Afghanistan-Pakistan: Towards likely disastrous defeat – the just prize for opportunities lost and half hearted effort

He (Obama) must prepare the US and the world for the fact that the present level of US, allied, Afghan, and Pakistani casualties will almost certainly double and probably more than tripled before something approaching victory is won. He must be honest about the long-term financial cost of both the fight and the aftermath. The US and its allies will need to provide aid and advisors years after the peak periods of combat are over – if we win.” (Anthony Cordesman, 1/11/2009:

The Western Afghanistan state rebuilding project is fast approaching a ’culmination phase’ similar to that experienced by Hitler in the East in 1942-43. In both cases the key problem has been a failing and unrealistic strategic guidance. However, where the Axis failure was inevitable from 1943 onwards due to insufficient resources to win, the double roots of the threatening collapse in Central and South Asia are American folly and a European effort that has oscillated erratically between half hearted and symbolic. The most likely result seems now to be that we shall soon experience the combined effects of Islamic post-victory euphoria abroad and at home and a dusty collapse of the terminally weakened, corruption poisoned state power of nuclear armed Pakistan.

In Pakistan it seems unlikely to last long before the current offensive in Waziristan proves fruitless and counterproductive. Its Army’s best fighting units (the Frontier Force and Baloch-regiments) have been recruited in the rebellious North West Frontier and Baluchistan provinces. Many of the officers now commanding battalions and brigades come from the same areas. When they were young the then Army Chiefs deliberately exposed them to Islamist radicalization to prepare them for war against India. They are only maintained in questionable loyalty by the privileges they enjoy at the expense of the people. The Pakistani Army group of captains – the officers carrying out the orders of the colonels – must be considered labile and angry.

One of the best current writers on war and strategy, Colin S. Gray, has suggested that strategy is resting on a number of different ‘dimensions’ (‘strategy’ to be understood as the bridge between the political intent and the armed forces). These dimensions have different weight and relevance in different conflicts, however, the dimension ‘time’ is always of central importance. It is hard or impossible to compensate for time lost.

It is precisely the poisoned result of lost time that has been our inheritance from the strategic amateur Troika of Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld. After the easy victory in Afghanistan in the winter 2001-2002 they left that war-torn country to eliminate Saddam Hussein. That otherwise laudable project was “managed” towards another empty bombardment and maneuver “victory” which left Iraq so disorganized that it could hardly be saved from imploding into a destructive civil war. In Afghanistan, the remaining U.S. military presence and the totally inadequate other Western military and economic efforts were far from enough to develop a stable popular support base for the tame Pasthun that the war- and Taliban-weary people of Afghanistan elected president in 2004. Hamid Khazai was forced to build his power on the local traditions of economic laissez-faire and hand-outs (in reality corruption, here based on control and illicit taxation of imports and on opium exports) as well as co-operation with the warlords that had helped to destroy the country during the previous decade.

Denmark’s contribution came early with its Special Forces, the government choosing to ignore the international legal obligations associated with the possibility that prisoners may be taken in military operations. This choice was repeated later when a force was sent to Iraq. When domestic political opportunism met the reality of the Basra region, it led to the attempted symbolic sacrifice of a lowly military intelligence officer and a couple of military policemen to the press and punishment rather than a decision to face responsibility. Soon Denmark moved to participate in the international force deployed to protect Khazai’s capital, a mission that the Americans considered beneath their dignity.

When the U.S. fashion for the half-hearted reconstruction efforts changed after 2003 to a model of combined military-civilian Provincial Reconstruction Teams, Denmark helped in as many places as possible. The country followed a symbolic contribution friendship policy towards old and new co-operation partners, contributing to the Swedish, German and Lithuanian teams.

Even after a couple of years of improvised reactions to deepening requirements, no independent analysis of the developing situation in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan seems to have been conducted in Denmark – beyond the Defence Intelligence Agency’s constant updating of its analyses of the risk level in actual and potential mission areas. The country continued to offer and deliver the units available on the “shelves” of military peace-time routine production to ensure international visibility.

This behavior had not substantially changed when the West realized in 2006 that it had to help Khazai regain control over the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand from the Taliban. Denmark then found that it had a veteran tanned-skin light reconnaissance squadron “on the shelf”. It was sent it with an anachronistic mandate built on Balkans routines. This happened despite the fact that its British framework formation had acknowledged that mission task would be traditional, dangerous, intensive counterinsurgency.

At that time the Danish armed forces had not yet any understanding of the requirements of “COIN – Counter-Insurgency” operations as this would have required continuous professional studies in depth, something which had not been expected of Danish officers during the previous 15 years. Disaster was only avoided by the combination of the robust, high-routine professional fighting skills of the Bornholm troopers, the availability of night combat equipment and a good supply of fools’ luck.

Even after the losses and hard fighting of 2006 and 2007, the Western governments and armed forces failed to adapt to reality. Their forces conducted “Search-and-Destroy’ operations” some relevant, some not, employing so much fire-power to limit own casualties that they were certain to create more future opposition than peace and stability.

Peacetime Routine Management of personnel and units continued in European countries, despite the lemming-like unprofessional idiocy that this represented. Key personnel for the military staffs in Afghanistan were only sent on tours of 6 months. Even officers open and gifted enough to learn and understand what it was all about were rotated home. The arriving commanders and staff officers were amateurs at war, even more so in counter-insurgency, and had only been given a superficial preparation for the extremely complex Afghan situation. While the deployed units became ever better equipped and trained, the rapid rotation of key personnel prevented the command and management of the operation from becoming professional and stalled the development of local understanding and network of contacts that is crucial when countering an insurgency.

