Thursday, 10 December 2009

I think we said that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Failure in Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, 6 December 2009

Corrupt, untrained, underpaid, illiterate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, 3 December 2009

Drop the dead donkey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The "nomad" war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, 2 December 2009

An absolute disaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Obama speaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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