Monday 30 November 2009

The shadow of history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday 27 November 2009

The forgotten country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In effect, Afghanistan became the forgotten country.


Monday 23 November 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday 22 November 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday 20 November 2009

Development blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday 17 November 2009

Then as now

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

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

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

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

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

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


Here we go again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bad idea

" ... in a move designed to address public fears that allied troops could become bogged down in Afghanistan for years to come," reports The Daily Telegraph (and others), Gordon Brown has announced that he plans to hold a summit for the Nato allies to discuss a timetable for withdrawal starting in 2010.

He is to offer London as a venue in January and wants the conference to chart a comprehensive political framework within which the military strategy can be accomplished. "It should identify a process for transferring district by district to full Afghan control and set a timetable for transfer starting in 2010," he has said.

The idea of a conference is good. But Brown is inviting the wrong people. The key "players" in the conflict – apart from Afghanistan – are Iran, Pakistan, India and China, plus the northern "stans". If there is a solution to this problem, it is only going to be brokered by talking to the governments of these countries, addressing the regional issues, of which the conflict in Afghanistan is but one small part.

Within this group, however, the central players are Pakistan and India, the latter playing a very dark role, alongside Afghanistan in the conflict.

There are several elements here. Firstly, since before even partition, Indian politicians have supported Afghanistan's ambition for a united Pashtun homeland, but only in order to unbalance Pakistan.

Secondly, for the same reasons, India is offering extremely generous aid to the Afghanistan government, in the hope of building an alliance between the two nations, effectively to enable a second front to be opened in the event of another Indo-Pakistan war, crushing Pakistan in a pincer movement.

This is by no means an untoward proposition. Right from the very earliest days of Pakistan's existence, there have been tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the Afghan government actually deploying several divisions of its troops to the border in March 1949.

Less than two years after the US invasion of Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban, the transitional Afghan government, under Hamid Karzai was launching raids into Pakistani-held territory along the border, with exchanges of fire being reported between rival troops, the Afghans claiming that they were trying to reclaim what they described as territory taken by Pakistani forces.

Even with the wreckage of a country around him, and barely able to move out of Kabul, Karzai nevertheless made it his priority to renew the dispute over the Durand line, claiming that, not having been formally ratified by the Afghan government in 1893, the treaty ceased to have any effect in 1993 – its hundredth anniversary.

The Afghan government was then asking the US to mediate in resolving the border dispute, something which the State Department was reluctant to do, claiming it did not have the expertise or the desire to intervene. "We are not there to re-write the history," a senior US official said.

Further clashes erupted in March 2004, but these were tribal conflicts between the Taniwali, a Hazara tribe displaced from the Swat Valley, pitted against the Madakhayl, Wazir, Zeli Shakh, and Badarkhayl tribes residing in northern Waziristan.

In April 2007, however, the situation got really serious when Pakistani troops started erecting fencing along the Durand line. Afghan troops were despatched to tear it down. They were fired on by Pakistani troops, whence the clash escalated, with the Afghan National Army deploying hundreds of troops and heavy artillery, the fighting leaving 13 soldiers killed and 51 wounded.

Just over a year later, in June 2008, there was another clash after Pakistani tribesmen and soldiers reportedly tried to stop security forces from Afghanistan from setting up a mountaintop post in a disputed border region. This time, at least 10 Pakistani troops died after a US air strike was called in by Afghan forces, after the Pakistanis were mistaken for insurgents.

With this level of tension on the border – which has by no means diminished – the ultimate irony is that coalition plans to strengthen and enlarge the Afghan Army could well backfire. Instead of being used to fight the Taliban, they could well end up being ranged along the border, their guns aimed at Pakistani troops.

In some senses, the Afghan government sees little difference between the Taliban and the Pakistani government, the one being heavily funded by the other, specifically intended to destabilise the Karzai government, which is thought to be far too close to India. Then, it is also claimed that the Indians are financing South Waziristan tribesmen, in order to promote terrorist attacks in Pakistan proper, its objective being to destabilise the Pakistani government.

