Saturday 31 October 2009

"Over my dead body"

The Daily Mail is running a piece today which reveals that Lt-Col Thorneloe wrote a secret memo, a month before he was killed by an IED while riding in a Viking, complaining of the shortage of helicopters.

On June 5, reports the Mail, he had chillingly predicted the circumstances of his own death in his weekly report to the Ministry of Defence. Headed "'Battle Group Weekly Update", it reads: "I have tried to avoid griping about helicopters - we all know we don't have enough. We cannot not move people, so this month we have conducted a great deal of administrative movement by road. This increases the IED threat and our exposure to it."

This opens the way for the usual polemics about cost-cutting, etc., and one can confidently predict the howls of rage from the "usual culprits", politically motivated rather than inspired by any sentient thought.

But, buried in the piece – without the prominence that it should have (and completely omitted by The Daily Telegraph and The Times, which copy out some of the story) – is a comment from Tory MP Adam Holloway, a former Grenadier Guards officer, to whom the memo was leaked by an MoD official.

He has written a "devastating critique" of the handling of the war in a pamphlet shortly to be published by the Centre for Policy Studies, which we are told "reveals that despite clear evidence that a shortage of helicopters is killing British troops, defence chiefs are still refusing offers to supply more." Then we learn:

Only last month the Ministry of Defence turned down another offer of helicopters which could double Afghanistan flying hours for British troops fighting the Taliban. The Mail has independently confirmed that former RAF pilots offered to supply 25 helicopters within three months to back up the Chinook fleet which is stretched to breaking point.
We are also told that the deal would have cost the MoD just £7 million a month - a relative drop in the ocean - but the offer was rejected because the RAF did not want to share a role with private contractors.

Now, on 25 October 2007, almost exactly two years ago, I wrote a piece about providing contract helicopters in Afghanistan – flown by ex-RAF pilots - to make up for the dire shortage of RAF assets in theatre.

Writing from personal experience, as I had been directly involved in trying to get the MoD to accept this solution, I observed that the wholly negative reaction to some well-founded proposals was due to "the reluctance of the military to see civilian contractors encroach on 'their' war." I added: "Some of this is fuelled by a fear of the competition, with the civilians able to operate more flexibly, sometimes in conditions where military aircraft like the Lynx simply cannot fly." I went on:

And since they are vastly cheaper, they provide an unfavourable comparison, which might have the politicians asking why they are funding expensive military operations when they can get much more for their money by using contractors.

In effect, what we have, therefore, is the military crying "hands off, it's our war" – an exercise in protecting their own interests rather than going for what is needed.
The need for helicopters was then acute, in order to meet the growing threat from roadside bombs and I concluded: "This dog-in-the-manger attitude costs lives." It remained acute, and – as we now see – it cost more lives.

There was a solution, it could have saved lives, and I was writing about it in May 2007, when all the little Tory Boys were bleating about the military being "under-resourced". Not only was it a solution, it was a cheaper solution.

Yet throughout the torrent of media and political coverage on helicopters, no one would look at this issue. After being rejected by the MoD, we told the newspapers were told about it, many times, and we approached Conservatives MPs, but they actively opposed the solution - and helped kill the deal. One senior Tory MP, who shall remain nameless, told me: "over my dead body". The shortage of helicopters was too convenient a stick with which to beat the government.

Well, over the dead bodies of many soldiers, our Tory MP got his way, and so did the RAF. Nobody listened ... and people died. And you can put money on it that very few of the claque who have been shrieking for "more helicopters" will pick up on this story, and ask why it is that the Defence Chiefs rejected a life-saving solution. Is it a surprise that we get a little angry on this blog?


Playing games

After three weeks of media exclusion, the Pakistani Army lifted a corner of the veil on Thursday, flying in a group of journalists to a barren hilltop in deepest South Waziristan, to explain how swimmingly well the campaign was going.

It was duly rewarded with favourable headlines, such as is in The Guardian, which carried title, "Pakistan hails progress in Waziristan", slightly marred by the addition: "But will it stop the suicide bombers?"

The answer to the question is, of course, "no" – not if the bombings are being carried out by the Punjab Taleban, which can rely on resources based in Punjab province, without having to call for assistance from South Waziristan.

More to the point, since "militant" groups in North Waziristan seem also implicated in attacks in Pakistan proper, the Pakistani Army's venture deep into the southern agency is likely to have little overall effect. Nor indeed is the ponderous progress of the Army calculated to achieve anything lasting.

Much has been made of the discovery of a stack of passports and photos said to belong to foreign militants, and in particular the German passport that appears to have belonged to Said Bahaji, a member of the Hamburg cell that orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. Another passport belonged to Raquel Burgos Garcia, a Spaniard who had converted to Islam and later joined al-Qaeda as a low-level operative.

If genuine, says Time magazine, the passports would confirm what the US has been saying all along: "that Pakistan's wild borderlands have served as a sanctuary for global jihadis who may be plotting fresh attacks on the West."

This may well have been what Hillary Clinton had in mind on her visit to Pakistan, when she rounded on her hosts, telling them: "al-Qaida has had safe haven in Pakistan since 2002," adding, "I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn't get them if they really wanted to."

In that precise context, for all its deliberately optimistic progress reports about its operations in South Waziristan, the number of "militants" claimed killed by the Pakistani Army is remarkably low – especially for a three-pronged advance which is supposedly aimed at entrapping the fighters.

Bearing in mind that the Army managed to recover only the passports of Said Bahaji and Raquel Burgos, and not the persons themselves – dead or alive – one can only imagine that the deliberate pace of the operation is affording al-Qaeda, and indeed any "militant" who chooses not stand and fight, plenty of opportunities to escape.

There is much to be said, therefore, for the supposition that the fighters are simply being allowed to disperse, one fortified by reports that jihadists have been seen shaving off their beards and melting into the civilian population.

Some, if not many, will of course seek sanctuary over the border in Afghanistan, where the Pakistani Army cannot follow. This would suggest that, to ensure the maximum effect, coalition forces should be in place to block the escapees, providing the anvil for the Pakistani "hammer".

Not a few eyebrows have been raised in the Asian press, therefore, with some distinctly critical comments over the US decision to withdraw its forces from its four key bases in Nuristan, on the border with Pakistan, leaving the northeastern province as a safe haven for the Taliban.

Nuristan is strategically located in the Hindu Kush, and is now said to be under the effective control of the network belonging to Qari Ziaur Rahman, a Taliban commander with strong ties to Bin Laden. This makes Nuristan the first Afghan province to be controlled by a network inspired by al-Qaeda. It also opens the US to exactly the same criticism levelled at Clinton – that the US doesn't really want to get al-Qaeda either.

With so many nuances to the situation – with different agendas, hidden and declared – one can only wonder at the naivety of The Times in London, which offers a leader declaring: "Pakistan has taken a brave and correct stance in the battle in south Waziristan. It deserves the support and help of Western governments." Thus does the paper opine:

The Government and military forces in Pakistan merit support and gratitude for their actions, which are hugely advancing the security and peace not just of their own citizens but also those in Britain, in the United States and, indeed, anywhere — Bali, Mumbai — that lives by values other than those of apocalyptic Islamism.
By contrast, only recently, we had the New YorkTimes reporting: "Pressure From US Strains Relations With Pakistan," pointing out that which has been evident for some time, that the Obama administration has been putting pressure on Pakistan to take action, employing a combination of threats and bribes, the latter having a powerful effect on a cash-strapped country.

There are more than a few indications thus that the Pakistani government is going through the motions, doing enough to look credible but, in fact, achieving nothing of any lasting significance – more so in the absence of coordinated US military action on the other side of the border.

As to "hugely advancing the security and peace ... ", the only noticeable effect has been to brand the Pakistani government in the eyes of the extremists as a stooge of the Great Satan. This has made it a legitimate target for terrorist attacks, the results of which are creating rising instability in the country, a process which may get worse as new groups emerge to fight on this newly created front.

Heedless of this, however, The Times goes on to argue that Western governments "should extend strong diplomatic support to Pakistan's Government", but then complains of its "misguided" and "confrontational" stance with India which, for too long, they regarded as the principal battle.

What this neglects is that, whatever the historical overtones, Pakistan's stance is not illogical, and neither is India a passive, innocent party in the relationship. Some of its activities have been distinctly hostile to Pakistan and its pursuit of "strategic depth" in Afghanistan and Iran is, to say the least, provocative.

