Permissible Arms

Helmand probably deserves its own war movie.

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency by Karaka on 17 September 2009

Stephen Grey offered an important and difficult account of UK troops in Helmand province over the summer, filed at the end of the last month, in Prospect Magazine.

The real problem remains that the US approach of “clear, hold and build” is a tactic, not a strategy. It leaves unanswered just how much of this vast, lawless country should be cleared and held. There have already been calls for tens of thousands of more troops. Yet all of these dreamed-of reinforcements would never be enough to garrison all the areas of rebellion, never mind the whole country. Unlike in Iraq, we have reinforced before we know how to win.

Strong analysis about hard things. Anthony King picks up the thread (also in Prospect) and charges the British military with having “blithely conducted missions in Helmand despite a woeful lack of intelligence about the theatre and knowingly inadequate military resources for any realistic chance of success.” This, of course, after PM Gordon Brown publically recommitted to the war in Afghanistan. King writes:

Even now there are inadequate numbers of troops in Helmand. However, rather than tailor the campaign to their resources, commanders have consistently “cracked on”; seeking to dominate the whole of Helmand, a hostile province the size of Wales, with just a few thousand troops, and dispersing their forces across the province into small, isolated platoon and operating bases. Even in the Sangin Valley, where there are several significant positions, the British bases cannot mutually support each other; they are too far apart, while Musa Qaleh is some twenty miles away to the north. As British commanders in Sangin have themselves noted, troops in these locations “sit in a bubble,” and this inevitably means they are engaging in numerous firefights.

It seems like the NATO shift to COIN doctrine is of particular importance in Helmand, though of course there is the more integral problem of simply not having enough troops on the ground. But it’s clear from King and Grey’s articles that it is not merely the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people that we must win–it’s also the clear adherence to COIN strategy over that of conventional (ineffective) warfare.

Also from the Britons, Rory Stewart offers an insightful analysis of both the Afghan war and the current painting of that war, from July in the London Review of Books. He rightly criticizes the apparent end goal that will “win” this war:

It is impossible for Britain and its allies to build an Afghan state. They have no clear picture of this promised ‘state’, and such a thing could come only from an Afghan national movement, not as a gift from foreigners. Is a centralised state, in any case, an appropriate model for a mountainous country, with strong traditions of local self-government and autonomy, significant ethnic differences, but strong shared moral values? And even were stronger central institutions to emerge, would they assist Western national security objectives? … The fundamental assumptions remain that an ungoverned or hostile Afghanistan is a threat to global security; that the West has the ability to address the threat and bring prosperity and security; that this is justified and a moral obligation; that economic development and order in Afghanistan will contribute to global stability; that these different objectives reinforce each other; and that there is no real alternative.

A stable Afghan state is the endgame. But internal government corruption holds as much sway over that success as the Taliban and al-Qaeda do. And accomplishing this will take more than a handful of years, more than additional troops, and more than rhetoric to accomplish. I am in favor of remaining in Afghanistan, and I am in favor of working very hard to build that state. But I am not convinced that we have the resources in place to do it effectively, and I am very concerned that we never will. That, I think, is what will keep us there longer than is wanted or needed.


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