Tuesday 23 June 2009

Yet another triumph

The report that British soldiers have launched a major airborne assault on a Taleban stronghold in southern Afghanistan should, on the face of it, be good news.

The operation, codenamed Panther's Claw, involved more than 350 troops from the Black Watch who were dropped into Babaji, north of Lashkar Gah, just after midnight local time on Friday. Twelve Chinook helicopters were deployed, backed by a formidable array of airpower, including Apaches, a Spectre gunship, Harriers and UAVs.

The aim is to secure a number of canal and river crossings in the area to establish a permanent ISAF presence in what was previously a Taleban stronghold. Royal Engineers are now constructing checkpoints on the main routes in and out of the area, to be occupied by the Afghan National Police, established to hinder movement by insurgents.

The MoD is describing the operation as "one of the largest air operations in modern times" but whether it is the "Triumph for Brits" that the Daily Mirror is claiming remains to be seen.

Lt-Col Nick Richardson, spokesman for Task Force Helmand, is less extravagant, declaring simply that the operation has been achieved due to the arrival of extra US, which has provided ISAF with a massive increase in capability "which we believe will significantly change the balance in the province."

Nevertheless, such optimism were have heard before and a jaundiced eye therefore turns to an editorial in the New York Times headed "Afghanistan's Failing Forces". That piece certainly provides an antidote to the hyperbole of The Mirror, starting off with the bald statement, "The news from Afghanistan is grim."

Rehearsing recent events, it reminds us that, in the first week of June, there were more than 400 attacks in Afghanistan, a level not seen since late 2001. It applauds Obama's decision to send more troops and then observes that there can be no lasting security until Afghanistan has a functioning army and national police.

This happy situation, the paper notes, is very far from coming, setting out a catalogue of failure which is stark and damning. Washington, it says, has already spent 7½ years and more than $15 billion on failed training programs.

There have never been enough trainers, Afghan soldiers have not been paid a living wage, making it easy for Taliban and drug lords to outbid them for the country's unemployed young men, and there has been no proper control of weapons supplied to the Afghan forces. Tens of thousands have disappeared, sold to the highest bidders and, in some cases, used against American soldiers.

Perhaps most fundamentally, American war planners never seemed to understand that a more effective Afghan Army and a more honest and competent police force could help persuade civilians that the war against the Taleban was more their own fight and not just an American war being fought on their territory.

After all these years, therefore, so little progress has been made that the national police force needs to be rebuilt almost from scratch, a task hampered by unremitting corruption in Kabul's central government, reflected at local level where the police are equally part of the problem.

Leaving the paper to conclude with a statement of the obvious, that building an effective Afghan Army and police is critical to the war effort, with the injunction that there is no more time to waste, we move on to a report by AP which asserts that, in these recession-hit times, the Taleban and al-Qaida are bucking the trend.

Through a combination of extortion, crime and drugs, plus an inflow of money from new recruits, increasingly large donations from sympathisers and Islamic charities, as well as a cut of profits from honey dealers in Yemen and Pakistan, the insurgents' finances are considerably healthier than those of the coalition nations.

A significant proportion of the cash inflow comes from taxation of the opium trade, estimated to yield upwards of $300 million annually, enabling the Taleban to pay foot soldiers $100 and commanders $350 a month, far more than their security force equivalents in either Afghanistan of neighbouring Pakistan. On the other hand, they are paying bargain-basement prices for their IEDs which typically cost less than $100 each to make.

Clearly, the major task here is to deal with the drugs trade – which perhaps accounts for 90 percent of Taleban income. For a workable strategy, Allison Brown in Small Wars Journal is a good a source as any. But she offers no more than we set out last year, principles enunciated by so many scholars, and experts yet ignored by those who purport to be restoring this benighted country.

So, instead of progress, we get the Black Watch descending from the skies in phalanxes of Chinooks and thundering over the terrain, while the Mirror applauds another "triumph". Maybe it is, but not for common sense.