Any longer-term solution in this crisis-strewn region, therefore, is going to require the active participation of India, and central to the enmity between the two nations is the running sore of Kashmir, which seems no closer to resolution than it was in 1947, in which India is by no means playing a straight hand.

And, with both sides maintaining huge armed forces ranged in opposition to each other, not only does this impose huge financial burdens on the parties, it hampers economic development in the contested areas, and hinders regional cooperation on a wide range of matters, to the detriment of both.

When it comes to such hard issues, though, the "diplomatic support" goes AWOL. The otherwise forthright Mrs Clinton sidestepped the issue, merely observing: "It is clearly in Pakistan's and India's interest to resolve ... But it isn't for us to dictate a solution. That wouldn't last a minute."

As for the European Union, only yesterday it was telling us that it wanted to become "more capable, more coherent and more strategic as a global actor, including in its relations with strategic partners, in its neighbourhood and in conflict-affected areas."

This was the European Council in Brussels yet, when it came to is declaration on Afghanistan and Pakistan, all it could manage was weakly to tell the world that it: "shares the concern about the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan and supports the government of Pakistan in its efforts to establish control over all areas of the country."

If the EU is unutterably weak though, British foreign secretary David Miliband is not much better. His last substantive utterance on the issue was in January of this year on a visit to India, when he made the eminently sensible observation that: "Resolution of the dispute over Kashmir would help deny extremists in the region one of their main calls to arms and allow Pakistani authorities to focus more effectively on tackling the threat on their western borders."

Such was the hostile reaction of self-interested Indian politicians to this home truth though, that Miliband's intervention was widely branded as a "gaffe". He has maintained a monastic silence on the subject ever since.

Nevertheless, as this commentary makes clear, Kashmir occupies a pivotal role in the stabilisation of the region. Yet, while the pressure is on Pakistan to put its house in order, India is getting a free ride, despite being a major player and a vital part of any overall settlement.

One does not, therefore have to take sides in the dispute to observe that it is not only Pakistan which is playing games. If there is a sense of grievance at the way it is being treated by the West, this is not altogether unwarranted. A commitment by Pakistan is one thing, but a similar level of commitment is needed from the other parties – and there is no evidence that this is forthcoming.

If, instead, the West chooses to play games, we should not be surprised if Pakistan does the same.


Friday 30 October 2009

Changing the battlefield

A serious topic of conversation in Indian political circles is the very real possibility of Pakistan breaking up, the tenor of the discussion being not "if" but "when".

If it happens, it is felt that a key element will have been the proliferation of Taleban groups beyond the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and into the Pakistani heartland. This issue is discussed in a recent edition of the Hindustan Times, where it was noted that the attack on Pakistan Army Headquarters on 10 October, as well as other recent suicide bombings in Lahore and Islamabad, involved two Punjabi "militants", Commander Iqbal and Gul Muhammad.

Crucially though, the attacks have been mounted by a new organisation, which goes under the name of Tehrik-e-Taliban Punjab. Until fairly recently, "Taliban" was a word associated with Pashtuns, with two groups commonly acknowledged, the "Afghan" and the "Pakistan" (TTP) wings, both operating out of the northwest frontier province.

Recently, we noted the emergence of another Taliban group, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Balochistan (TTB), operating in southern Helmand against US troops, although it is believed also to be active in the Quetta district, in Pakistani territory. This now makes four, identifiable Taliban groups, two of which have non-Pashtun memberships.

What are now called "militant" groups are, of course, by no means new to Punjab, the environment having spawned the increasingly familiar alphabet soup of activists, such as the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and the Harkatul Jihadul Islami (HUJI). These all have a history of involvement in Afghanistan, alongside the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT), with the tacit support of elements of the ISI. Some of the groups, and especially LeT, had a history of activism in Kashmir.

What is different about the new grouping though is that it seems to have formalised links with the TTP, expending its energies on attacks inside the Pakistani heartland, either as solo operations, or providing logistic support and personnel for TTP-initiated attacks.

One of the core groups of the Punjabi Taliban is thought to be the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). Says Rohan Gunaratne, author of Inside al Qaeda, many Jhangvi fighters have moved to the NWFP. "Jhangvi is now the eyes, ears and operational arm of al Qaeda and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan [based in Waziristan]," says Gunaratne. "It is hard to distinguish between the three."

The focus of the new activism is the Pakistan Army, which is seen to be "siding with the forces of the infidel" in its operations in the tribal areas, and has thus become a "legitimate" target.

Once again, we see the coalition intervention in Afghanistan, and the pressure on the Pakistan government to take action against the sanctuaries in the frontier area, having a perverse effect. More and more of the resources of its security forces are expended on internal security, rather than against activists operating in Afghanistan.

The main recruitment area for the Punjabi Taliban is said to be South Punjab, in what is known as the Seraiki belt, where rising poverty levels have helped turn the area into a fertile breeding ground for militant outfits. The call to arms is aided by a massive rise in the number of Punjab madrassas, from 1,320 in 1988 to 3,153 in 2000, a rise of almost 140 percent. Many are said to be Saudi funded.

A more detailed analysis suggests that the growing power of the Punjabi Taliban poses a serious threat, providing fresh recruits for the jihad from a population of approximately 27 million.

Once indoctrinated at the madrassas, students from Punjab are being taken to the terrorist training camps in the country's Pashtun tribal belt. Over five thousand youngsters have reportedly moved to South and North Waziristan. Once they completed their military training, these youngsters eventually proved themselves to be valuable partners for the TTP, providing valuable local knowledge of the important urban centres of Punjab, such as Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

However, despite the acquisition of the new name, it is believed that the Punjabi Taliban lacks any organisation or command structure and still operates as a loose network of elements comprising its former elements. The attraction of working under the Taliban franchise, apparently, is that it gives activists the freedom to work outside the control of the more established groups, some of which are reluctant to support attacks within Pakistan.

Further, as "free-lancers" they have been welcomed by Mullah Omar, leader of the Quetta Shura "Afghan" Taliban group, having previously rejected alliances for the jihad groups of which they were members. Based within the tribal areas, therefore, the "Punjabi" Taliban comprise an autonomous group, not answerable to their leaders in the Punjab.

There also seems to be a linkage between these recruits and the 313 Brigade led by Ilyas Kashmiri, which has moved from Kashmir to support the dissident Mahsuds in South Waziristan.

Thus, in effect, we have a four-way nexus of Pashtun activists from Afghanistan and Pakistan, reinforced by Punjabis and Kashmiri, all linked with al Qaeda, which – according to Small Wars Journal - is providing training and helping to co-ordinate attacks, both inside Paskistan and in Afghanistan.

With these developments, one [unnamed] Pakistani analyst warns that if the Taliban now spread their tentacles across Punjab, "this would change the battlefield completely." The prospect of a collapse of the Pakistani government might be that much closer. And, while Indian commentators are avidly discussing the possibility, none of them are prepared with any confidence to predict the results.


Thursday 29 October 2009

British resolve?

The Times leader is taking Obama to task for "dithering" over Afghanistan, contrasting his lack of action unfavourably with sentiments expressed by David Miliband, recently highlighted in a New York Times op-ed.

While Obama havers, torn between the Biden-inspired "counter-terrorism" approach and McChrystal's brave new world of "counter-insurgency", there is no such irresolution from the British foreign secretary. When asked if the mission needed substantially more troops, Miliband said, "What I think that you can see from the prime minister's strategy is that we believe in serious counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency is a counterterrorist strategy."

Fortified by these words, The Times is suggesting that the US president must show at least as much resolve as his British allies, although it cannot mean this literally. While the British commitment is to 500 extra troops, McChrystal is demanding another 40,000 – a slightly different proposition.

Miliband's "resolve", in fact, may be more a question of fools rushing in. Even more to the point, in the context of a solid phalanx of media pressure demanding more "boots on the ground", backed by ranks of politicised ex-generals, deploying another battlegroup was the easy option – a relatively cheap way of stilling the incessant clatter, taking a politically embarrassing issue off the front pages.

On the other hand, while the strategic focus has shifted to Pakistan, it is secretary Hillary Clinton who is in Islamabad, pledging an extra $243 million in aid, and seeking to stiffen the Pakistani government's resolve in the battle against the Taleban.

