View from Outside Afghanistan

As US and British troops withdraw from Afghanistan, it is well worth reading this analysis dating back to Sep 2009 – offered as advice to British officers in theatre. The author is a former British SAS officer with long experience of terrorist and insurgency operations.

It is difficult to find even well-informed people who can explain why NATO is fighting in Afghanistan, and this leaves the nasty suspicion that our leaders are making the same mistakes in Afghanistan as they made in Iraq.  The senior US General there, Stanley McChrystal, even suggests that failure is on the cards. [1]

Bush and Blair invaded Iraq in 2003 insisting Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction which, they said, posed a real threat to the people of America and Great Britain. They brushed aside any weakness in their arguments with a wash of moral outrage at the Iraqi dictator’s human rights abuses, added the suggestion that he was linked to 9/11, and threw in a self-righteous vow to introduce democracy to Iraq.

Some people may still think invading Iraq was a good idea, but the strategic excuses were a lie. Islamic terrorism mushroomed from nothing in Iraq, because it did not exist there under Saddam Hussein, and it increased throughout the world.  Now, there are those who say the occupation was a political, economic, social, and even a military disaster, and it is still far from certain democracy will grow in Iraq. 

So, will Afghanistan be a repeat of these experiences in Iraq?  Are there really sound strategic reasons for sending troops to Afghanistan, reasons which must include the prospect of improving global markets, for why else should so many foreign countries want to be there? How should the conflict with the Taliban be managed, to provide a safe environment for business in the future?  Or, is there nothing of value in Afghanistan except poppies and poetry? 

A quick review of the country is important, to show just how extreme the place is and because where Afghanistan is in the world formulates its problems as well as it may also provide a solution. 

Afghanistan is a harsh, land-locked, mountainous country cupped between the central Iranian desert in the west and Pakistan to the south.  The Pakistani border reaches all round the southern and eastern borders to the rocky ramparts of the Himalayas.  On the northern border, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan – all former Soviet Republics of Central Asia – march west to east, where an odd finger of Afghanistan’s land reaches out even further east to touch China.  All of these countries have a key role in the country’s present crisis.

Afghanistan’s mountains descend across 1,400 kms from inhospitable snowy 6,000+m peaks in the Hindu Kush on the northern edge of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier to arid 1,000m ridges bordering Iran.  Nearly 10 million Afghans live in the capital Kabul and the few major cities.  The rest, some 20 million, live in a remote landscape, in green, often irrigated, river valleys between arid mountain ranges, and they farm what they can. Food production and grazing animals for their own consumption are not so much traditional as historic, though around 14% of farmers now cater for the heroin trade and grow poppies.  This is an important source of revenue for the Taliban.

Sun-baked in the summer and freezing cold in winter, when much of the country is covered in snow, the Afghans, nearly 30 million of them, are hardy and long-suffering.  They have to be to survive in such an environment.

They are intensely tribal, even in the cities.  Their loyalties, developed from centuries of self-reliance, are to family, village and tribe.  Central government, when it existed at all, has always been distant and corrupt, or controlled by foreign empires which have marched back and forth across Afghanistan through the ages.  The Afghans have fought them all, and, while not all have been beaten, the foreigners have always given up in the end and left.

The British suffered what was probably their worst military disaster ever during the Retreat from Kabul in 1842, when the entire column was wiped out, save one man.[2]  Recently in 1989, the Afghans saw off the Soviets after ten years of bitter resistance.  During this time, US (and UK) special agents supplied the Afghans with arms and trained them how to fight an insurgency, lessons being put to effective use by the Taliban today.  When the USSR pulled out, the US (and UK) quit too, leaving the Afghans to the Taliban.  These experiences have carved an indelible impression of foreign weakness and untrustworthiness which are part of Afghan collective memory and the source of their confidence. 

In between foreign invasions, the Afghan tribes have hardly drawn breath fighting each other.  Afghan men have carried weapons for centuries and fighting is endemic, so it is surprising when newspaper articles in the West suggest, pathetically, that the Afghan people are tired of the present conflict. 

This is nothing more than assuming – and hoping – the other person thinks the way you do, and is pure fantasy.  A key aim in war is to understand how the enemy thinks, and in Afghanistan conflict is a way of life, perhaps much as it was in Europe hundreds of years ago when the rule of law was as fragile as it has always been in Afghanistan. 

The American adventure in Afghanistan began in 2001 as a reaction to the tragedy of 9/11.  President Bush, backed by the vast majority of the US, at that time anyway, wanted to ‘kick ass’ – someone’s, anyone’s – and US Intelligence indicated that al Qaeda, the source of the Twin Towers’ disaster, was hiding in the Afghan mountains.  Even if this was little more than knee-jerk revenge, the strategy (if there actually was one) was at first sensible. US (and UK) troops stayed out, except for a small number of Special Forces ‘advisors’ inside the country, while the US funded a group of warlords to fight the incumbent Taliban government and supported them with air power. 

The Taliban were defeated, Bush hailed a new, allegedly democratic, Afghan government… and then the US (and UK) governments pretty much took their eye off Afghanistan for six years while they made a hash of Iraq.

The Taliban did not take their eye off the ball.  Initially, they retired to the ever-lawless region of northwest Pakistan. Then in 2006, they began a revolt in Afghanistan against the Kabul government which had neither enough troops nor police to counter the threat.  The Taliban made good progress in the populated river valleys, many of which are so remote that government officials, much less NATO troops, never set foot in them.  Whatever the Afghans thought of the Taliban, the alternative didn’t seem much better in spite of what Bush was saying about new freedoms and ‘democracy’.  The regional councils and local police, most of whom come from one tribe in any one place, were accused by other tribes of corruption, crimes against their women and children, and trying to seize the heroin drug trade proceeds for themselves.  Such accusations by one tribe against another are probably as old as the hills, but now the problem was, and still is, that the US (and UK) had assumed a global responsibility for the new Kabul government and failure was not, on the face of it, an option. 