It should also be, but was not, understood and accepted that efforts in war can only be advanced beyond the amateur stage if the organisation uses the situation to remove officers and non-commissioned officers who proved less suitable, and at the same time only, and quickly, to promote to command those few who had shown in practice that they understood their profession and could lead under the extreme pressure of combat.

This, of course, does not happen in Continental European armed forces. While our soldiers fight and some die in Central Asia, the home press and defence management considers itself at peace. Those returning from the war will nod in recognition to the observation in David H. Ucko’s newly published, critical analysis of the American development: The New Counterinsurgency Era. Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars. He notes (on p. 87), that “frequent complaints (made) off the record, by officers home from Iraq, that visiting the Pentagon can be like visiting a distant planet where the war is just a speck in the sky“.

The national problems created by the failure to depart from peacetime behavior and management procedures are reinforced by the fact that the relationship between NATO countries remain completely dominated by standard diplomatic courtesy, consideration and avoidance of necessary confrontations, even when this seriously undermine the ability to act and develop the operations in an appropriate way. Commanders and staff officers who proved themselves stupid, unprofessional or without the ability to co-operate are allowed to continue in their jobs. It seems as if the mission (for those on the staffs) is just an interesting experience. In a couple of months either he or the useless idiot has departed. Mistakes will, after all, only hurt own soldiers and Afghan civilians and make eventual mission failure more likely.

The mutual consideration and courtesy that undermine military effectiveness also rules the crucial civilian reconstruction effort. An example: One of the biggest problems has been and remains the combination of low status, corruption and incompetence of the Afghan police force. The Germans were allowed to start and continue activities that may only have been appropriate for the long-term development of democratic police management in a major East German town. The inappropriate and useless effort was allowed to continue unchallenged far too long.

How difficult and crucial to mission success the development of a stable and motivated police force is, was tragically highlighted by the recent killing of the five British soldiers by a frustrated police constable. However, there is still no sign that the international forces acts to bind the local police to themselves by direct subsidising and a policy of financial rewarding demonstrated efficiency, thus freeing the force from its present dependence on local power relations and corruption.

Even in relation to the combination of military stability operations and reconstruction aid the countries seem fundamentally unwilling to ensure unity of all effort. It would require the creation of a national, joint civilian-military co-ordination staff in the mission area led by one authorised representative of the involved state that could co-operate with similarly authorised persons from allies and the different central and local Afghan authorities. Probably to avoid the uncomfortable experience of taking orders from an official from a different state agency the Danish bureaucracy has invented the concept of interthinking (‘samtænkning‘=’thinking together’), a euphemism for half-hearted and irresponsible interaction.

The immediate strokes in a last attempt to paddle away from the Niagara Falls around the river bend should be:
1) The designation and empowerment of a plenipotentiary in Kabul with responsibility for all national state rebuilding and stabilisation efforts in the mission. The appointed person could refer directly to home Prime, Foreign and Defence Ministries.
2) Implementation of a minimum of two years service for all military and key civilian personnel (commanders and staff members) in the mission – with 4 to 6 months overlapping service with the successor.
3) The formal encouragement of allies to criticise the performance of own personnel at the same time declaring the obligation to criticise the personnel of the Afghans and other allies. The necessary framework for an effective critique is probably an international monitoring inspector group composed of persons with recent recognised excellent service in the mission (the group leader must be authorised to suggest and reject members). However, the situation is too urgent to wait for the establishment of such a group.
4) The direct and extensive involvement in local police development and support, a basic requirement for the necessary dramatic improvement in the human intelligence field.

It is now proposed so that we concentrate our forces and efforts in the larger cities to gain time to build the Afghan security forces. If such redeployment is not only to become a painful and slightly longer road a certain defeat, some problems must be confronted. Let me discuss the option:
1) These cities must be able to absorb and protect people moving in to escape the rebels’ revenge for co-operation with government and allies forces and agencies. If the majority of the population in the evacuated areas choose to stay see the schools be blown up and the girls returned to the Middle Ages this is a sign terminal strategy failure. If they do choose to become (hopefully) temporary internal refugees, this will lead to a worsening of the other problems listed.
2) The cities must be effectively protected against rebel infiltration and properly supplied. The constant and recent experience of terrorist attacks in Kabul and Peshawar south of the border indicate that the former is impossible. The latter will not be easier. How can we ensure the supply to cities when roads are too insecure for military operations? With airlift? Both the cities and reconstruction projects depend on electricity from hydropower plants far from densely populated areas. How will that problem be solved?
3) How can it be avoided that the evacuation is (correctly) perceived by the Afghan people as a defeat for the Western power and prestige thus finally undermining the faith in the government’s stabilisation chances necessary for mission success?
4) How can it be avoided that the strategy undermines the possibilities for the necessary further recruitment for the army and police and the morale and already weak cohesion of the existing units?
5) How can it be avoided that the strategy change also undermines the already extremely limited possibility of effective counter-insurgency south of the border in Pakistan? It will release significant land areas north of the border that can thereafter be used as bases for the ‘Pakistani Taliban‘ in its insurgency and terrorism against the weak Pakistani government.

It seems clear that the West is close to giving up trying to do what is clearly necessary to concentrate on doing the totally inadequate that can be done in agreement – thereafter to sit in a circle with heads in the sand and fingers crossed in hopeful ‘interthinking’.