Yet, while a US secretary of state is trying to broker deals in a former British dominion, where the Raj once held sway, Miliband's latest contribution is to suggest that we walk away from formulating our own foreign policy, and throw in our lot with the European Union, his idea being "to take a lead in developing a strong European foreign policy".

Thus, while The New York Times applauds Miliband for being "candid", wishing for the same from Obama, the difference is between a powerless emissary, who can comment freely on issues for which he bears no responsibility, and an executive of a nation that exerts real power, and has to step up to the plate with real commitments to back any decisions made. Talk, as they say, is cheap – and you don't get much cheaper than Miliband's contribution.

Perversely, just as the British government had thought the issue "parked", we are seeing the glimmerings of a change in the political wind, this side of the pond. Veteran commentator on Pakistani and Afghan affairs, Christian Lamb, writes in The Spectator this week, declaring "more troops will just mean more targets". Then, in The Financial Times, even the great sage Max Hastings, is going "wobbly", questioning whether it is "sensible for the west to continue pushing military chips on to the table if each spin of the roulette wheel obstinately delivers a zero."

Gradually, it seems, wiser heads are drawing back from the strategic wisdom enunciated by the likes of The Sun, and beginning to think about the broader issues – perhaps starting a debate which has been notably absent in the UK.

Nowhere is this more welcome than in Pakistan itself, where the Daily Times is arguing for a "regional approach to Afghanistan", invoking a grouping almost unknown in the West, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). This, says the paper, is "steadily becoming an important factor of emerging architecture of security, economy, culture, people-to-people contacts and cooperation in Asia".

A key player here is China, with which Pakistan has good relations, and which is exerting increasing influence in Afghanistan. But the paper also highlights the tension between Pakistan and India, pointing out that resolution of differences between these nations is an important part of the overall solution. The SCO, it believes, could be an important player in bringing the parties together.

Clearly, the EU is waking up to the potential of the SCO – or is being warned that it must take an interest - with a commentator last year noting that it offered "opportunities for positive cooperation". Previously, the Centre for European Reform made its pitch, noting multiple (and largely unsuccessful) EU initiatives in the area.

And therein lies the hidden cost of our membership of the European Union, and this government's determination to cede our policy-making responsibilities to Brussels. While we are a major player in Afghanistan – more so than any other European nation – news of contacts between David Miliband and this grouping on behalf of HMG is hard to find. On the wider diplomatic front, already we seem no longer to have a voice.

Thus, the initiative goes to, and stays with, the United States, our vassal status in the European Union robbing us of our voice and our initiative, leaving Mr Miliband to mouth inane platitudes to the New York Times, which the paper mistakes for "resolve".

Miliband's only "resolve" however, is to ensure that the once mighty Great Britain ends up with less power and influence than the independent state of Afghanistan, where we are singularly failing to make a mark.


Insufficient leadership

Predictably, the media are giving heavy coverage to the "Nimrod Review" into the wider issues surrounding the loss of Nimrod XV230 in Afghanistan on 2 September 2006, commissioned by former defence secretary Des Browne on 13 December 2007, and delivered yesterday by Charles Haddon-Cave QC.

The piece by Michael Evans, in The Times is, for instance, headed: "Nimrod report is most devastating in living memory". It reports that the accident occurred because of years of complacency, safety reviews that were riddled with errors and a general lack of care towards the personnel who had to fly the aircraft in a dangerous environment.

What Evans does not say – and neither, it seems do many other journalists – is that the report is 587 pages long, packed with detail by a man who is an aviation specialist, a fact that is very apparent in the depth and breadth of the findings.

Given the necessary speed with which the media must work, and the fact that Haddon-Cave did not release his report until after the press conference, this means that none of the journalists who have filed their stories for the main news organisations – all of which were up in the early afternoon and evening – can have read the report.

Most will have read the executive summary and relied on the press releases. But even then, with such a detailed report, there is much scope for "cherry picking", a tendency which is very evident as difference newspapers chose their own slants for their stories. Thus we see The Daily Telegraph leader home in on the "culture of penny-pinching, introduced while Gordon Brown was at the Treasury, [that] had replaced an emphasis on safety."

The same line is taken by The Guardian, which tells is that: "RAF Nimrod crash report accuses MoD of sacrificing safety to cut costs", and even CNN leads with "Budget focus cited in '06 British air crash".

Other newspapers and media organisations choose their own "lines", their particular points of focus, and therein lies the inherent distortion which makes none of the accounts either reliable or informative. Effectively, by omission, they distort the report – and in so doing miss completely the thrust of what Haddon-Cave has to say.

One can understand, of course, why this might be, and Haddon-Cave does not make it easy, as the essential "framing" which provides the intellectual basis for the report is buried deep within the text, shrouded in its own jargon which requires considerable study for it to become clear.

"A large proportion of accidents," he writes (including this one) "require the timely concatenation of both active and latent failures to achieve a complete trajectory of accident opportunity." He then goes on to explain that "latent" errors are those whose adverse consequences may lie dormant within the system for a long time. "Active" errors are associated with "front line" operators of a complex system, such as pilots, whose effects are felt almost immediately.

The essence of this accident, we learn from the comprehensive analysis, was the concatenation of multiple "latent" failures, many of which were technical in nature, relating to design faults and such matters.

One cannot read the whole report, however, without coming away with the conclusion that, in the grander scheme of things, the design faults and such matters were of a lesser order, the main problem being a different category of "latent" failures. These were "flawed organisational processes", mainly within the RAF itself, afflicted with what Haddon-Cave calls "numerous pathogens hidden in the system".

Unfortunately, one has to plough through to page 473 to find these "pathogens" listed and, in the ensuing pages, they are explored in some detail, some 26 in number. And clearly, they are not listed in order of importance because only in the penultimate point does one happen upon the damning criticism that there is "insufficient leadership". Writes Haddon-Cave:

With rank comes responsibility. With responsibility comes the need to exercise judgment and to make decisions. Airworthiness judgments and decisions can often be difficult and worrying. They also can have serious consequences. Airworthiness penumbra can also be viewed as less glamorous and pressing than other matters.

For these reasons, there has been a discernable inclination by (admittedly busy) officers at all ranks to deflect, downgrade, avoid or slough off Airworthiness responsibility, judgments, and decisions either: (a) by means of wholesale delegations; and/or (b) by the outsourcing of airworthiness thinking to Industry; and/or (c) by the creation of further elaborate processes, procedures, or regulations to stand between them and the problem.

Indeed, one gets the impression that much of the process currently in place is designed not so much to improve safety, but to act as a bulwark against criticism in the event that things go wrong.

These essentially defensive avoidance mechanisms are perceived to have a number of short-term advantages: first, they get the problem off one's desk; second, they shift the heavy burden on to other shoulders; and third, they provide handy protection against any against future criticism which might be made.
As a fish rots from the head, an organisation fails from the top, and it is there that Haddon-Cave puts the finger of blame. It could have been flagged up much more strongly, although in the subtitle of his report, up on the front page is (in capitals): A FAILURE OF LEADERSHIP, CULTURE, AND PRIORITIES.

Note well, the finding that the essential function of the system had become to "provide handy protection against any against future criticism which might be made," inculcating a "tick-box" culture that we have seen in action so many times before, in other circumstances.

In a discipline that is driven by regulation, Haddon-Cave's comments on that issue are priceless, as he declares that: "Regulations are too complex, prolix, and obscure". This, he writes, "makes them virtually impenetrable and, frankly, a closed book to the majority of the congregation governed by them."

Much of the language is obscure, difficult to read, and repetitive, while the sheer volume is "neither sensible nor realistic", running to over 60 lever-arch files. This has led to the gradual marginalisation, misunderstanding, and mistrust of much of Defence regulations. "It is unrealistic," Haddon-Cave concludes, "to expect those charged with compliance to assimilate, let alone implement, many of the regulations that now exist."

What we are looking at, once all 26 points are taken on board, is a massive system failure, a system so far degraded that it is frankly a surprise that there have been so few fatal accidents. But we have seen this before as well, where it is often the sheer dedication of line personnel that make the system work, in spite of and not because of the controls.

Crucially, in contrast with the media narrative of the Armed Forces constituting the last bastion of efficiency and precision, we get a glimpse into a system which bears many comparisons with the worst of any public-sector organisation.