That much is fine, even though in their ignorance NATO troops ended up backing the people in charge who stood accused by local people of crimes and corruption, but it is disturbing that the US (and UK) continue to explain their commitment in emotive terms, using the now-familiar trigger words, ‘Terrorism’, ‘al Qaeda’, and ‘Protecting our streets at home’.  Is it possible that a remote, rocky, historically lawless country which apparently has nothing to offer except poppies commands this level of sacrifice for purely altruistic reasons?  Bush spoke of defending the American People.  Obama too.  Blair spoke ‘passionately’ in similar terms.  Now it is Brown’s turn. On 11 July 2009, he wrote, “In 2001 the case for intervention in Afghanistan was to take on a global terrorist threat and prevent terrorist attacks in Britain… In 2009 the overriding reason for our continued involvement is the same – to take on, at its source, the terrorist threat, and prevent attacks here (in the UK) and elsewhere.”

We don’t have access to the latest American (or British) intelligence reports, so we can’t say if these fine words contain the full argument for our troops being in Afghanistan, but we sincerely hope there is more to it.  There are many countries with regimes utterly different to our own, regimes with laws and habits that horrify us, where Human Rights are hardly observed, some of which are allies, others which also support terrorist training camps, and yet, happily, our governments have not yet committed our troops to fighting there. 

Brown elaborated, “Three quarters of the most serious plots against the UK have links into these (Afghan) mountains. So our purpose is clear: to prevent terrorism coming to the streets of Britain.” 

Just what does Brown’s 75% really mean?  Is it that 75% of people involved in British terrorists cases have been to Afghanistan?  On the evidence presented in recent UK court cases, this is not so, though a few have.  Does he mean people planning or carrying out attacks inside Britain are influenced by al Qaeda?  Very possibly, Al Qaeda’s dicta are in the public domain, deliberately so, and, given the mess that the US and UK have made of handling Iraq and other Muslim countries (Yemen, Somalia, Beirut for example), is this surprising?  The saddest part is that nearly all – certainly more than Brown’s 75% – of the recent ‘serious’ plots in the UK have been carried out in the name of Islam.  Yes, al Qaeda does exert an influence on young Muslims shocked by US support for Israel, the treatment of Muslims in Guantanamo Bay, and what the US (and UK) have been doing in Iraq and now Afghanistan, but is the fighting going on now in Afghanistan the right solution?

Brown implies that unless British soldiers engage the Taliban, now synonymous with terrorism, in Afghanistan, Taliban/terrorists will stalk the streets of Totnes or Tooting Bec.  If so, why, on 20 July 2009, did his government reduce the UK’s Terror Threat Alert Level from ‘Severe’ to ‘Substantial’? And this at a time when British forces were losing more casualties in Afghanistan than at any time since 2001?  July was an horrendous month for foreign troops, with 75 deaths and twice that number seriously injured.  Surely the actual threat from the Taliban and al Qaeda can never have been greater, if Afghanistan really is the reason behind the threat to the UK?

Or, are the politicians ladling out more easy-to-grasp KISS principle sound-bites, because they think the public can’t handle the truth? Keep it simple, the voters are stupid.  Brown is certainly no stranger to such spin, and British newspapers are happy to chime in with heart-felt, resurgent support for the public mood.  The papers ring with righteous headlines like those in the Telegraph (17 Aug 2009), “Our fight is against terror and tyranny – not just the Taliban!”   Emotive but unhelpful.  The British people do certainly support their servicemen in Afghanistan who are doing an outstanding job, with (as ever) insufficient gear, but they are increasingly unconvinced their soldiers should be there. Lately (29 Aug 2009), over 60% of people wanted British troops out.  Emotive explanations don’t ‘do it’ any more.  They all know that terror and tyranny exist in many places round the world, that Sharia Law condemns women to a difficult time in other Muslim countries which are allies of the US (and UK), but, thankfully, British forces aren’t sent to do battle everywhere.

So, there must be another explanation for NATO’s conflict in Afghanistan and it must be a good one to have convinced 28 member nations of NATO and another 14 nations outside NATO all to participate and send troops.

One key answer lies over the border in Pakistan.  This is both an Islamic country and a nuclear power.  In recent years, in response to the fashion, Pakistan has slipped quietly towards a more rigorous Islam, an Islam deliberately distinct from its British, and Western, past.  For the US, this was worryingly noticeable especially inside the Pakistan secret Inter-Service Intelligence agency (the ISI).  At the same time, and perhaps not unconnected, the Taliban influence in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier region and the Swat Valley area grew without check by the central government.  By February 2009, the Taliban controlled the Swat Valley and the Pakistani government was unable or unwilling to impose the rule of law.  By default, Islamabad agreed that the Taliban and local leaders could impose Sharia law in the areas they controlled.  Scenes of Taliban fighters punishing men and women can be found on Youtube.

Naturally, the US was furious.  Not only has the NATO effort in Afghanistan always been ham-strung by the Taliban fighters being able to nip over the border into Pakistan for R and R, to re-arm themselves, to train and to plan meetings in relative safety, but, perhaps more importantly for the US, one American doomsday scenario is where the Taliban take power in Pakistan and gain control over Pakistan’s nuclear capability. 

The US has been doing its best to eliminate Taliban leaders over the border just inside Pakistan with the latest fashion in military hardware, laser-guided bombing attacks and pilot-less drones.  One wonders how effective this is, as, in March 2009, the Taliban consolidated their control of the Swat Valley and began to move towards Islamabad.  By mid-April, Taliban attacks were only 100 kms from the capital and Washington put severe pressure on the Pakistan government to act.