Indian money is also said to be sponsoring the Balochi separatists, ostensibly in an attempt to destabilise the Pakistan government. But some have adopted the Taliban franchise and are currently fighting US forces in south Helmand, in an attempt to destabilise the Karzai government, which the Indians are supporting.

Then, of course, there is still the unresolved issue of Kashmir, with the Indian government troubled as much by its own Hindu extremists as is the Pakistani government its extremist Islamic groups.

Such is the tension that, with the bulk of the Indian Army ranged on the Pakistani border, most of the Pakistani strength is positioned to oppose it, leaving only one of its Corps available to deal with the frontier area (see map).

To thus pretend that the problem in Afghanistan can be solved by the Afghan government alone, or even that there is an AF-PAK solution, is the height of folly. A coalition conference, of the type announced by Brown, therefore, will achieve nothing. The Western powers, including President Obama, leading the US, and Britain, have to bite the bullet, and open up talks with the regional players, otherwise there is absolutely no chance of a resolution.


Sunday 15 November 2009


The end of the Second World War had not only left Afghanistan in a weakened state, with its development and modernisation stalled, there were new events to intensify the pressure on the country, most of all the partitioning of India, its independence and the creation of Pakistan. Obviously traumatic for the two nations involved, they had a profound effect on Afghanistan as well.

The year before partition, in May 1946, had seen Hasem Khan resign from his post as prime minister, to be replaced by his younger brother Shah Mahmud Khan, in whose hands the management of the nation resided until 1953. It was he who had to deal with what became known as the "Pathanistan Affair" which became a long-running dispute with his new neighbour, Pakistan.

This started on 3 July 1947, a month after Lord Mountbatten had announced his plan for the partition of India, The Afghan government sent a formal letter to British and Indian officials pointing out the desire of many hill tribes in the Northwest frontier and in Balochistan to break away from India and called upon the British to allow these groups to freely decide to associate themselves with India or Afghanistan or seek independence.

This approach earned a sharp rebuff from the interim Indian government, which told Afghanistan not to interfere in their "internal affairs". This, however, did not stop the leaders of the frontier tribes calling for the planned referendum on whether the frontier region would join Pakistan or India to include a proposal on complete independence for "Pathanistan".

This was rejected by both Pakistan and India, whence tribal leaders called for a boycott of the referendum. Pakistan responded by sending 15,000 troops to the area and, when the referendum was held, it had the heavily Islamic NW Frontier province voting overwhelmingly for union with Pakistan over India. However, due to the boycott, the turnout was only just over 50 percent, although the vast majority who did vote sided with Pakistan.

The refusal to include an independence option angered Mahmud's government, which had hopes of a united Pathanistan within the Afghan border, and reignited tribal unrest, souring Afghan and Pakistan relationships, to the extent that the Afhghan government refused to recognise the Durand line, and voted against the entry of Pakistan into the UN.

Nor was the frontier district the only bone of contention. With the absorption of Balochistan into the Pakistani state in 1948 – against the wishes of its peoples – Afghanistan sought a corridor from its southern border to the Arabian sea, a request that was firmly refused by the Pakistanis.

Later, the Afghanistan government sponsored a Pashtunistan government in exile, led by the Fakir of Ipi, who had caused so much trouble to the British in 1938 and who was now fomenting unrest against the Pakistani government.

At a time also when Pakistan was fighting the first Indo-Pakistan war in Kashmir, the Afghan government was entertaining the idea of linking with India along the axis formed by the Hunza valley, Nagir and Gilgit in northern Kashnir, to create a 50 mile contiguous border, with India recognising the establishment of an autonomous tribal state, at the expense of Pakistan.

By mid-1948 the Pakistani government was dealing with major episodes of unrest in the tribal areas, having to implement emergency powers to prevent an insurgency spreading, and launching a major military offensive against suspected rebels.