In a week that has also seen a critical coroner's report on the Puma helicopter crash, with accusations that the RAF base was "badly run", there is now more than enough material available to question whether the current media narrative even begins to approximate the truth. It is rare for degradation of a system to be confined to one branch, and a more critical overview might well reveal defects which are far more widespread than Haddon-Cave's lengthy but limited report reveals.

We do ourselves no favours if we buy into the media myth, and ignore that which is now becoming all too evident, that the military shares some of the dysfunctional elements which are all too prevalent in the whole of our society.


Wednesday 28 October 2009

End game

From "Snatch Land Rovers" to Grand Strategy, we have been on a five-year virtual journey, from the deserts of Iraq to the hills of Waziristan, following two "wars" which have cost the lives of thousands of soldiers, injured many more, and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Broadly, we were supportive of the war in Iraq, and felt the counter-insurgency there "winnable". Having invaded the country and deposed its ruler and destroyed its government – rightly or wrongly – we had in any case a moral and legal obligation to restore law and order, and to re-establish the semblance of a working government.

We had and have no such moral – or legal – obligations in Afghanistan. We went there in 2001, after the 9/11 outrage, in support of the United States, an act of solidarity for an old and valuable ally which had been attacked by a vicious terrorist organisation which had gained sanctuary from a corrupt, barbaric, fundamentalist regime in Afghanistan.

We went in to help clear this nest of vipers and, largely, we succeeded. Our actions also brought down the government of Afghanistan, which would have toppled anyway. Had we left then, the country would doubtless have reverted to its barbaric, anarchic state, with small islands of something approaching urban civilisation, in appearance if not fact.

But, in a moment of collective hubris, we – the "international community" -thought we could impose on this wild, ungovernable land the semblance of our governmental system, which we laughingly call a democracy, even though – in this country and the rest of the European Union – we enjoy no such state ourselves.

Bribed by billions of dollars and the promise of many more, the peoples of Afghanistan went through the motions of an election, which resembled but was not a democratic process, and selected a corrupt tribal leader, from a choice of other corrupt tribal leaders and warlords. He then did what any self-respecting, corrupt tribal leader would do – milked the system to enrich himself, his tribe members, his allies, enemies and cronies.

Not even attempting governance or development, this allowed the country to revert to its usual state of anarchy and tribal warfare, compounded by a low-grade civil war which has been ongoing for so many decades that no one can rightly work out when it started, or even care enough to find out.

Faced with what we took to be the progressive collapse of the system we thought we had installed – but had not – in another moment, this one of supreme folly, our then prime minister, soon to be Emperor of Europe – decided to reinforce failure, by deploying a small, ill-equipped contingent of troops, charged with undertaking a task for which they were physically and temperamentally ill-prepared and which, in any case was impossible to achieve.

In so doing, we made a bad situation worse and, at every stage where we have sought further to reinforce failure, we have made it even worse. What was, when we intervened in 2006 a low-grade civil war, has now escalated into a high-level insurgency – of which we are the proximate cause. And now the generals want to break the most fundamental rule of warfare – yet again. They want to reinforce failure, and keep doing so until the cost and the casualties break us.

Thus must stop. And, in the most powerful message we have seen to date, a now former US Foreign Service officer, Matthew Hoh, explains why. As recounted in the British Independent newspaper, in the Washington Post and many more, Hoh's message is summarised. But you can read it in full here.

The document is Hoh's resignation letter, telling us that he has "... lost understanding of, and confidence in, the strategic purposes of the United States presence in Afghanistan." To put it simply, he writes, "I fail to see the value or worth in continued US casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year-old civil war."

Like the Soviets, he adds, "we continue to secure and bolster a failing state, while encouraging an ideology and system of government unknown and unwanted by its people." Hoh continues:

If the history of Afghanistan is one great stage play, the United States is no more than a supporting actor, among several previously, in a tragedy that not only pits tribes, valleys, clans, villages and families against one another, but, from at least the end of King Zahir Shah's rein, has violently and savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated and modern of Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional. It is this latter group that composes and support the Pashtun insurgency. The Pashtun insurgency, which is composed of multiple, seemingly infinite local groups, is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, their culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The US and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified ... I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taleban, but rather against the foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul.

The United States military presence in Afghanistan greatly contributes to the legitimacy and strategic message of the Pashtun insurgency. In like manner our backing of the Afghan government in its current form continues to distance the government from the people.
Towards the end of his four-page letter, Hoh cites a "very talented and intelligent commander" who briefs every visitor, staff delegation and officer with the words, "We are spending ourselves into oblivion".

Hoh adds that "We are mortgaging our nation's economy on a war which, even with increased commitment, will remain a draw for years to come. Success and victory, whatever they may be, will be realised not in years, after billions more spend, but in decades and generations. The United States does not enjoy a national treasury for such success and victory."

What applies to the United States applies, in spades, to the United Kingdom. This might be a "war" we can win, but it is not a war we can afford to win – much less to carry out a grand, decades-long experiment to see if there is a possibility that we might be able to win.

There is only one conclusion to be drawn from Hoh's letter. We were coming to that conclusion anyway ... we have been veering to and fro, but there is no other answer. We need to get out, as soon as possible, causing as little damage as possible.

But, as we indicated in our earlier piece, there are huge geopolitical implications. But the problems are a matter of high politics, and they need to be solved at that level. They cannot be solved with more "boots on the ground", or "grunts with guns".

Soldiers cannot buy us time with their lives – no amount of lives could buy us the time we need. No longer should it be a question of when, but how we extract ourselves, with the minimum possible delay.


Tuesday 27 October 2009

An Indian elephant

The high-profile attack on its embassy in Kabul earlier this month (pictured) briefly brought to the attention of the Western media the Indian presence in the Afghan capital.

Yet, apart from when Indian assets are attacked, very little notice is taken of what is a major factor in the Afghan "insurgency". India stands accused of using the Afghan conflict to destabilise its old enemy, Pakistan, part of a wider regional effort that includes supporting the independence movement in Baluchistan, and even paying the Taleban to mount attacks on installations in Pakistan.

This issue came to a head yesterday when Pakistan interior minister Rehman Malik directly accused India of creating unrest within Pakistan by funding the Taleban based along the Pak-Afghan border and by interfering in Baluchistan. He went further to say that Islamabad had "solid evidence", adding the information could be shared with Indian ministers or representatives at any forum of their choice.

The Indian media, predictably, dismissed these claims as "over-the-top posturing". They are seen as a diversionary tactic to draw attention away from claims that the Pakistani ISI is funding the Tehrik-e-Taliban, al-Qaeda and other extremist groups operating from its soil.

This is by no means the first time Islamabad has made such accusations, having been arguing the point since 2003. Even last July, Malik was telling his senate that Indian intelligence agencies were running "terrorist camps" in Afghanistan to train Baluchi youths to "create disturbances" in the south western province.

That there should be tension between India and Pakistan is hardly surprising. Between the countries, there have been three major conflicts since 1947 and there is still an armed confrontation across the so-called "line of control" in Kashmir, where only a cease-fire prevails and violations are frequently reported. The latest was last Sunday, when it was claimed that an Indian soldier had been wounded in "unprovoked firing that lasted for some 30 minutes."

Even as of today, India has advised its citizens against travel to Pakistan, citing security reasons, Normally, thousands of Indian pilgrims, mainly Sikhs, travel to Pakistan's Punjab province, home to some of the most revered Sikh sites including the birthplace of Guru Nanak, the 15th century founder of their faith.

The tension is exacerbated by Pakistani intelligence service support for an active insurgency by Moslem extremist groups within the Indian-held area of Kashmir, while the Indian intelligence service, known by the initials RAW, is also active in throughout Kashmir, with the alleged involvement of the Israeli spy agency Mossad. Israel has also become a major arms supplier to India, inflaming Moslem sensitivities.

A politically fragile Pakistan firmly believes that the Indian long-term objective is the dismantling of the Pakistani state, and it looks nervously across the border at the huge 1.4 million-strong Indian army, the third largest after China and the US, comprising 34 combat divisions - with seven of its thirteen Corps poised against Pakistan.

Relations were not improved by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, with India, then a client state of the Soviet Union, supported the Soviet action, in contrast with Pakistan, which created and launched the Taleban in opposition to Soviet forces. After the Soviet withdrawal, India belatedly supported the Northern League in its bid to overthrow the Taleban, and has since been an open supporter of Karzai's government, pledging to spend $1.6bn in aid, making it the fifth largest bilateral donor.

