Monday, 19 July 2010

Afghanistan - pull out or soldier on?

There has been a rise in the number of think-pieces in the media on the question of withdrawal from Afghanistan. In part, this will have been sparked off by the murder of 3 of our soldiers by someone allegedly on the same side as they were. The indignation which which this was met died down fairly quickly. I suspect that the general public now accept that our brand-new government is already dismissive of their overwhelming majority calling for the troops to be recalled. That same authority has been busy talking-up the effects of cuts and these are far closer to home.

Another factor must be the fudge that we and America enter into when they do discuss leaving. We get dates but they are conditioned "troops will start to return" or "some troops will be left for training purposes" These are weasel words par excellence. Once the early returnees get on the 'plane, the opposition will be strengthened in their will and raise the level of attacks. The troops left behind for 'training' will be in the same weakened position and the trainers may well need guards. Given the treachery of which the locals are capable, it would be unwise to leave this to the students and graduates. The desired force level of Afghan Army and police seems to change on a daily basis and the deserters remain high.

I have been looking at an article written the last time we lost men to our own forces. Just a few extracts will indicate how little has changed in the intervening nine months. This is how things were seen back then by a respected contributor:
I was in an office in Kabul this summer being lectured by a mid-ranking official about the successful work of the government. "Completely off the record, what do you really think of this government?" I asked him, not expecting a very interesting reply.
"So long as you promise not to reveal my identity, I can tell you that this government is made up of killers and crooks," answered the official with scarcely a pause. He gave some examples of government-inspired killings and corruption.

In this tradition of carefully calculated treachery, the shooting dead of five British soldiers by an Afghan policeman operating with them is hardly surprising. Afghan leaders have long been notorious for concealing their true loyalties and changing sides. But the potential political consequences are very serious. The US and British strategy to build up the Afghan security forces to as many as 400,000 may prove impossible because the state is too weak and too poor and commands the loyalty of too few Afghans.
And then there is the question of loyalty:
The reputation of Afghans for always defeating their enemies is based in part on the speed with which they join the winner. The Taliban advances in the 1990s were notable less for military victories than local warlords defecting to them after receiving a large bribe. In the US war to overthrow the Taliban in 2001, the same process went into reverse as the CIA bought off the same warlords who then sent their men home without a fight.

Nor is this the first time that Western forces have been turned on by their Afghan colleagues. In Kunduz province north of Kabul earlier this summer, a policeman shot eight of his colleagues and turned his police post over to the Taliban. An American military trainer was shot and wounded by one of the men he was training when he drank water in front of them when they were fasting during Ramadan.

The shaky loyalty of the Afghan police and, to a lesser extent, the army to their own government undermines US and British plans to hold the line against the Taliban while a strong local security force is built up. US political leaders speak of a force of 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police to be trained in the next few years. In reality, though, nobody knows the current size of the Afghan security forces.

The army is supposedly 90,000 strong, but this figure may be grossly over-stated. "My educated guess is that such an army simply does not exist," writes Ann Jones, an American specialist on Afghanistan. "I knew men who repeatedly went through ANA [Afghan National Army] training to get the promised Kalashnikov and the pay. Then they went home for a while and often returned some weeks later to enlist under a different name."

Even so, the reputation of the army among ordinary Afghans is much better than that of the police. Some of these are paid a pittance for a very dangerous job. They are often stationed in vulnerable outposts and checkpoints. Their training is frequently almost non-existent. Before the presidential election in August, policemen being trained by a US security firm who had been receiving eight weeks' training saw this reduced to three weeks, so they could be sent to guard polling stations in southern Afghanistan.
That same commentator returned to the subject this week-end. His conclusions?
The US leadership is clearly divided on the merits of staying in Afghanistan, but cannot work out how to withdraw without too great a loss of face. It reached the same conclusion over Iraq, but there the situation was easier. The anti-US insurgents came from the Sunni community – which made up only 20 per cent of Iraqis – who were under intense pressure from the Shia government, the armed forces, militias and death squads. The insurgency in Afghanistan is drawn from the Pashtun community, 42 per cent of the population, and so far shows no sign of splitting. With Iraq, it was enough that US voters got the impression they had won. A retreat could be conducted with no US objectives achieved, but nobody could be accused of cutting and running. This was the achievement of General Petraeus, now the military commander in Afghanistan. But political and military conditions are wholly different there. Dressing up a withdrawal as some sort of success will be far more difficult in Afghanistan.
I suspect Cameron has realised he has no influence over what Obama chooses to do; we will not be consulted on any final solution but merely told 'this is what I'm doing'. If he has no say or influence it is pointless his forming a policy of his own and he keeps his breath to cool a different bowl of soup.

It is difficult to see just what benefit would come from any Review of Defence. If we cannot know what we are required to do, we cannot determine how many troops and what other assets will be needed. We cannot hope for any backbone from the senior officers; their lack of spine was demonstrated in the recent Times investigation. So - soldier on would seem to be the most likely outcome, They mat do something when the recital of deaths at commencement of parliamentary business may cut down on the time they need to debate their own well-ordered and pig-trough policies.

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