The following year, the situation had deteriorated even further as reports circulated of "atrocities" by the Pakistanis against the frontier populations. The Afghan government launched a major war of invective against Pakistan, calling for the right of self-determination for all groups in the frontier and tribal territories. It moved several divisions to the Pakistani border in late March and on 27 April 1949, Mahmud Khan threatened Pakistan with "strong action" if the atrocities did not cease.

In the June, the Afghan government convened a loya jirga which repudiated all treaties that had been signed between former Afghan governments and British India, including the Durand Treaty. It also declared the Fakir of Ipi the "president" of "independent" Pashtunistan. That month, Pakistani aircraft bombed an Afghan border village killing 23 people and injuring 24, subsequently claiming it had been a mistake.

Against this atmosphere of growing hostility, in July 1949 the British government, increasingly alarmed over the growing unrest in the area, intervened in the dispute, in support of Pakistan.

This had no effect on the level of hostility, with tribal incursions from Afghanistan into Pakistan taking place in 1950 and 1951. So bad did the situation become that, at one stage, diplomatic relations were severed and Pakistan imposed a blockade on petroleum products destined for Afghanistan through the port of Karachi.

With Western support coalescing around Pakistan, Afghanistan turned to the old enemy, the Soviet Union, which showed a willingness to help. In 1950, the Afghan government and the USSR concluded a major trade agreement, which allowed Afghanistan to barter wool and cotton for petroleum and other commodities, on highly favourable terms. As a result, the Soviet Union lodged a major foothold in the camp of its old adversary.

Then, in 1953, Mahmud Khan was deposed as prime minister by Lt-Gen. Mohammad Daud Khan. Sources variously describe this as a "bloodless coup d'état" and an "orderly transfer of power". Either way, this former commander of the Kabul Army Corps and then defence minister was the older half-brother of Nadir Khan, cousin and brother-in-law to the king. Under his tenure as prime minister, he was to take Afghanistan even closer to the USSR and, as a prominent Pashtun nationalist, he was to antagonise Pakistan still further.

Thus, in the space of less than six years, when – through Britain – Afghanistan had enjoyed cordial relations with the West, the country had turned completely. As the Cold War intensified, it was well on its way to becoming a client state of the USSR, at odds with its neighbour and a major destabilising factor in the region.

But then, in Helmand, the area currently giving us so much grief, there were the Americans.


Saturday 14 November 2009

A missed opportunity

See also the update here.

Our romp through Afghan history now brings us to the reign of the last king, Mohammad Ẓahir Shah (pictured). As Nadir Shah's only surviving son, he took the throne in 1933 on the assassination of his father, thus continuing the Barakzai Durrani dynasty.

Then only nineteen years old, Ẓahir was not in a position to exert his will and the real power was held by two of Nadir's brothers, Mohammad Hasem Khan and Shah Maḥmud, who held the position of prime minister from 1929-46 and 1946-53 respectively. In fact, Zahir Shah was not able to govern on his own in 1963.

Under Hasem Kahn's rule, a man who, during a period as the country's ambassador to the USSR, had developed an "intense dislike" for all things Soviet, relationships with Britain improved substantially, with Hasem agreeing to coordinate action on the borders to prevent tribesmen participating in hostile acts towards the British. There was even talk of Indian assistance to help Afghanistan set up a border police force.

This was certainly needed as the border area with India was plagued by a series of uprisings from 1932 to 1935, including a group known as the "Red Shirts", which became so troublesome to the British that it prompted a punitive expedition of 30,000 troops in 1935. In 1938, the British then had to deal with another uprising in Waziristan, fomented by the Fakir of Ipi,

During this early period, Afghanistan sought to take a greater part in the affairs of the "international community" and had joined the League of Nations in 1934, also in that year settling a long-standing frontier dispute with Iran, assisted by Turkey as the mediator. Three years later, Kabul concluded the Saadabad Pact, a non-aggression treaty with Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.

A preoccupation of the Zahir government during this time was the modernisation of its armed forces, primarily to defend its territories against Soviet incursions, for which purpose it looked to the UK for assistance.