The very closeness of that relationship worries Pakistan, which sees India's involvement as an attempt to encircle their country. Says analyst Ahmed Rashid, "India's reconstruction strategy was designed to win over every sector of Afghan society, to give India a high profile with Afghans, gain the maximum political advantage and, of course, undercut Pakistani influence."

A significant element of this strategy could be construed as "economic warfare", deliberately designed to undermine the Pakistani economy. Thus, when Pakistan announced plans to develop a new deep water port in Gwadar, on Baluchistan's Makran coastline – with significant Chinese investment – India teamed up with Iran on the other side of the border to expand the deep water facility at Chabahar. It is also investing in upgrading the Chabahar-Milak road to the border with Afghanistan (pictured), giving India direct access without having to pass through Pakistan.

Few consider it a coincidence that, while the development of Chabahar and its road links have forged ahead, not least of the problems with Pakistan's Gwadar development has been an upsurge in Baluchi "terrorism", with the Pakistani government convinced that this is both organised and funded by the Indians.

On the diplomatic front too, it has been noted that India has been a powerful player, joining and to an extent orchestrating the now US-led international pressure on Pakistan to undertake military operations in South Waziristan. This is forcing the Pakistani Army to confront its former (and continuing) Pushtan allies, thus incurring the wrath of Moslem fundamentalists, who see the government as a stooge for the US and India.

While it is said that the Indian aim is to sour relations between the tribes and the Pakistani Army, to an extent that the latter refuse to side with it in case of an Indo-Pak war, the ploy could backfire. Rather than simply exert this passive effect, it could energise and unite the tribes. If they then went on to strengthen links with fundamentalist terrorists in south Punjab and even the Moslem population in Karachi, the already weak Pakistani government could fold.

With that, Hakimullah Mehsud, the new leader of the Pakistani Taleban – in what may be a show of bravado, but maybe something more – is threatening a massive escalation. "We want an Islamic state, if we get that then we will go to the borders and fight the Indians," he says.

In a situation that has parallels with the 1947 Kashmiri war, we could see a "free-lance" tribal invasion of India, with the Pakistani Army sucked in to protect their "brothers" when they confront the all-powerful Indian Army, the conflict spiralling into an all-out war.

Even short of that, observers are noting that the increasing Indian involvement in Afghanistan, and its support for liberation movements on Pakistani territory, is "a hurdle in getting Pakistan to fight the Taleban."

Certainly, the suspicion is that the Pakistani Army, in its current operation in South Waziristan, is going through the motions. It has sent in about 28,000 troops to take on about 10,000 guerrillas, a relatively low ratio. According to Javed Hussain, a retired Pakistani Army brigadier, probably only 11,000 are infantry. Instead of a ratio of one to one, he says, the ratio should be at least five to one.

One could suggest that the Army is "aiming to fail". In fact, with the US maintaining a close and amicable relationship with India, and Afghanistan likewise with India, the Pakistan government is more likely, through the ISI, to step up its covert support for the Taleban. In so doing, it will reason that the Taleban's efforts to destabilise the Karzai government, and undermine coalition forces, are a legitimate and necessary counter to growing Indian influence.

All of this tends to put the Afghan conflict in a new light – or, at least, give it a new perspective. As well as the obvious and much documented battle between the Taleban and the Afghan government, supported by coalition forces, there is another "proxy war" being fought out over the same territory, between India and Pakistan.

This, while policy-makers have been widely discussing their "AF-PAK" strategy, the real need is for an "Af-Indo-Pak" strategy. And this has wider implications for any eventual drawdown of coalition troops, and the Afghanisation of the "war". If reduced coalition presence – especially if it is premature – creates a power vacuum, that could be filled by India, provoking a violent reaction from Pakistan.

To that extent, it also adds another strategic dimension to the presence of coalition forces in Afghanistan. There is an elephant – an Indian elephant – not so much in the room, as wanting to come in. It would seem that we need to be there to keep it out (or under control), which then adds a further complication to an exit plan which is already deeply problematical.


Monday 26 October 2009

Wrong war, wrong country

If the aim of our intervention in Afghanistan is to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" al-Qaeda in that country, writes Mehdi Hasan in The Guardian, then we have already won. There is no longer any al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Hasan relies for his information of Dr Marc Sageman, of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, who recently testified to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Sageman is a forensic psychiatrist, sociologist and scholar-in-residence with the New York police department. He has also served as a CIA case officer in Islamabad in the late 1980s, working closely with the Afghan mujahedin, and has recently undertaken a study of the terrorist threat.

One of his key findings is that 78 percent of all global neo-jihadi terrorist plots in the West in the past five years came from autonomous home-grown groups without any connection, direction or control from al Qaeda Core or its allies. The "resurgent al Qaeda" in the West argument has no empirical foundation.

He thus concludes that al-Qaeda has ceased to function as an organisational or operational entity and that the "present threat has evolved from a structured group of al-Qaeda masterminds ... to a multitude of informal local groups trying to emulate their predecessors by conceiving and executing operations from the bottom up. These 'home-grown' wannabes form a scattered global network, a leaderless jihad."

Far from being directed by a Comintern, Sageman asserts, global neo-jihadi terrorism is evolving to the structure of anarchist terrorism that prevailed over a century ago, when no such global coordinating committee was ever found despite contemporaneous belief in its existence.

Turning to the current policy debate of Afghanistan, Sageman notes that there is an "insidious confusion" between Afghan Taleban and transnational terrorist organizations. Afghan fighters, he says, are parochial, have local goals and fight locally. They do not travel abroad and rarely within their own country. They are happy to kill Westerners in Afghanistan, but they are not a threat to Western homelands. Thus we are told:

Foreign presence is what has traditionally unified the usually fractious Afghan rivals against a common enemy. Their strategic interest is local, preserving their autonomy from what they perceive as a predatory corrupt unjust central government. They do not project to the West and do not share the internationalist agenda of al Qaeda or its allied transnational terrorist organisations.
This may be so, even if there are some indications that the Taleban is evolving, and taking on the character of a transnational organisation, albeit limited to the region. But, if it is largely a localised operation and the uniting force is the presence of foreign troops, then their removal (or reducing their footprint) would perforce deprive the jihad of its force.

Reducing troop presence, however, opens up the possibility that al Qaeda could return to Afghanistan, especially if the Taleban regained power. But Sageman maintains otherwise. It is by no means a foregone conclusion that the insurgents could take over.

Unlike 1996, when the Taleban captured Kabul, the label "Taleban" now includes a collection of local insurgencies with some attempts at coordination on a larger scale, but it is deeply divided. Local Taleban forces can prevent foreign forces from protecting the local population, through their time-honoured tactics of ambushes and raids, but this local resistance does not translate into deeply divided Taleban forces being able to coalesce in the near future into an offensive force capable of marching on Kabul.

Command and control frictions and divergent goals hamper their planning and coordination of operations. They lack popular support and they have not demonstrated ability to project beyond their immediate locality.

Then, even if the Taleban did return to power, this would not automatically mean a new sanctuary for al-Qaeda. There is no reason for al Qaeda to come back. It seems safer in Pakistan at the moment. And if they did think about it, surveillance augmented by networks of informants in contested territory, combined with the nearby stationing of a small force dedicated physically to eradicate any visible al Qaeda presence, would prevent it.

Thus informed, Sageman is keen for policymakers in the west, who promote falsehoods and myths about Afghanistan while sitting "several thousand miles from the war zone". He wants them to acknowledge the futility of escalation, and switch the focus to Pakistan.

"The problem is in Pakistan," he tells Hasan. "But that's not where we are sending troops to. We're sending them to the nation next door." It is high time that our politicians, generals and spies wake up to the fact that we are fighting the wrong war, in the wrong country.


Even more complicated

An article in The Sunday Times by the peripatetic Stephen Grey gives much food for thought, and some considerable cause for alarm.

Grey is back in Afghanistan, not in Musa Qala where he was last time, but much further south with the US Marines in Khan Neshin, sometimes called Khanashin. The town, if it can be called that, is a ramshackle linear development, set back from the lower reaches of the Helmand River, in what is locally known as the "fish hook", a curve in the river as it arches west towards Iran, eventually to disappear in the salt marshes of Seistan and lake Hamun.

