the rest of the tour, noted by Booker in today's piece, we were able to identify 69 further "security incidents" in just that one "major population centre", set out in another post. Not all of these were centred on the town itself and some were recorded as part of ongoing operations by the Brigade. But the detail indisputably gives the lie to the impression Praetorian sought to give – that the areas under British control were secure. The evidence shows that they are far from secure.

Booker also shows, with an account of the threat to RAF Chinooks which provide a vital support role, just how tenuous is the grip of British forces in the province, the details rehearsed in our post and also in The Daily Telegraph yesterday.

Far from offering the security to the Afghanis that Praetorian claims, the British forces have major problems of their own. We are, basically, one major incident away from a monumental domestic crisis of confidence which could castrate the military effort and lead to the termination of our participation in the ISAF operation.

Whether Praetorian is lying, or not, is moot. He certainly labours under the handicap of working for an overarching organisation, the MoD, which lies freely, an organisation which distorts, prevaricates, bullies and "spins" to the extent that, amongst those who know, it has lost any confidence or trust.

Further, within the military, fresh from its debacle in Iraq, we see a dysfunctional organisation, unable to come to terms with its own failings – or even the fact that it has failed – locked in a state of denial from which its seems unable to escape. This is an organisation that has lost more credibility that it can begin to imagine.

Most likely though, Praetorian sufferers from the very problem of which he accuses us – he is ill-informed. But there is much more to it than that, helpfully elucidated in a paper carried by Small Wars Journal reproduced from the Marine Corps Gazette.

Analysing the pressures on the military to come up with optimistic assessments of its own performance, author Bing West makes the following observations:

In sum, garbage and lies reside inside any large organisation in the form of optimistic forecasting. A healthy human mind accentuates the positive. Thus, we stress that a particular surgery has a 90 percent success rate, rather than to admit there's a 10 percent chance of dying. We hold onto our losses when the stock market goes down, because selling is an admission of failure, even when it's the rational choice.

Similarly, it's especially tough for a commander to objectively assess his own battlespace. Hence there is a need in the Afghanistan war for an independent risk assessor who can expertly calculate the rough odds of succeeding in the mission of nation building versus the size of the US force commitment.
In his paper, Bing discusses various metrics used in different conflicts to assess performance and likelihood of success, demonstrating that flawed choices, or incomplete data, can distort perceptions – either way. Praetorian, within the "bubble" that he inhabits, no doubt has his own set of metrics in which he is entirely confident, allowing him to make his assertions in the sincere belief that he is right.

However, the problem in an insurgency – certainly in the "guerrilla warfare" phases - is that incidents tend to be widely dispersed in space and time. Most areas, most of the time, will be free from violence. Furthermore, the enemy is highly adaptive, changing tactics rapidly in response to security force action, altering the tempo at will, in accordance with counterinsurgency activity.

This we have seen in Iraq and see again in Afghanistan, where the response to a failure to tackle the security forces head-on led to guerrilla tactics, relying on the ambush, the bomb and harrying indirect fire – plus the tactics of the urban guerrilla, which include extortion, murder, kidnap and intimidation within the civilian population.

Thus, the only way one can get a "feel" for which way the insurgency is going is to assess the totality of available information. And because the metrics are constantly changing, there us a need for intuition as well as hard analysis. Since so much depends on public sentiment, both here and in Afghanistan, that is as valid a tool as any.

Nevertheless, one metric alone speaks of failure. During March, the number of roadside bomb attacks in Afghanistan for the first time exceeded the number in Iraq, with 361 bombing incidents recorded, compared with 343 in Iraq. That, in itself, tells you that the Taleban is active and had not lost its core strength.

On the other hand, a metric often quoted in support of claims of "success" is the "fact" that seven million school-age Afghans were this year studying in 12,600 schools across the country. When compared with about one million six years ago, this is seen as a real sign of progress.