Already, in 1931, Nadir Shah had looked to Britain for protection in the event of a Soviet attack. But military authorities considered the northern borders as "absolutely indefensible" and a cash-strapped British government, in the throes of the Great Depression, refused to give the Kabul government any firm assurances or assistance.

Increasingly, therefore, the Afghan government turned to a new player on the block, Nazi Germany, for economic and military modernization. As a relationship built, by 1936 Hitler's Germany was not only hosting the Afghan hockey team and officials as special guests at the Berlin Olympics, it had also massively increased trade and weapons deliveries to Afghanistan.

In 1938, a weekly air service, the first of its kind, was established between Kabul and Berlin. The Organization Todt provided plans and supervision for major infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges, airfields, and industrial plants while German officers undertook a programme designed to equip and train the Afghan armed forces to Western standards. In two years German trade with Afghanistan increased tenfold.

In August 1939, Afghanistan and Germany signed a ten-year comprehensive economic agreement, in which the German government became Afghanistan's chief supplier of economic and military assistance. Later, some attempts – largely unsuccessful – were made by the Germans to exploit the tribal conflicts, in order to keep British troops tied up in the frontier area.

Despite German agitation, on the outbreak of war, Afghanistan maintained a policy of strict neutrality. With the Nazi-Soviet pact in place, however, Hasem briefly entertained allowing British troops to be stationed in Herat and Kabul. The British authorities, considering a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and India a distinct possibility, secretly considered integrating Afghan forces into the Indian defence plans.

Interestingly, about that time, two British officers, Brigadier GN Molesworth and Major AS Lancaster, conducted an evaluation of the Afghan Army, concluding that leadership was in "short supply". Molesworth claimed that the officers were afflicted with "oriental chicanery, indolence, ignorance and incapacity".

Their "idiotic" war plans, he said, seemed to have been composed overnight and were wholly inadequate. Their armament requests seemed but "a stupendous and fantastic list of war material" and their attraction for modern equipment amounted to "children playing with expensive and half-comprehended toys". He dismissed the army as "little more than a facade and of little value off the barrack square", declaring that, "to expend time, energy and money on such a concern ... is sheer waste".

Following the fall of France, however, Stalin withdrew most of his forces from central Asia and, with it the threat of a Soviet invasion. Hasem renewed his enthusiasm for German assistance, which soured Anglo-Afghan relations. The Nazi and other Axis links caused some nervousness and, for a short time, the British feared a German invasion of India, through Afghanistan – even mining the Khyber Pass as a precaution

After the launch of Operation Barbarossa, though, October 1941, the British and Soviets, acting together, insisted on the expulsion of non-official Axis nationals from Afghanistan. Despite continued attempts to foment trouble, the German threat was to come to nothing. During the war period, the northwest frontier was remarkably peaceful, with the Pashtuns on the Indian side of the Durand line expressing support for the war, and even offering gifts to stricken Londoners during the Blitz.

The war left Afghan development programmes in a shambles. Most German-sponsored development programmes had been terminated shortly after ground-breaking. With popular discontent rising, the ruling family recognised the necessity for modernisation, without which their very hold on power would be threatened.

Military weakness further necessitated cooperation with the West. In 1945, an uprising of the Safi tribe, caused by government attempts to enforce conscription, erupted in southern Afghanistan. Though a minor revolt by most standards, the army experienced great difficulty in containing it. Ultimately, the government had to arm other tribes and abandon the idea of conscription in order to supress the rebellion.

The aftermath of the war saw strengthened US involvement in South Asia, while the Cold War in Europe heightened in Europe. The Soviets, perturbed over Anglo-American inroads into Afghanistan – with Afghanistan having appointed its first ambassador to the USA in 1943 - thus stepped up pressure on the Afghan government to make economic concessions, at the same time increasing border tensions and espionage, seeking also to foment tribal uprisings in the border areas.

In response to the renewed Soviet threat, the Afghan government again sought closer military relations with British India, to which Britain – this time - responded positively. Even then, it was acknowledged that the Afghan Army was inadequate, and would not be able to meet a Soviet invasion head on.