The pressure worked.  On 26 April 2009, the Pakistani Army was deployed into the Swat Valley to seek and destroy Taliban influence there.  At the time of writing, the Army is still in action.  It is not clear quite what they have achieved, or whether, after the Americans stop complaining, they will soon return to barracks, but they are, perhaps inevitably, accused of carrying out extra-judicial killings, creating “killing fields”, and some 2.5 million Pakistanis have been displaced by the fighting.

It is clear, however, that the Taliban are not defeated.  Recent attacks by them all over Afghanistan, and NATO losses, demonstrate this.  They remain a huge threat inside Afghanistan and will be hard, maybe impossible, to eliminate in Pakistan. Their presence in the two countries, and the threat to each, are inextricably linked.

Of course there is another strategic and financial reason.

Ten years ago, on 12 Feb 1998, when Afghanistan was suffering an earlier crisis, Mr. John J. Maresca, then Vice President of International Relations at the US energy giant Unocal Corporation, was interviewed by the US sub-Committee on Asia and the Pacific in the House of Representatives.  He was asked to discuss US interests in oil and gas in the region. His testimony sheds light on why so many NATO countries are committed to Afghanistan now.

Maresca explained that Unocal had identified huge oil and gas resources in the Central Asian states north of Afghanistan (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan), which have been proved since.  He focused on three issues with regard to making those reserves available to global markets. First, he saw a need for several pipeline routes to bring the oil and gas out.  Second, he saw a need for US support to achieve “balanced and lasting political settlements to the conflicts in the region, including Afghanistan”. By this, he presumably meant US military support too, if required.  Third, he saw a need for US aid, “structured assistance to encourage economic reforms and the development of appropriate investment climates in the region.”

Maresca said the planned pipelines (eg the Azerbaijan-Ceyhan pipeline which connects the region to the Mediterranean) would not have the capacity to export all the reserves and he identified the need for a further pipeline through Afghanistan. 

This idea has important strategic benefits for the US.  Existing pipelines from Central Asia were built during the Moscow-centered Soviet period and tend to head north and west toward Russia. There are no connections to the south and east, yet that is where the US would prefer the reserves to go, because the emerging markets in Asia, especially India, have rapidly increasing energy consumption needs. Maresca was clear that Asia’s needs dovetailed with those of the US, “It is in everywhere’s interest that there be adequate supplies for Asia’s increasing energy requirements. If Asia’s energy needs are not satisfied, they will simply put pressure on all world markets, driving prices upwards everywhere.” Clearly, ‘everywhere’ now includes all the 42 nations committed to the conflict in Afghanistan. 

Maresca identified two possible pipeline solutions.  One option is to go east to China, but this would mean constructing a pipeline of more than 3,000 kilometres just to reach Central China and it is doubtful the US (or UK) would easily agree to give the Chinese access to and control over these reserves.  The second option is to build a pipeline south from Central Asia to the Indian Ocean.  Here too there were two routes.  The obvious, shorter, route south would cross Iran but this is impossible as long as US-Iran relations remain the way they are. The only other possible route is across Afghanistan.

More details on the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline can be found here [3] but Maresca added, “It (is) clear that construction of the pipeline… across Afghanistan could not begin until a recognized government is in place that has the confidence of governments (and) lenders.” Is this bland understatement the real explanation of the bloody conflict now going on in Afghanistan?

Colin Powell seemed to think so in November 2001 when he was US Secretary of State. “We… have an enormous obligation, not only the United States but the whole international community, not to leave the Afghan people in the lurch… as has been done in the past,” he told a meeting on assistance to Afghanistan attended by 21 nations and the European Union, which considered Afghanistan’s best chance for attracting foreign capital was its strategic location as a major transit route for Siberian and Central Asian oil and gas exports to South and East Asia.

This much understood, is the current NATO strategy the right one for achieving this environment?

On 18 Sep 2009, the new head of the British Army, General Richards, and US General Petraeus warned that defeat of the international coalition in Afghanistan would have an “intoxicating impact” on extremists around the world. There seems little doubt about that. In truth, in 2003 when Bush invaded Iraq, there was not much of a World Wide War on terrorism, but after all the mistakes made there, the world certainly has one now. A new failure in Afghanistan would make Muslim terrorists worldwide think they really are unbeatable.

Fortunately, there is one major difference between the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq was a lie from the start, whereas there are good strategic reasons for NATO’s fight in Afghanistan.  The issue is how to ‘market’ that, and how to achieve success. This is not obvious, for historically Afghanistan was never easy, and clearly the issues are complex.  Richards and Petraeus both agreed that, “…we have not yet confirmed the correct formula for…  the ingredients for success.”  This is a tad worrying, given NATO has been there eight years and Richards was a former commander of NATO’s forces in Afghanistan (ISAF).  Are ISAF tactics, all those operations in the field, all those casualties, really without strategy? We hope not: Sun Tzu’s view was, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”   These are two competent officers: we should look at what they are saying more carefully.

In fact, the essential pillars of success are men and money.  Without enough of both of these, no amount of commitment, coordination, planning, effort and bravery will cut the mustard.  Is this what Richards and Petraeus really meant: that politicians have not yet provided these two basic ingredients to allow success? 

There has been much about troop levels in the press recently, but these discussions are mostly about our own troop levels (whichever of the 42 nations you happen to live in), rather than Afghanistan’s troop levels. So, what are the current levels?

Bizarrely, NATO’s website for its forces in Afghanistan (ISAF), tells the world exactly how many troops are deployed in the conflict against the Taliban, on what is called in ISAF-speke, a Placemat.[4] There, we learn that the 42 nations in ISAF have committed 61,130 troops, and that the Afghan army musters just under 90,000.  A quick look at other counter-insurgency campaigns shows that, given the scale of the insurgency in Afghanistan, these figures are simply nowhere near enough.