However, it is still the case that roughly half of Afghan children - mostly girls - are still not in school. And the overall situation is extremely fragile. For instance, we are told that insurgent attacks and crime killed around 70 Afghan teachers, students and education workers over the past year, and wounded another 140. Violence linked to the insurgency also stopped 240,000 students from attending school, mainly in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

There have also been multiple attacks on schools over the past years with scores of buildings burnt down or blown up, as well as students and teachers threatened. About 480 schools are still closed because of insecurity and, although the government reopened nearly 100 this year, keeping them – and other public facilities - open is becoming a major part of the battle.

The latest in this battle came on Friday 1 May, when the Taleban blew up a health clinic in the Lakan area of Khost province, eastern Afghanistan. Four rooms were completely destroyed. In another incident, a high school serving over 1,300 students was dynamited in Nadir Shahkot district of the same province. Seven out of 18 classrooms were destroyed. This is the third school to be destroyed in the past month in that district.

Another metric – one favoured by the media – is the death rate for coalition soldiers. Here, there is less than good news. On Friday also, five soldiers were killed – three American and two Latvians. They were attacked with small arms and RPGs at an outpost in Kunar province near the border with Pakistan. About 30 troops were stationed at the outpost and several others were wounded.

Two days before that, a German soldier was killed and nine were injured in two separate attacks in the northern Kunduz province, where the army is suffering more frequent insurgent assaults. The soldier who died was killed in a roadside ambush, with four injured. The other five were injured in a suicide bombing – but only slightly. They were in a Dingo MRAP.

German officials now admit, "It's become more difficult there [in Kunduz] than it was four years ago," and, as if to emphasise this, on Friday evening there was another roadside bomb in the same province, damaging a police vehicle. Fortunately no police were killed or wounded.

Earlier, on 18 April, a Taliban commander was killed after he led a raid on a police checkpoint in the province. Police returned fire, killing the rebel commander. In the neighbouring Baghlan province on 27 April - where it is normally peaceful - Taleban fighters stormed the Birka district headquarters and set it on fire.

That week, on the Tuesday, a British soldier was killed north east of Gereshk by an explosion, while patrolling on foot. Additionally, two civilians were killed and seven others, including five children, were wounded when a rocket hit a residential area in the Lashkar Gah district – another of those "security incidents" that isn't supposed to be happening.

These "security incidents" are breaking out with increasing frequency. Also that week the US military battled with Taleban southwest of Kabul in the strategic province of Logar - the site of a multi-billion-dollar Chinese project to develop a copper mine. Ten insurgents were killed.

Elsewhere, in the British sector of Helmand, on the same day, Afghan and US forces killed five Taleban in Nahr Surkh district. The joint force had been attacked from several compounds while on a reconnaissance patrol, and had returned fire.

Through such metrics, the impression gained is of a country on the edge. But most disturbing of all is a recent report in The Independent indicating that the flood of aid continues to be misspent. Apart from anything else, 40 percent of the international aid budget is returned to aid countries in corporate profit and consultant salaries

Far from improving the lot of Afghanistan, conspicuous spending by the elites and foreign workers is increasing the disparity of wealth. And, with the rural aid programme stalled, displaced workers and refugees are pouring into the city, a dispossessed, poverty-stricken mass that is a natural recruitment ground for the Taleban. Not for nothing was Kabul referred to in a recent Channel 4 documentary variously as a "city under siege" and a "city waiting for the Taleban".

The problem is that no one seem to be able to get a grip, thus leaving the "bubble dwellers" like Praetorian mouthing their mantras and relying on their flawed metrics, convincing themselves – but few others – that they are doing a marvellous job.

In a repeat of Iraq, we can see them still doing it as the British Army packs up its bags and leaves Afghanistan for the last time, defeated again but refusing to accept it. Unable to confront the reality of the situations it has to deal with, it prefers the cosy world of make-believe where the word "defeat" has been abolished.