Contemporary reports noted a lack of the technical and administrative skills necessary to wage a modern war. Officers lacked professionalism, the logistics system was rudimentary, most equipment was obsolescent and the illiterate and poorly disciplined Afghan conscripts were largely ignorant of modern warfare techniques.

Nevertheless, through what was known as the "Lancaster Plan", the Afghan government was offered substantial quantities of military equipment, discounted by 50 percent, sold on easy credit terms. By early 1947, Afghanistan was largely dependent on Britain for supplies, instructors and technical assistance. The entire Afghan air force was equipped with British aircraft and all the pilots were British-trained.

This was to prove the pinnacle of British – and indeed Western relations - in the immediate post-war period and for some many decades. On the near horizon, though, was Indian independence, partition and the creation of Pakistan.

With partition, Britain was no longer able or willing to assist Afghanistan, or even interested in so doing. The successor states of Pakistan and India were equally disinterested, leaving the US as Afghanistan's only potential Western sponsor. Britain lost its only opportunity to bring order to a chaotic post-war settlement.

In 1946, however, a project was launched in Helmand, initially as a commercial venture by a US firm, which was later to become part of an increasingly elaborate and expensive US government aid programme, which lasted until 1979, in competition with the Soviets in the North. Aghanistan became a surrogate battlefield in the Cold War, the weapon civil aid rather than military might. This, we will explore in a future post.


Friday 13 November 2009

Wrong end of the stick

As a not infrequent commentator on the state of the Ministry of Defence, it might be thought that I would welcome the considerable media scrutiny to which this lacklustre department is being exposed. However, the current focus on the bonus issue does nothing but fill one with despair, as the media chases after the wrong issue, firmly grabbing the wrong end of the stick.

Highlighted, of course, was £47 million paid so far to MoD civil servants as bonuses, but the other side of the coin is put in a letter today from their union, Prospect.

Written by their National Secretary (Defence), Steve Jary, it tells us that the bonuses represent 2.8 percent of the pay bill, "removed from basic pay over the last eight years". This, Jary continues "is in line with 20 years of government policy to increase use of performance pay in the Civil Service."

The reference to "20 years of government policy" is extremely revealing, as the current system of bonus payments stems from a much-hailed (at the time) Conservative government initiative in the mid-eighties – under Margaret Thatcher – in an attempt to bring the civil service more into line with the private sector, linking pay with performance.

The way this has been implemented has been that a proportion of negotiated pay increases have been converted into bonus payments, rather than core salaries, and linked to personal performance assessments. That they are paid, virtually as of rote, is another issue, but the fact is that the bonuses have been subtracted from salaries, to be paid separately, not added to them.

Furthermore, there is another agenda here, which works very much in favour of the taxpayer. Unlike core salary, the bonus payments do not attract pension entitlement – something of which the union has been very conscious, suspecting (rightly) that the bonus system is a back-door way of reducing civil service pension costs. In that context, bonus payments actually save the taxpayer money.

Another point made by Jary is that, if civil servants did not do some MoD work, it would be done by military staff – at twice the cost to the taxpayer. The photograph at the top illustrates the point. It shows a tank workshop in Belgium in 1945 and, despite the poor quality, it can be seen that all the workers are in uniform.

Currently, that work is done by civilians in the MoD's Defence Support Group, which currently employs 3,800 staff, counted as "pen-pushers" by an agenda-driven media.

And, adds Jary, supply of military equipment is undertaken by teams of civil servants and military officers. Most teams are headed by military officers. If they are under-performing, blame the military hierarchy as well.

That latter point is a point well put. While the focus is on civilians, there has been next to no attention on the military, and in particular, the top brass. Yet, as the Army has contracted, the brass has increased. In 1997, there were 228 generals – one star and above – but by 2009 this number has increased to 255.

Included in that number are 43 Major Generals, the rank of a Divisional commander. By contrast, Land Command (UK) has only six divisions, of which only two actually have troops, of which only one is actually deployable – and then only in brigade formations, which also have their own commanders.