And Khan Neshin, according to Grey, is giving the US Marine problems, so much so that his article is entitled "Morale dips for American marines in Afghanistan", with the strap telling us that "troops are dismayed by the ambivalence of locals and a sense that the Taliban can outlast them."

The town was occupied in July 2009, as part of the US operation Khanjar (Strike of the Sword), when Marines from the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion established the first sustained presence of coalition forces – the furthest south coalition forces have so far ventured. It has since become a test-bed for McChrystal's "take-hold-build" policy.

However, despite the Marines' good intentions, Stephen Grey reports that the local tribal chief, in a recent meeting, was openly hostile. "The Americans threaten our economy and take our land for bases. They promise much and deliver nothing," he said.

The chief goes by the name of Haji Khan, a man "who rules like a medieval baron". He adds: "People here regard the American troops as occupiers," then telling the Americans that: "Young people are turning against them and in time will fight them."

There is already significant fighting in the area which – on the face of it – could be attributed to Pashtuns coming into the area, either up from Pakistan in the south, or from other areas of Afghanistan.

The platoon left to hold the ground knows there are at least 20 booby-trapped IEDs on the high ground around their base. More than half the men have already been caught in blasts. One marine explosive expert was killed; others suffered broken legs and amputated feet. Three have survived two explosions and come back to fight again.

Furthermore, Grey reports that villagers "are rarely willing to express a simple opinion, let alone inform soldiers where the enemy is hiding." One marine described the way the Taleban blended with the population as "unbelievably frustrating".

That much is par for the course, in this long-running battle against the Taleban but what has the alarm bells ringing is that Haji Khan and his tribe are not Pashtuns, who form the backbone of the insurgency, but Baluchi. They are a different ethnic group, of which one million live in the part of the Khanate of Baluchistan which was annexed by Afghanistan – and whom comprise at least 60 percent of the population of Khan Neshin.

And, according to US military sources, most of the Taleban they have been fighting in Khan Neshin are most definitely Baluchi. When one Baluchi Taleban leader was killed as he was plotting a major conventional attack, his elimination dramatically improved security in the area.

This is an important development. Historically, the Taleban have been almost entirely Pashtun, drawn mainly from the second largest tribal group, the Ghazai, their "insurgency" essentially amounting to a Pashtun nationalist uprising. Previously, the Baluchi have been no part of it, and nor have they had reason to be.

They, themselves – or, at least, elements – have been fighting their own liberation campaign against the annexation of the main part of their territory by Pakistan in 1948, which drove thousands of refugees into Afghanistan in the '70s. Caught up in the Soviet invasion, they were attacked by the Mujahideen, driven - it has been claimed - by the Pakistani ISI, which was then supporting the anti-Soviet resistance.

Nevertheless, the Baluchi independence campaign has continued, with signs of it strengthening, gaining increasing popular support. There is also a guerrilla force actively conducting operations since 2003, hitting infrastructure and paralysing the ability of the central authorities to take advantage of Balochistan's rich mineral resources.

This has put the Baluchis at odds with the Pakistan government, especially as some of the independence groups are rumoured to be supported by India, issues we rehearsed in an earlier piece. This has prompted the Pakistani government to exploit historical Pushtun-Baluch rivalries, also using its "proxy" Taleban forces, in the classic "divide and rule" ploy.

On the other hand, there has been much turmoil within the Baluchi community itself. Unlike the Pashtuns, the Baluchi society is stratified and has been characterised as "feudal militarism," the tribal groups being led by sadars (chiefs), with far more power than their Pashtun equivalents. But the Pakistani Balouchi sadars have been condemned for being far too close to Pervez Musharraf and less interested in supporting independence for their people.

With population movements, the disruption from the wars and an accelerating pace of social change, there has emerged a large body of "disaffected youth", rebelling against the traditional order, drawn towards the independence movement.

In a development that is not seen as a coincidence, earlier this year there emerged news of a newly formed Baluchi-Taleban alliance called the Tehrik-e-Taliban Balochistan (TTB).

According to some Baluchi activists, this has been created by the ISI, to soak up the youth faction, enjoining young Baluchis to reject "tribalism and narrow nationalism" – the latter supported by India, against the interests of the Muslim "brotherhood" - and to think "for Pakistan and broader Muslim Ummah."

Whether this is true or not, there is now good evidence that the Taleban is widening its appeal, and recruiting factions outside its traditional Pashtun constituency.

There may also be another layer to the alliance, as the Baluchi are heavily involved in the opium industry, both as growers and traders. Baluchistan is said to be at the crossroads of Afghan opiates trafficking, but it is also a major supply route for the Taleban. Haji Khan, the chief in Khan Neshin, is also an opium grower and the military believes him to have a "working relationship with the Taleban".

Into this complex mix, there are also claims of another element, with the recruitment of Iranian Baluchis to the jihadist cause, supportive of the Taleban. This may be an al Qaeda initiative, although details are sketchy. But even a hint of the Taleban taking on a wider international dimension is of some concern.

This brings us back to our previous piece, which also explored concerns about the transformation of the Taleban from a local insurgency to a part of the global jihad, with a wider international dimension, through al Qaeda and leaders such as Haqqani, who have their own cross-border links.

Although this has not emerged suddenly, the Afghan insurgency is now looking considerably more complicated and dangerous than it looked even a few weeks ago. The strategic implications are profound.


Sunday 25 October 2009

Knowing your enemy?

With the Afghan strategy debate ranging between the two extremes of opting for a "counter-insurgency" or "counter-terrorism" approach, never more has it been necessary to know the nature of the "enemy" with which we are dealing, its structures, organisation, affiliations and, crucially, its mindset.

Getting that right determines whether counter-insurgency is a practical proposition. This is a strategy where the people is the "prize", requiring a structured attempt to alter the mindset of the population, and win support for the established government. But, if it is to succeed, then we need to know whether the target populations are amenable to change, what is required to make them change and then, crucially, whether those changes are self-sustaining.

Clearly, much depends on whether the "insurgency" in Afghanistan is localised and can be contained. If that is the case, a counter-insurgency strategy is appropriate, the aim being is to detach the less committed fighters and "turn" them. By this means, the hard core "irreconcilables" are isolated, who can then be either killed, captured or driven out, bringing security to the region.

This is essentially the core of the McChrystal plan, as opposed to the Biden/Obama preference of concentrating on the al Qaeda "terrorist" element, an option which relieves the president of the burden of providing more troops and escalating the war. That strategy would only be more appropriate, though, if the insurgency has a major trans-border element, with the bulk of its fighters "hard core", committed to a global jihad and, therefore, beyond redemption.

Rather conveniently, one might think, we are now beginning to see a series of articles in the US media, the latest an AP report, stating that "US officials face a tough challenge in dissecting the structure and leanings of the militant organisations on both sides of the often indiscernible Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and understanding their murky and evolving ties to al-Qaeda."

From this we learn that "senior al-Qaeda leaders" are forging deeper relationships with Pakistani "militants" and often operating from their camps inside the Pakistan border. This would support suggestions that the so-called Taleban and al Qaeda are merging to form a single entity, with wider objectives than a local insurgency, giving credence to a counter-terrorism strategy.

This follows the line being presented by the Obama-supporting New York Times, which has given considerable prominence given to their correspondent David Rohde who had spent seven months in "Taleban" captivity. He was amongst the first to suggest that the ties between the "Taleban" and al Qaeda might be stronger than at first thought.

However, Rohde was the "guest" of a faction known as the "Haqqani Network" (HQN), rated by McChrystal as second in importance, in terms of threat, after the Qetta Sura Taleban, led by Mullah Mohammed Omar. But it is the Haqqani Network group, as much as anything, which illustrates the complexity of the "insurgency" and the kaleidoscopic structures of the players.

The Network is led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, a member of the Jadran, a Ghilzai sub-tribe from Paktia province in Afghanistan. According to Roche, though, its "main stronghold" is in Miranshah, administrative capital of North Waziristan, on the Pakistani side of the Durand line.

The tribe itself, even by Pashtun standards, is considered "warlike" and its members are regarded as great warriors. It was one of the first Pashtun tribes to rebel against Amin's Communist regime, after the harvest of the summer of 1979, before the Soviet invasion. In a major confrontation with government forces in September and October of that year, the tribe inflicted a major defeat on Amin's forces, which was one of the factors which led to the invasion.