In the 1990s, Egypt suffered increasing terrorism, mainly from the Jamaat al-Islamiyya, “the Islamic Group”, which is best known for the Luxor attack in 1997 that killed fifty-eight foreign tourists and four Egyptians. Egypt’s economy suffered seriously and Cairo admitted the Luxor attack cost an estimated 50 percent of its average $3.7 billion tourism revenue in 1998.  The Egyptian government can call on over 1,200,000 men in uniform, and was able to allocate some 300,000 troops, paramilitaries and police to solve the problem.  Since, terrorism has been stopped, with the terrorist leaders ‘agreeing’ to a ceasefire.

On the other side of the Mediterranean, Turkey has had a terrorist problem over a longer period, fighting the Kurdish separatist terrorist group Parti Karkerani Kurdistan, the PKK, based in the mountainous southeastern part of the country. Like the Egyptians, the Turkish government called on the resources of its huge standing army and the terrorism has been largely suppressed.

Algeria had a harder time of it when terrorism erupted in 1993 precisely because its security forces manpower was insufficient. The Algerian Army was barely 120,000 strong, of whom only 30,000 were permanent cadre, the rest being conscripts, while their Gendarmerie paramilitary force was around 40,000.  Their quick-fix solution was to create and arm militias in all the towns and villages across the Mediterranean littoral where the insurgency was worst, instantly increasing the numbers of government forces available to combat the terrorists, who were mainly the Armed Islamic Group (GIA, al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyah al-Musallaha).  This was a risky strategy, as the militias had none of the discipline of regular troops or paramilitaries, but the Algerian government believed it had no option at that time. They needed the manpower to offset the risk they would lose control to the terrorists.  True, some militias were maverick, and there were some appalling massacres attributed to government forces, but the decision worked for Algeria.  After twelve, hard years in which some 250,000 people lost their lives, Algeria came through its terrorism.

The Algerian case is very similar to Afghanistan’s current situation, in terms of population, starting military numbers, the terrorists’ religious motivation, and geography, but in none of the first three cases has the problem gone away.  There are still groups in each country which want to continue the fight.  There will be attacks from time to time, but each country survived the dangerous period because they had the manpower. 

A glance at the graphic (Comparison of Security Force Strengths) shows quite clearly that right now Afghanistan simply doesn’t have enough manpower to fight and win and politicians ought to recognize this.  Afghanistan’s insurgency is as serious as Algeria’s was, maybe more so[5], though not so many people are being killed and the terrain is more difficult to reach and control than even it was in Algeria.  The insurgency is beyond the powers of the Afghan police and so the Afghan Army probably needs to be doubled in size, to 200,000 men at least[6], to address the revolt with any hope of success.  It must be fully equipped for this counter-insurgency including massive helicopter air-portability for it to be strong enough to handle the campaign, let alone any future one: even if defeated now, the Taliban will not go away for good. The temptation to keep pouring more foreign soldiers into Afghanistan should be resisted, to avoid accusations of being yet another foreign occupation or risk leaving a military void when ISAF does withdraw.  In due course when the Afghan Army is strong enough, foreign ISAF forces may reduce numbers back to ‘advisors’ for key roles – like pilots, commanders, medics, special forces etc – typically on contract to the Afghan Army, as has been the case in other countries, for example Oman.

There is much recruiting and training to do to increase the Afghan Army and Paramilitary troop levels before Afghanistan can breathe easily about this insurgency. Till then, the key tactical decisions for NATO/ISAF concern how to balance the deployment of foreign troops to train the Afghan Army – an absolute requirement which must be achieved as quickly as possible – and at the same time use them to hold the Taliban at bay in the worst areas until the Afghan Army can take over.

And the Afghan troops must be paid. On time. Inside Afghanistan, the Karzai government is accused of corruption which allegations of fraud during the recent election do nothing to dispel.  There are reports that Afghan police and soldiers often don’t receive their pay, and that funds allocated to community initiatives go missing. This is no way to win an insurgency, much less double the number in the Afghan Army. 

In Algeria, not a place noted for fair play, the government deliberately improved pay and conditions in the Army, Gendarme and Police to attract recruits, and thereby they encouraged greater respect for the armed forces fighting the terrorists. Security forces’ self-perception and status should never be under-estimated in recruiting and holding people in the forces. In fact, the pay increases did not need to be large because there was considerable unemployment in Algeria at the time, as is currently the case in Afghanistan, but a regular paycheck was better than nothing at all, paid for the extended family where most had no employment at all, and many joined up. There, as in Afghanistan, whole families depend on one man’s regular paycheck and are thereby prised away from the terrorists, which means there is an important spin-off in building up the army.

Enough money is the second fundamental pillar of success, and paying for manpower is only one element.  More financial commitment is required than has been the case so far from the main contributing countries in ISAF/NATO.  They already supply 90% of Afghanistan’s revenue, and of course foreign politicians are chary of committing funds to Afghanistan that they need at home to budget their exit from the international financial crisis.  They are also sensitive to growing public unhappiness with their troops’ casualties and are reluctant to increase troop levels.  Well, perhaps it is time the foreign politicians came clean about the true strategic reasons for being in Afghanistan, so their people can see and judge their support for the continued financial and manpower commitments with their heads rather than just their hearts, and maybe there are forward deals to be made with businesses,[7] banking on future business potential in the region when Afghanistan can be calmed.