Further, for an Army which cannot actually field one Corps (typically three Divisions), we have 10 Lt-Generals – the rank of a Corps commander, the same number we had in 1997. And, of course, all the generals have their staffs and aides, plus their servants, chauffeurs and perks, collectively siphoning hundreds of millions from the Defence budget.

Within the Army, it has long been recognised that the command structure is top-heavy, and the same applies to the RAF and Navy, the latter having far more admirals than ships. Yet, time after time, successive defence chiefs have ducked the issue and refused to prune the brass.

Equally, from the media, we have silence on this issue. "Pen-pushers" and "bonuses" are a much easier target, and avoid the need to do any thinking and detailed analysis of where the waste – and the problems – lie.


A common enemy

As we left our continuing romp though the history of Afghanistan, we had seen the death of the "Iron Amir", Abdur Raḥman, in 1901. From his bloody reign, we see the continuation of the tribal rivalry, the oppression of the Ghilzai by a Durrani ruler from the "new" capital of Kabul, bolstered by Tajik and other northern tribes.

We also see the enforced resettlement of Ghilzai Pashtuns north of the Hindu Kush, areas which have now become foci of Taliban activity, and we also saw the active intervention of the British which not only supported this despot, but honoured him with the insignia of the highest grade of the Order of the Star of India. The British thus became part of the problem.

There is also another dynamic, the importance of which is difficult to assess. Through the reign of Amir Rahman and his predecessor Sher Ali, British policy changed from one of laissez faire under the Liberal Gladstone, to the interventionalist policy of Disraeli and then back to laissez faire as Gladstone resumed office in 1880.

Whether the precise nature of these policy shifts were understood by the Afghan political élites is not clear, but the effects were certainly evident. When Sher Ali wanted support from the British against Russian encroachment, under Gladstone's laissez faire it was not forthcoming. But, when he treated with the Russians in an attempt to resolve the issue, he then fell foul of an interventionalist Disraeli, suffering the invasion and occupation of his county.

When the policy changed again during Abdur Rahman, one can only guess at the impression left of him and successive Afghan rulers. However, it takes little imagining to venture that the British acquired a reputation for inconstancy – to the extent even that they could not be relied upon. If that is the case, one wonders whether this reaches out to influence the current incumbent of the Afghan "throne", Hamid Karzai.

Thus far, then, we have identified a number of elements which essentially poison the political terrain in modern Afghanistan, and we are only partially though our historical exploration. The next instalment starts with the new Amir Ḥabiballah Khan, the eldest son of Abdur Rahman.

Unusually, there was an orderly succession – the previous succession had seen a brutal 6-year civil war – and, having ascended the throne without opposition, in 1905 he renewed the personal accord which tied the Amir of Afghanistan to the British government. And he governed with the same authoritarian methods as his father, a fact that cost him the hostility of a small constitutional party and a series of assassination attempts, the third of which was successful on 21 February 1919.

During the period of his reign there had grown two, antagonistic "modernising" factions. The first was the constitutionalist party, known as the "Young Afghans", who were anti-British and pro-Turk. The second was led by members of a family from the Moḥammadzai, strongly influenced by Anglo-Indian ideas.

Eventually, it was the nationalist "Young Afghans" faction which prevailed, conspiring in Ḥabiballah's assassination. He was replaced by Amanallah, one of his sons, Close to the "Young Afghans" faction, the new Amir set out to put their programme into practice, aware that, without their support, he stood little chance of staying in power. He thus demanded from the British full sovereignty in all matters concerning foreign affairs.

Confronted with British hesitations, and with the majority of the Indian Army still overseas in the aftermath of the First World War, he launched a jihad on the British and in May 1919 invaded India, starting the third Anglo-Afghan war. With an indifferent army, against still superior British forces, which by then were also able to deploy the power of the RAF (pictured), Amanallah stood little chance of victory.