It was very active in fighting against the Soviets from the beginning of the mujahidin movement, in which Sirajuddin's father, Jalaluddin Haqqani, emerged as a prominent leader, attracting the support of the CIA and the Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence). To that extent, Jalaluddin was considered a western "client", but also an associate of Osama Bin Laden whom he helped build his own militia to fight the Soviets.

Jalaluddin was not originally a member of the Taleban, switching to them in 1995, just prior to their occupation of Kabul. In 1996-97, he served as a Taliban military commander north of Kabul, when he was accused of ethnic cleansing against local Tajik populations. He then served as the Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs in the Taleban government, and governor of his home province, Paktia.

In October, 2001, after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre, Jalaluddin was named the Taleban's military commander and may have had a role in expediting the escape of Osama Bin Laden. With his base in Khost under repeated American air attack, it is believed he crossed the border into Waziristan in the November or December.

Attempts were made to get Jalaluddin to switch sides and join the Karzai government in Kabul but, instead, he consolidated his base in Waziristan, launching attacks into Afghanistan.

In 2004, though, when the Pakistani Army stepped up its search for al-Qaeda members in the mountains of North Waziristan, armed resistance by local tribesmen escalated into a two-year conflict, culminating in March 2006, when Miranshah was supposedly cleared of Taleban by the Pakistani Army, after two days of fighting.

Following that, the North Waziristan Accord was signed between the government of Pakistan and the tribes, agreeing a mutual cessation of hostilities in the district, in exchange for an undertaking that cross-border activities in Afghanistan would end and foreign jihadists would leave the area.

Nevertheless, Jalaluddin's network continued its attacks into Afghanistan and, despite US airstrikes against him personally, has remained free and is thought to have been the organiser of a number of high-profile suicide attacks in Kabul.

His forces have been accused by the coalition forces of carrying out the late-December 2008 bombing in Kabul, at an elementary school near an Afghan barracks that killed several schoolchildren, an Afghan soldier, and an Afghan guard. Meanwhile, his son Sirajuddin seems to have taken over day-to-day leadership of the Network.

The Haqqani Network is categorised as part of the "Afghanistan Taleban", distinct from the "Pakistani Taleban", and it is unclear as to how the two are related, and whether they work together. "The complexity of all this is hard enough for experts to understand," says Paul R. Pillar, a former CIA analyst. "It's not surprising if it baffles a lot of ordinary people."

According to Jason Burke, writing in The Observer on 14 October 2007, little is known about Sirajuddin Haqqani, although it is believed he is the "dominant figure among the warlords hacking out their fiefdoms in the tribal areas." He is also thought to be the only one powerful enough to challenge Mullah Omar.

It was he who in the September of 2007 "brought three different warlords together to provide a big enough force to take on the Pakistani army around Mir Ali" – an action in North Waziristan which took place between 7-10 October 2007, starting with an attack on a Pakistani convoy and ending with nearly 200 dead.

His influence, wrote Burke, stretches across eastern Afghanistan as far as Ghazni and even into Uruzgan and, while the Afghan Pashtun tribes do not unconditionally obey one commander:

... Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son have been able to draw together a complex web of links of allegiance, some based on tribal loyalty, others inspired by religious devotion to the senior Deobandi cleric that Haqqani is (or was), still more by a quasi-national response to what is perceived to be a "foreign" invasion and occupation that threatens to change Afghan society for ever.
From this narrative, it would seem that any distinction between the "Pakistani" and the "Afghan" Taleban is more imagined that real, reinforced by Rohde reporting that the Haqqanis and their allies (supposedly "Afghan" Taleban) had held him "in territory they control in North and South Waziristan" - part of Pakistan, spanning multiple tribal domains.

Thus, while the Pakistani Army is attacking the "Pakistani" Taleban, it would seem that it is being opposed also by the "Afghan" Taleban – of which the Haqqanis are part - yet, bizarrely, Rohde claims to have been learnt from American officials, via his colleagues, that the ISI provides money, supplies and strategic planning to the Haqqanis and other "Afghan" Taleban groups.

Significantly, Rohde is also told that the contacts were part of a strategy to maintain influence in Afghanistan to prevent India from gaining a foothold. One Pakistani official called the Taleban "proxy forces to preserve our interests."

By all accounts, though, the Haqqani dynasty does need to rely on Pakistan's ISI for its support. His network has acquired considerable wealth from smuggling opium, weapons and timber out of Afghanistan as well as from quasi-legitimate businesses. It also comes in direct donations from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia backers, and from indirect donations via Islamic charities.

Furthermore, until 2001, Jalaluddin was a frequent visitor to the Gulf and one of his wives is from a wealthy family in the United Arab Emirates. This gives him access to the highest counsels in Gulf society, and a wide network of influence - of which al-Qaeda is part.

Thus says Vahid Brown, a researcher at the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point, "You cannot meaningfully distinguish between al-Qaeda and the co-linked (militant) networks — either in terms of understanding the landscape or crafting a policy response."

This then raises the question of whether anyone can meaningfully distinguish anything which would help resolve the ongoing debate. We are confronting an enemy of which we know next to nothing.


Saturday 24 October 2009

Lock up your Mullahs

The art of analysis is collecting disparate strands of information, pulling them together and drawing from them conclusions which may not be apparent from any one source, however good that might be.

Leaping into the frame is an outwardly anodyne piece from the Russian RIA Novosti agency, but which adds a couple of invaluable "nuggets" to our growing collection, confirming and clarifying two important aspects of the situation in Afghanistan.

The first is about the opium/heroin trade, which builds on some of our recent pieces, particularly this one where we looked at how the structure of the drugs industry was changing in Afghanistan. Growing is moving down to the fertile south, where productivity has increased from 10kg/ha to 56kg/ha (at best), while the traditional growing areas in the north have given up low-value cultivation and moved into "added value" processing, as well as the lucrative export trade.

This, of course, makes a mockery of the pretensions and "hype" from the UN and other bodies about clearing areas of poppy growing. What has been happening is that the industry is restructuring of its own accord, with the north adapting to the competitive pressure from more productive southern growers.

What Novosti now tells us confirms that which we have been asserting for some time – that this "added value" business has very little to do with the "Taleban", and most likely contributes very little to its coffers (a point which is gaining some currency).

We thus learn from this source that the processing sector is largely controlled by the Northern Alliance, which accounts for 90 percent of the heroin consumed in Russia and the vast majority sent to Europe. The most modern and the best equipped laboratories are located in the northern provinces of Afghanistan near the Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek borders, which are its areas of influence.

The route is then up into these former Soviet republics, where – as we recorded in our earlier piece (link above) – it is traded for weapons which are then taken south and sold to local fighters.

What complicates matters, says Viktor Ivanov, director of the Russian Federal Drugs Control Service, is that the US used the Northern Alliance forces in the fight against the Taleban, and is still supporting. Unwittingly, in their attempts to control the rebellion in the south, the US (and undoubtedly other nations) are assisting the "drug barons", but the real (drugs) threat comes from them, not the Taleban. "The coalition forces are not conducting an effective fight against them," adds Ivanov.

As to the Taleban, Ivanov raises the second point of very great interest. He describes the Taleban as "a religious component in Afghan society, which consolidates various forces to combat a foreign invasion". It does not pose a direct threat to Russia.

This "nugget" melds with our previous piece, in which a comparison is drawn between the Pashtun uprisings of over a hundred years ago, and the current situation. What we see now carrying the "brand name" of "Taleban" were then exactly the same sort of people as they were then – a loose network of Mullahs, acting to protect their own power and interests.

They are, in effect, doing exactly that which they have been doing for centuries, agitating and organising local populations, capitalising on their inherent distrust of "infidel foreign invaders", in order to mount an opposition against them.

This may seem at odds with the view of NYT reporter David Rohde, who recently spent seven months as a captive of the "Taleban". His experiences, expanded in the Christian Science Monitor, have convinced him that many Taleban fighters and commanders are deeply intertwined with al Qaeda and its vision of global jihad, so much so that they must be considered inseparable.

That view certainly contradicts the model being promulgated by McChrystal and many strategic theorists, who argue that, as with Iraq and the "Sunni Awakening", the local fighters can be peeled away from al Qaeda, leaving this group exposed and allowing it to be defeated in detail.