Of course, the anti-terrorist budget is hugely complex.  Arguments about troops having the right equipment and enough of it have absorbed much media time in the UK recently.  Whatever is said, experience in every insurgency campaign since the Malayan Emergency, when four Westland-Sikorsky Dragonfly helis were sent to Singapore for casevacs in 1950, shows that security forces need enough helicopters.  And ‘enough’ always means more than planners in Whitehall will ever admit: their decisions are rarely focused by the immediacy of sudden death.[8]  On 27 Aug 2009, General Sir Charles Guthrie was the latest in a line of senior British officers to say (in the Times) that UK troops in Afghanistan do not have enough helicopters.  But you don’t have to be a senior general to see this is so.  Operations in mountainous country demand helicopters.  It is simply absurd to envisage a modern strategy in which troops are restricted to foot or vehicle patrols to reach out and exert government control in such mountainous terrain.  Helicopters offer flexibility, surprise and control, even though it must be clear to everyone that there are remote areas in Afghanistan which will take years to bring under genuine government control. 

These “big ticket” items do take time to obtain but British Special Forces knew the British Army did not have enough helicopters after the experience of the first Gulf War in 1991, where the ground was relatively flat, so the UK MoD had plenty of time to order more and there is therefore no excuse.[9]  It is far from clear how the UK will obtain enough helicopter support for Afghanistan in the immediate term.  Maybe we shall see Royal Navy helicopters deployed to that land-locked country, but the lesson should be learned, again, and new machines should be ordered without further delay.

Finance is also essential for development aid.  Leaving aside an odd US blip in 2003, [10]a remarkable list of countries have now contributed some USD 340 billion over four years. [11]Of course, military spending is the greatest single cost at present,[12] but repairing Afghanistan’s social and economic structures must be addressed in parallel, to establish a basis for the country’s economic future, to create, in Maresca’s words, “…a place that has the confidence of governments (and) lenders”.  This development programme, or Hearts and Minds as it was originally called by the British, will not work unless the aid actually reaches the people and unless the people can put their hands on the benefit. 

Indeed, there are a number of examples of successful campaigns from the past which may have useful lessons to offer Afghanistan now.

The term Hearts and Minds was originally coined by Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer during the Malayan Emergency.  He persuaded the ruling Malays to agree his proposal to change the lives of millions of Chinese by giving them land, new villages and protecting them, thereby prising them away from the terrorists economically and physically.  The key was that recipients of the aid – most of whom had been landless squatters and illegal immigrants easily terrorised by the Chinese communists – literally put their hands on the benefits themselves: living in the new villages and working the land given to them.  Their villages were protected by troops and gradually the terrorists were excluded from communities, which, one by one, were designated White Areas, cleared of terrorism.  This British policy only worked because there were sound economic and military controls behind the flowery words: the application of the aid benefits was coordinated between the civil and military administrations by a central authority generally understood not to have been corrupt. 

At present, in Afghanistan there is a growing suspicion that scams are siphoning much of the aid either to warlords or to the Taliban themselves.  This is precisely what happened to British aid going into Northern Ireland during the years of terrorism there, so why would Afghans be any slower to profit in the same way?  The way the scams work is that aid agencies donate funds to Afghan companies, which they have to do, to distribute food aid or carry out civil construction projects for example, and these same companies pay protection money to the warlords or Taliban.  It would not be surprising to find that Afghan companies handling aid programmes have been specifically set up by warlords or the Taliban, and staffed by them, to profit from all the aid pouring into the country.   Also, the security situation may be so dire that aid is distributed by Afghan companies without supervision by the foreign aid workers because they dare not go on the ground. 

The same question must be asked about agricultural aid, but here the misuse of aid may have more serious consequences.   Some fertilizer makes excellent bombs: the distinctive marzipan-smelling ANFO – Ammonium Nitrate Fuel Oil mix.  How many troops have died from explosions made by the Taliban using agricultural fertilizer given to the local farmers for their crops?  Aid can’t work on its own, unless the area is safe, so how much aid is issued without controls, and, what coordination is there between aid agencies and the military units operating in the areas being aided?

Aid money can be issued directly to target the enemy.  In the Dhofar insurgency war in the 1970s, in another harsh mountain landscape, the Sultan of Oman bribed the insurgents to change sides, by offering them amnesty and good wages as soldiers in his own militia, called the Firquats.  This idea is not new.  Muslim leaders have paid attractively high wages or largesse to their troops and mercenaries through centuries of Islam’s history.[13]  Soon after changing sides, the enemy fighters who surrendered (SEPs)[14] subsequently suggested going on patrol to places where they had hidden caches of weapons and ammunition they had stolen from the enemy before actually changing sides.  They did this in the weeks before surrendering, when they were thinking about how to do it, because they knew the Sultan underwrote generous sums for every weapon the SEPs could bring with them:  from one Rial [15]for every bullet to 100s of Rials for Soviet mortars, rockets or heavy machine guns used by the insurgents. SEPs became instantly rich. 

These benefits were carefully controlled by the central command and British SAS troops who lived with the Firquats in their villages, trained them and fought the enemy with them on patrols.  At the same time, the villagers, who were in the same tribe and family as the Firquats, received other aid programmes equally well managed by aid agencies once they could safely visit tribal areas. There were also payments to villagers to build their bayts (houses) and roof them in thick black plastic to keep out the rain.  Simple medical aid and school facilities – mostly tin huts and sheds – were put up quickly all over the plateau, so the tribes could see immediate improvements, and they were protected by their own firquat who were managed by small groups of SAS.  Throughout, the aid agencies coordinated their contacts with the villagers with the army.  In the end, this steady drain on the insurgents, who voted through their pockets for a more agreeable economic future, turned the war in favour of the Sultan.

Another form of direct pressure on the Taliban, is the effort to persuade farmers not to grow poppies for the heroin trade which now provides the Taliban its funding. The trade is immense. In 2002, the revenue generated by the sale of opium from Afghanistan on the world market exceeded $1 billion at the farm, about 5% of Afghanistan’s GDP at the time.  We’re told 14% of Afghan farmers grow poppies, so this represents maybe $150 per farmer, but vastly more to the Taliban who sell it on through Pakistan.