Of very great interest to our analysis, however, he was aided considerably by the Waziri and Mashud tribes, now in Indian territory on the "wrong" side of the Durand line. They had last rebelled against the British in the "Mad Mullah" uprising of 1897, and it was their involvement which turned the tide.

Although the British easily contained the invasion and launched a counter-attack on Jalalabad and even launched an aerial raid on Kabul, the prospect of a new war on the heels of the 1918 armistice did not appeal to the British, and they feared a full-scale Pashtun tribal uprising along their borders. After a month of fighting, they agreed to sign an armistice and later the Treaty of Rawalpindi on 8 August 1919.

It is from then that the Afghanis date their independence, which they used to send Afghan missions to Europe and the Soviet Union, and sign several bilateral treaties with Turkey, Persia, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. In June, 1926, Amanallah symbolically completed this process by abandoning the less important title of Amir for the more prestigious one of Shah.

In between, Amanallah had been forced to put down a violent revolt of the Mangal of Paktia, between 1924-25 but this did not dissuade him from embarking on a series of far-reaching reforms, which included the suppression of polygamy, the improvement of the position of women, a battle against corruption and family patronage, and the secularisation of public affairs.

But he was not given time to enact his reforms. A minor revolt of the Shinwari tribe on the Northwest frontier in November 1928 triggered a violent campaign by religious leaders against him. In a few weeks all of eastern Afghanistan was in revolt and the royal garrisons were defeated one after another. In this atmosphere of civil war, a Tajik adventurer by the name of Habibullah-e- Kalakani attacked Kabul at the head of a band of Kuhestani tribesmen from the mountainous area north of Kabul. He eventually succeeded in taking the town on 15 January 1929 and the royal palace on the following day, proclaiming himself Amir.

Amanallah, who had abdicated on 14 January in favour of his half-brother, fled to Kandahar and tried to raise a counter-offensive on Kabul. But his appeals to the injured Pashtun sense of honour were heeded only by the Durrani of southern Afghanistan. As he started marching towards the capital, he was attacked by Ghilzai tribesmen who obliged him and his men to turn back on 19 April 1929.

Crushed by this resurgence of the old antagonism between the two main Pashtun confederations, the powerless king and his family sought refuge in India before going to Italy, where he lived forgotten until his death in 1960.

The take-over in Kabul meanwhile triggered a series of uprisings throughout the country. Hazaras in Ghazni, Dayzangi, Behsud, and Daykundi joined forces and started to fight against the new Amir. The Shinwaris, however, allied themselves with the new Amir to fight against loyalist Amanis in the Logar valley. In the North, Turkmens started attacking Hazaras around Mazar-e-Sharif.

To the rescue came Nadir Khan a distant cousin of Amanallah. Aided and financed by the British Government, he appealed to the Pashtun tribes to overthrow the Amir, on the basis that Pashtuns should not accept a non-Pashtun ruler, persuading the Mangal and Jaji tribes in Paktia to capture Kabul from the Tajiks.

Marching on Kabul, Nadir Khan briefly entertained the idea of a national government in concert with the Tajik usurper but, with the help of Waziri and Mashud reinforcements, captured and sacked the capital on 13 October 1929, arresting Habibullah-e-Kalakani and his supporters, later to have them shot. On 16 October he was proclaimed Amir by his troops.

Nadir and his loyal Pashtun tribes then attacked Northern Afghanistan, killing, raping and looting. They expropriated the fertile lands belonging to Tajiks and Uzbeks and distributed them to the Pashtuns. He then attacked Hazarajat region in central Afghanistan, where he massacred thousands of innocent Hazaras.

Nadir Khan then proceeded to reverse the liberalisation measures introduced by his predecessor. The successors of the "Young Afghans", who had joined the opposition, were tracked down and assassinated. Nadir's reign degenerating into a series of tribal feuds which led to his own assassination on 8 November 1933, by a sixteen-year-old boy as the Amir handed out prizes at a high school graduation.

The events of this turbulent period have been compared with 1996, when the Taliban took power, in the context of a Tajik ruler in power, with a similar breakdown in public order.