However, a factor in many of the major Pasthun uprisings down the ages has always been the presence of "foreign agitators", preaching distorted versions of Islam, seeking to provoke a global jihad against the current occupying power. Whether they are "Mullahs," "Sahibzadas," "Akhundzadas," "Fakirs," or one of the host of wandering Talib-ul-ilms, wrote Churchill, the largely illiterate tribal populations, prey to "miserable superstitions", are exposed to "the rapacity and tyranny of a numerous priesthood."

In 1898, it was the "Mad Mullah" Saidullah, who declared a global jihad against the Queen Empress and the British Empire. In 1938, it was the Fakir of Ipi, with similar ambitions. And in 2001, it was Osama bin Laden and, with him currently, Mullah Omar of Quetta Shura fame, plus other members of the rapacious and tyrannical "priesthood", some of whom are affiliated to the will o' the wisp al Qaeda.

The response, in the past, has been to defeat the uprisings, by punitive expeditions, and by bribing the cooperative and peaceful tribes – tactics which buy temporary peace until the next demagogue emerges, when the whole cycle starts all over again.

Longer term, the answer has to be a combination of prosperity and, especially, secular education – it was that, after all which broke the power of the Catholic Church in backward Ireland, which for nearly a century maintained a monopoly over university education. Not for nothing, therefore, do the local Mullahs, invoking the "Taleban" brand, target schools and, where they can, the universities.

These issues we must explore in future posts but, for the time being, with what we have from Novosti, we can veer towards two tentative conclusions. Firstly, opium/heroin control is irrelevant to the battle against the Taleban, while efforts to control the Taleban are making the drug problem worse.

Secondly, the presence and/or influence of al Qaeda does not seem to be the issue in Afghanistan. The real problems are the local Mullahs and their grip on an illiterate and superstitious population. In the name of Islam, they create their havoc. Break their power and the rebellions fade away. In the name of Islam, the population will have to be told to "lock up your Mullahs".

We could, incidentally, start that process in the UK.


Friday 23 October 2009

Village burning

At current rate of spending, General Sir David Richards has effectively committed us to an additional £20 billion in public expenditure – this being about the least we can get away with for the five more years he is expecting British troop numbers to remain at current levels in Afghanistan.

With the Labour administration expected to fall in the forthcoming general election, this of course is a sum that Mr Cameron's "modern" Conservatives are going to have to find, on top of the replacements they are going to have to fund as equipment wears out and is destroyed.

In a way, it is ironic that a political party which styles itself as "modern" – as against "new” Labour – is being committed to fighting a very old war. It is doubly so when the party is seeking a very old solution as well – that of progressively replacing expensive British soldiers with local troops and "levies", in order to reduce the costs.

Such issues were prominent in the late 1890s, when Winston Churchill found himself as a young subaltern of Horse, on the Northwest frontier, accompanying the Malakand Field Force into Waziristan to suppress the Pathan revolt – much as Pakistani forces are doing at present.

Writing in his book of the 1898 campaign, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, he then recorded that the great complaint was the expense of deploying extremely expensive cavalry regiments, although the overall parsimony of the Home Government was an object of much friction.

Having adopting what was then known as the "Forward Policy", 2nd Lt Churchill observed that "only one real objection" had been advanced against the plan – not without its similarities to the "take and hold" strategy currently proposed by Gen McChrystal. "But it is a crushing one," he wrote, "and it constitutes the most serious argument" against it: "It is this: we have neither the troops nor the money to carry it out".

At least in Churchill's day, the Government was spared the cost of the third of Gen McChrystal's components – the "build" stage where, after the troops have moved in to "protect the people", reconstruction and development is supposed to take place, better to demonstrate that the central government in Kabul cares for its citizens and is dedicated to furnishing them with a better life.

McChrystal's strategy is predicated on the assumption that the "insurgents" he is dealing with, labelled for convenience the "Taleban", are separate from the population and, as its oppressors, are the force which prevents the pacification of the areas. By providing security and then reconstruction (or, in many cases, construction ab initio) the theory is that the population "turns" from support of the Taleban, and sides with the government.

Interestingly, the forces ranged against the forefathers of the tribesmen currently causing havoc in the region adopted a slightly different approach. Having at great expense and some risk "taken" villages in contested areas, sappers were then employed to burn them to the ground – a process often hastened by the generous use of explosives – in a policy graphically and accurately described as "village burning".

With one MP "writing in the columns of his amusing weekly journal" of his concerns that such action was not only "barbarous" but "senseless", driving the displaced inhabitants into the arms of the enemy, 2nd Lt Churchill wrote that this reveals, perhaps, "the most remarkable misconception of the actual facts," thus noting:

The writer seemed to imagine that the tribesmen consisted of a regular army, who fought, and a peaceful, law-abiding population, who remained at their business, and perhaps protested against the excessive military expenditure from time to time. Whereas in reality, throughout these regions, every inhabitant is a soldier from the first day he is old enough to hurl a stone, till the last day he has strength to pull a trigger, after which he is probably murdered as an encumbrance to the community.
Thus, reasoned Churchill, when British troops were attacked and their assailants retired to the hills, "Thither it is impossible to follow them. They cannot be caught. They cannot be punished." Only one remedy remained - their property had to be destroyed. "Their villages are made hostages for their good behaviour. They are fully aware of this, and when they make an attack on a camp or convoy, they do it because they have considered the cost and think it worthwhile."

Of course, it is cruel and barbarous, as is everything else in war, Churchill added, "but it is only an unphilosophic mind that will hold it legitimate to take a man's life, and illegitimate to destroy his property."

None of such "philosophic" issues, however, need trouble Gen Richards, who is confident that, having spread peace and light throughout the land, to the applause of grateful villagers, British troop numbers will be able to fall significantly some time after 2014. However, he says, Afghan security forces will be much better able to take on Taleban insurgents within two or three years.

Through the period, he believes that the Army will see five years of declining violence "… and then we'll go into a supporting role." He adds: "If we get it right, our estimation is that by about 2011, 2012 you'll see an appreciable improvement. And by about 2014, we will ramp down our numbers as they ramp up and you'll start to reduce the overall risks of the operation."

It has to be said, though, that this time we aim to build rather than burn, but it remains to be seen whether that will make the difference.

The "build" strategy is based on the premise that the population and the "Taleban" are separate entities and the one can be detached from the other. A further assumption is that the population, on being treated kindly by the coalition forces will necessarily respond in kind. Yet, previous experience – albeit with the border tribes – does not support that assumption. And nor can it be assured that, after a period of peace and stability – should that happy situation ever arise – that it will be in any way permanent.

Churchill, for instance, noted that for two years after British troops had brought peace to the Swat Valley, trade had nearly doubled. "As the sun of civilisation rose above the hills, the fair flowers of commerce unfolded, and the streams of supply and demand, hitherto congealed by the frost of barbarism, were thawed," he wrote, adding:

Most of the native population were content to bask in the genial warmth and enjoy the new-found riches and comforts. For two years reliefs had gone to and from Chitral without a shot being fired. Not a post-bag had been stolen, not a messenger murdered. The political officers riding about freely among the fierce hill men were invited to settle many disputes, which would formerly have been left to armed force.
Yet this was the very area which was the epicentre of the uprising of 1898 and which, earlier this year – for the umpteenth time since that date – has been the focus of armed insurrection.

In further observations that may have considerable relevance to the current period, and the Islamic fundamentalism of the "Taleban", Churchill then noted that "a single class had viewed with quick intelligence and intense hostility the approach of the British power." This was the "priesthood", the Mullahs, who recognised that "Contact with civilisation assails the ignorance, and credulity," on which they depend for their wealth and influence.

The very blessings that Gen Richards and his troops wish to bestow on the villagers of Helmand, therefore, are exactly those which will invite the greatest hostility in the most powerful and influential group in the land. And the better he succeeds, the more hostility he will invoke, as he confronts the hitherto unvanquished combination of tribalism and self-serving militant Islam.

Earlier this year, the general had been suggesting that Britain might have to support Afghanistan for another 40 years to deliver stability in the country, although he never specified the nature of that support.

Given that the British during the colonial period were attempting to subdue the tribes in the region for over hundred years, without success, he might have been closer to the mark with those 40 years, to which he could add another sixty – when we could still be no further forward. Perhaps Richards ought to think about a bit of village burning ... at least it would be cheaper.