The problem for the West is that farmers see no consistency in the West’s approach and that’s no basis for trust.  When the US fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan with covert operations, the CIA fostered the drug trade[16]. Before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan produced a similar quantity of heroin as the other major drug producing countries, but the CIA ordered them to grow more.  Frankly, it’s hard to see why Ronald Reagan’s White House supported this, but Afghan commanders and Pakistani intelligence agents refined the heroin, the Pakistani army transported it to Karachi for shipment overseas and the CIA made it all possible by providing legal cover.

Then, before the US invasion, the Taliban banned poppy growing on religious grounds. In fact, in Feb 2001, a 12-man team from the UN Drug Control Programme visited poppy fields in Afghanistan and declared there were so few they hardly expected any heroin to come out of the country that year.[17] Then, in 2002, after the Taliban were removed, poppy production again bloomed, from 7,600 hectares to over 150,000 hectares, with farmers busy cashing in in every Province.  Afghanistan was again supplying about 70% of the world’s opium [18]

This time the Taliban profited.  They put aside their earlier religious objections (if that was really ever the case) and their stronghold in Helmand Province has seen one of the largest increases in production of the whole country.  The British Army tried valiantly to separate the Taliban from the community and give aid workers the chance to come in behind, to persuade the farmers to quit poppies and plant other crops instead.  This is proving slow and bloody work.

One reason for that may be that the heroin trade implicates all levels of Afghanistan’s society, from farmers through local warlords up to and including members of the Kabul parliament, the Wolesi Jirga (House of the People in Pushtun).  In the absence of other big business, the heroin trade provides an accessible revenue stream for everyone.  Before the recent election 17 members of the Wolesi Jirga were known drug traffickers, 40+ were commanders of local militias, 24 were identified as members of known criminal gangs and 19 were accused of war crimes and human rights violations.  It would not be outside the bounds of all chance that some of these men, plus others not in this list, are involved in the hugely lucrative drug trade.

So, if the US is trying to stop poppy production in Afghanistan, to strike at Taliban funding, then it has an uphill task, because the fighting is definitely about poppies as much as anything else.

A key component in winning the Malayan and the Dhofar campaigns, and in Egypt, Turkey, Algeria and elsewhere, was effective central coordination of the political, civil, and military effort.  NATO/ISAF and the Kabul government running the counter insurgency campaign in Afghanistan may have something which looks like central coordination but one can’t help questioning how effective it is in practice.

The recent elections suggest it isn’t working very well. [19]The losing side accuses President Karzai of fixing the vote, the international observers identified cases of serious fraud, and now no one, inside or outside Afghanistan, believes this election was honest in spite of all the fine wrapping.

But why were elections held at all?  It’s hard to believe the decision was welcomed by the NATO/ISAF or Afghan Army commands, as they had to mount expensive pre-election operations which cost dozens of lives and were, in the end, of doubtful value.  There are now reports that the Taliban has already filtered back into these areas.  Fierce fighting saw 75 ISAF soldiers killed in the month leading up to polling and it is hard to believe any contributing nation would consider general elections in their own countries in such circumstances.  The people in those areas felt so insecure that only a handful dared vote because they are terrified of reprisals by the Taliban, and there were accusations of ‘ghost’ voting because the lack of security meant polling stations were quite unsupervised.  But then, didn’t everyone see all that coming?

Instead, let the existing Kabul government and the NATO/ISAF command admit that there is a de facto state of emergency in Afghanistan.  This would automatically preclude elections until the environment is genuinely safe enough for people to vote [20]and clear the decks for the political and military leadership to concentrate on winning the insurgency.

There also seems to be a lack of consensus on how to manage the Taliban, especially in Pakistan.  In general, most seem to agree about killing them, wherever they are, but no one agrees on whether to talk to them. President Karzai seemingly refuses to entertain dialogue with the Taliban,[21] but the Americans reportedly have secret meetings with the Taliban. The UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown says he will never talk to the Taliban because they are terrorists, while his Foreign Minister says there must be talks with the Taliban. Some NATO forces, mostly conventional unit officers, believe there should never be any truck with the enemy, while others can see benefit in local contacts with the Taliban, and a few individuals have their own links, both inside Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

Well, history is very clear about negotiating with ‘terrorists’.  There are no cases of successful insurgency campaigns in which the government has not negotiated in some way with the insurgents. [22] Dialogue is especially important because the Taliban have the advantage of safe havens over the border with Pakistan. Maybe there is some dialogue, in secret, but given the mistakes made so far in the Afghan campaign, it is high time the political and military leadership recognized and accepted this reality.  

It is also perhaps time the US reviewed its enthusiasm for assassinating Taliban leaders, using the latest fashion in pilot-less drones or laser-guided air attack to hit suspected Taliban houses and vehicles.  The aim is to reduce the Taliban leadership, unnerve their rank and file, and hammer their confidence even when they are hiding in remote areas.  However, when the smoke of these attacks blows away, the Taliban are still in charge in those areas and, more importantly, any negotiations which have been going on may be in tatters because these attacks keep decapitating the Taliban leadership, the very people whom NATO/ISAF need to talk to. 

There is a similar problem in areas where conventional ISAF forces are operating inside Afghanistan.  First, are all the tactical operations achieving something toward the strategic success?  True, sound military thinking dictates, “Seize the intiative! Take the fight to the enemy!” so ISAF forces patrol out from bases and engage the Taliban, to ‘dominate’ the ground, often taunting the Taliban fighters to ‘come on’ through loudspeakers.  