In this brief period of Afghan history, though, there were a number of issues which have direct application to modern Afghanistan. Going back to 1929 and the beginning of the rein of Nadir Khan, an underlying theme which was beginning to exert its influence with increasing force was the battle between religious conservatism and modernity.

In pursuing modernity, his predecessor Amanullah had attempted a wide range of reforms, which included adopting the solar calendar, requiring Western dress in parts of Kabul and elsewhere, discouraging the veiling and seclusion of women, abolishing slavery and forced labor, introducing secular education (for girls as well as boys); adult education classes and educating nomads.

His economic reforms included restructuring, reorganizing, and rationalizing the entire tax structure, anti-smuggling and anti-corruption campaigns, a livestock census for taxation purposes, the first budget (in 1922), implementing the metric system (which did not take hold), establishing the Bank-i-Melli (National Bank) in 1928, and introducing the afghani as the new unit of currency in 1923.

In following him, Nadir Khan was faced with the strength of the religious and tribal leaders and, to maintain their support, was forced to abolished most of Amanullah's reforms. Yet still there was pressure for modernisation and, though his reign, he initiated a programme of road construction, driving the Great North Road through the Hindu Kush, introduced radio broadcasting, and helped establish Afghanistan's first university in Kabul, which first admitted students in 1932. He also paved the way for a modern banking system, and instituted a system of long-range economic planning to his government.

Alongside this were other pressures, from, over the border, where Indian nationalism was on the rise, the British in 1919 instituting reforms which gave an element of political authority to most of the provinces of India, notably excluding the Northwest frontier, where it was considered "singularly inappropriate" that the warring Pashtuns should be allowed even a small element of self government.

This led to the development of a political opposition within the frontier area, which allied itself with the Indian National Congress, the party fighting for its own national independence. From that emerged a new impetus for a united "Pashtunistan" which led to a major uprising in 1930 in Peshawar, which had British armoured cars turning their machine guns on brick-throwing crowds, requiring martial law before order was restored.

Another dynamic which Nadir Khan had to confront was the pressure of financing the ongoing campaign to keep rebellious tribes in order, leading him to accept a substantial grant from the British and a gift of 10,000 Enfield rifles. This in turn led to accusations – aired in the Indian press – that he had become a puppet of Delhi.

Anti-British sentiment, Pashtun nationalism and the forces of conservatism all had in common a strong attachment to Islam and, therefore, Nadir Khan found it necessary to pursue an overt Islamophile policy, simply to keep opponents on-side. Thus, reforms could proceed only very slowly, and co-operation with the British over the border question often had to be disguised behind a wall of Islamic and nationalist rhetoric.

Broader issues also emerge from the period from 1901 to 1933, when we see several more elements that may have a resonance in modern times. Firstly, as with the recovery of national sovereignty in the 1919 Anglo-Afghan War, the Pashtun tribes were prepared to unite against a common enemy, in this case the British – burying temporarily traditional tribal enmities.

Secondly, we see how easily attempts at liberalisation and secularisation – in this case by Amanallah – attracted the opposition of religious leaders, resulting in the collapse of the government and a period of civil war. What is striking also is how quickly the country degenerated into war.

Then we see the intolerance of the Pashtuns for a leader other than one of their own – and their violent character when dealing with other ethnic groups. But we also see how the rivalries between the Durranis and the Ghilzai are so strong that, even when a Tajik had taken power in Kabul, the Ghilzai were still not prepared to set aside historical enmities, treating the Durrani as the greater enemy.

Finally, it is perhaps noteworthy that, after the take-over of Kabul, Amanallah should flee to Kandahar, the historic capital of Afghanistan, in order to seek aid.

All of these elements, it seems, are capable of replication – as indeed is claimed for 1996, and could presage the fate of Afghanistan in the event of the withdrawal of coalition forces. Civil war is not a remote possibility in Afghanistan – even its recent history suggests that, without a strong central authority, it is a racing certainty.