After a satisfactory firefight, in which often great courage is shown and impressive barrages of fire support are called down, these conventional units break off their engagement and return to barracks, leaving the Taliban survivors still out there, still a threat to the villagers, still in charge of the terrain.  Do these operations really keep the initiative, or merely play into the hands of the Taliban?  In truth, there is no tactical surprise.  Even allowing for the devastating effect of modern weapons there is little genuine difference between these operations and those their Indian Army forebears fought in the same places one hundred and fifty years before: both on foot and both left with an uncertain outcome which changes virtually nothing overall. 

Helicopters would change this comparison.  Instead of trundling out of their bases in trucks, giving the Taliban all the time in the world to be informed and to react – let alone set IEDs to blow up the trucks – why aren’t these patrols given helicopter support, not merely to drop them in places where they aren’t expected, but to keep the Taliban off guard?  Helicopters should also be used to provide top cover from a distance and height where the Taliban can’t see the helicopter but the soldiers inside can watch the Taliban, clocking where they come from and where they go after sliding away from the contact.  Until the ISAF forces use modern resources at their disposal that the Taliban don’t have, they aren’t giving themselves any greater advantage than soldiers fighting Afghans had in the 19th Century.  And what is the consequence?  Well, there are reports that after the huge ISAF military effort before the election, which cost the lives of dozens of soldiers, the Taliban have already filtered back into the areas which were ‘cleared’: so no change there.

How much is this because ISAF forces are treating this as if it were a conventional war, almost by default of a true strategy, or because they have to be seen to be doing something?  True, the Taliban are more than ready to give battle, and some of the fighting has been fierce, with supporting mortars, artillery and air attacks, indeed, all the characteristics of a conventional war.  The soldiers describe their area as the ‘battle ground’ which indeed it would be in a conventional war, but this is an insurgency, where the land they fight on belongs to the Afghan people, to villagers, the dusty mudbrick house that’s destroyed is someone’s home, the fields where the mortars, shells and missiles explode grow their crops and produce their livelihood, and these are the people the campaign aims to help.  The object of the NATO and Afghan troops is not so much to defeat the Taliban in battle, but free the Afghan people from the oppression of the Taliban, and persuade them to break away from the menace of reprisals and extortion to support instead the Kabul government. 

The military should redefine their cultural approach to focus on understanding the Afghan people.  This means seeing the situation from their perspective, rather than telling the Afghans why NATO is there[23]and expecting them to understand and cooperate.  It means talking with them, not to them, and not just through Afghan interpreters. After eight years, we must hope that a good percentage of Special Forces speak Pushtu[24], but how many of the conventional units have linguists? Pushtu is part of the Indo-European group of languages, so this should not be out of the way.  If General Richards really believes his own statement, that the British Army can expect to be in Afghanistan for the next 30 to 40 years, then he should ensure every single unit in the British Army has more Pushtu linguists than British regiments had in the heyday of the British Empire in India.     

The Kabul government and its political allies, in the US and the other nations committed to this hugely complicated counter insurgency, have little option but to advance on a broad front, addressing a whole host of important objectives at the same time, and all that time recognize that the key ingredients are men and money.  Politicians must engage in all this: soldiers cannot win wars on their own.  Put the other way around, unless the politicians engage more effectively in Afghanistan, rather than dipping in occasionally with another ‘new’ initiative or visit for a good media sound-bite, the Taliban will win.

More troops are needed, but they must be Afghan. US General Stanley McChrystal is probably wrong asking for more US troops[25] though in the absence of political support to help him get the Kabul government to engage more realistically (and he might say more honestly), one can understand his frustration. He can’t have more Afghan troops without the full commitment of the Kabul government.

Obama must help.  He is certainly right to announce (24 Sep 2009) closer operational ties with Pakistan and, critically, that the US will triple aid to Pakistan, up to USD 1.5 billion a year.  This a real “no-brainer”.  No matter the risks of corruption, which have to be properly managed, the Taliban can never be held down without the cooperation of Islamabad to threaten and deny them their safe havens in Northwest Pakistan.[26] It must be hoped McChrystal’s re-assessed strategy includes a new assessment of the Taliban’s own ingredients for success – so they can be denied – and a new look at the cultural attitudes of the ISAF troops – so their operations on the ground reflect their purpose, with specific local cultural objectives for each sortie, beyond simply battering the Taliban.  Local people have seen foreigners come and go too often. They need convincing the strategy is good for them, that they can put their hands on the benefits, and that those benefits are ‘here to stay’. 

Equally, the contributing ISAF nations need to be told the truth about why their troops are in Afghanistan.  Then they might support the war for a few more critical years.  There is little hope of ‘turning the corner’ and producing an environment, “that has the confidence of governments (and) lenders,” for another four years, even assuming they do everything right. For the UK, Afghanistan is too far away, and the British public already too tired of spin to swallow more emotive nonsense.  The British soldier is no stranger to politicians’ lies and public disinterest, and will go on doing his job professionally irrespective, but they too deserve better. All the troops do.

Maybe McChrystal’s frustration is greatest with the Kabul government, and the selfish corruption of the Afghan warlords who make up Afghanistan’s leadership.   So what’s new?  Presumably, the US knew all this – or learned it damn quick – when they engaged them in negotiations before the 2001 uprising against the then Taliban government in Kabul. 

They must do the same again.  If the US and other leading ISAF nations don’t negotiate with the Kabul leadership, including the recently defeated opposition of Dr Abdullah Abdullah, whose supporters have threatened to take up arms themselves, they will simply never have the political support within Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban.  They must cut deals with the warlords again, to double the Afghan Army, and to extend the reach of government influence into every part of the country before the government is ready to impose its control and the rule of law there.  And they must be prepared to pay the price.

If they fail,[27] the Taliban may seize Afghanistan again, and even Pakistan, after which the Americans might find themselves having to negotiate even more seriously still, with a new nuclear power.

Notes & References:


[1] See al Jazeera report of 21 Sep 2009 http://english.aljazeera.net/news/asia/2009/09/200992111035319236.html

[2] The British contingent which left Kabul numbered around 16,000: about 4,500 military personnel, and over 12,000 civilian camp followers. A British Doctor who rode into Jalalabad alone was the only survivor.

[3] The pipeline study assumed a massive 52 inch diameter pipe. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-Afghanistan_Pipeline

[4] The numbers deployed in Afghanistan, ISAF and the Afghan Army, see http://www.nato.int/isaf/docu/epub/pdf/placemat_archive/isaf_placemat_090608.pdf

[5] A glance at the map of the two countries shows how much better placed Afghanistan’s Taliban are with their convenient Pakistan border so close for safe haven and resupply compared to Algeria’s terrorists who have to survive always inside Algeria.  Getting in and out of Algeria is not easy, which is why the terrorists in the north of Algeria have had to make deals with the bands who smuggle across the desert from the south, to assure at least a reasonable resupply of arms and ammunition.  The Taliban have none of these problems.

[6] The 134,000 being currently planned by Kabul and ISAF will not be enough.

[7] Forward contracts were signed by Bechtel and Halliburton to operate in Iraq as early as autumn 2002, months before the US invasion.

[8] Like the injured Paras who lay in a minefield for hours on 6 Sep 2006 because the British Chinooks’ winches had been sent home for refurbishment and there were no replacements.

[9] Even if the project escapes ludicrous, expensive, time-consuming and failed ‘cost-cutting’ exercises like UK’s attempt to write its own Chinook software rather than buy the original software designed by the manufacturers.

[10] Bush’s White House omitted Afghanistan from the US foreign aid budget altogether, which is extraordinary given the US forced the change of government there only two years before and the country was at rock bottom. Congress put that right at once, with a pledge of USD 300 million, and the situation has dramatically changed since.

[11] See http://ocha.unog.ch/fts/pageloader.aspx?page=search-reporting_display&CQ=cq200909160057KF2QE4KWBB&orderby=USD_commitdisbu&showDetails=1  and http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/mil_aid_to_afg_tot_dev_aid_est-aid-afghanistan-total-development-estimates

[12] The US spends some USD 36 billion, the UK USD 5 billion, and the Canadians USD 1 billion a year on operations, all vast figures compared to the overall aid to Afghanistan

[13] Some of Islam’s most famous leaders employed this technique, like Salah ad-Din and the Ottoman Turks.

[14] SEP –  Surrendered Enemy Personnel

[15] At that time, 1 Omani rial was about 2 US dollars

[16] See “The Politics of Heroin: CIA complicity in the Global Drug Trade” by Alfred McCoy

[17] See  http://www.opioids.com/afghanistan/index.html and http://www.poppies.org/2001/06/06/un-says-taliban-poppy-ban-hits-farmers-hard-part-1/

[18] See http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2007/08/25/world/asia/20070826_HEROIN_MAP.html and the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/26/world/asia/26heroin.html  and the San Francisco Chronicle: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/12/17/ING08MTPMB1.DTL#ixzz0RwyLVXLy

[19] See the results at the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan at http://www.iec.org.af/results/index.html and  http://www.voanews.com/english/2009-09-09-voa27.cfm, an article which expresses the doubts about impartiality

[20] As happened in Malaya on 19 August 1959 after 10+ years of insurgency and after the situation had been largely controlled.

[21] He has expelled foreigners from Afghanistan who have had meetings, notably in 2007 the Irish EU official Michael Semple who is extremely knowledgeable about the country

[22] Mr Brown knows several ex-IRA terrorists who are fellow Members of the British Parliament whom Mr Blair talked to a great deal.

[23] Youtube and other reportages show young officers puzzled that the Afghans can’t see NATO is there to help them, and angry that they don’t denounce the Taliban.  These young soldiers seemingly can’t see or haven’t been told what it must be like living in between the two forces and fearing reprisals from the Taliban more.

[24] The SAS traditionally deploy a 4-man patrol and one man is always the linguist. So, from past campaigns there are SAS men with colloquial Malay, Arabic, German, Spanish, or Serb.  One wonders how many are now colloquially useful in Pushtu?

[25] In a ‘leaked’ report, McChrystal asks Obama for another 40,000 US troops: see http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article6850838.ece

[26] The IRA survived for years in their safe havens over the Northern Ireland border in the Republic, unmolested by the Eire police, the Gardai, without a single IRA man being extradited from the South to the UK to answer terrorist charges throughout the entire campaign, until Westminster and Dublin agreed a common strategy to halt the terrorism.  Inversely, the Malayan Communist Terrorists who fought in the Malayan Emergency never had any support at all from their inspiration the Chinese Communist Party nor any other country. They gave the British a real run for their money for twelve years, 1948 – 60, but in the end most lost heart, out of finance, out of weapons and their equipment in tatters.

[27] 6 Aug 2011.  It would seem ISAF is failing.  See the comments of the latest US General to leave A’stan, General Petraeus, in this article in the New York Times.. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/21/world/asia/21iht-military21.html?scp=5 He says the, “gains remain fragile and they remain reversible.” Which is pc-speak for, “We haven’t done enough and what we have done will disappear in a trice when we leave.” And Obama, Cameron and others have already told the world they will pull out their troops, which doubtless heartens the Taliban enormously.  Even if they were being beaten, which they’re not, all they have to do is hang in there a while: in a very real sense, they have been assured of victory.

By 22 December 2015, the Taliban are on the brink of taking back control of Sangin town in Helmand province, see http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/22/much-of-sangin-in-taliban-hands-amid-reports-uk-and-us-have-deployed-special-forces  and http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-35167983  This suggests all the cost, the heartache, and the loss and ruin of young British soldiers’ lives has been a complete waste. And all the talk and promises of western politicians and generals alike so much utter bollox.