Monday, 26 July 2010

The Great Mind Game

Self-satisfied media tutting about the "unwinnable war" in Afghanistan has become so trite in recent weeks it almost beggars belief. Too many correspondents seem to genuinely believe they can offer fresh insight by repeating idle or well-worn truisms like "the Taliban insurgency cannot be defeated by military means alone", or even that (who knew?) "there'll be no ticker-tape victory parade in Kabul".

Call off the Red Arrows; quiet the Royal Marines Band; tell the Household Cavalry regiments they needn't have brought their horses and dress tunics to Helmand after all. What utter tosh. The fighting men and women are well aware of the severe limits to what they can achieve in combat, the knock-on consequences when civilians get caught in the crossfire, and - ultimately perhaps - hard truths about the times in war when it's necessary to consider making unpalatable deals with unbroken enemies. They also know that only through their daily fight, and its tragic cost in blood, can we press every advantage still available.

How many NATO generals are anticipating taking the salute at a WWII-style victory parade? Sometimes I think the almost century-old adage of "lions led by lambs", reinforced by the hapless general of Blackadder Goes Forth into the public consciousness, still beguiles the press today. The generals don't lack in experience, ability or judgment. It's a tribute to the quality of today's US army, for example, that an experienced, adroit counter-insurgency strategist like General Petraeus exists to instantly fill the vacuum left by the unfortunate recall of (the also highly able) General McCrystal to Washington.

The reality is the UK and US armed forces are among the elite few today with hard-won pedigree in fighting, more or less constantly, varied and tough opponents across the globe for the past 30 years. Bitter experience has taught them that counter-insurgency campaigns are not
black-and-white affairs, nor do they produce quick wins. Nor do they end with simple surrenders, total victories or grand parades.

Cancelled: full refunds for ticket-holders

The revelation of this week's classified US "Afghan War Diary", exposed by Wikileaks, certainly makes for some unhelpful service PR (to say the least), as well as providing fresh insight on the knife-edge situation in Afghanistan, but it doesn't alter the facts of the fight on the ground. It should not be forgotten that counter-insurgency in Iraq was almost unanimously angled by the media as an "unwinnable war", lost beyond redemption, before the tide was eventually turned through surge, grit and resolve. In Iraq there has been no glorious victory parade to celebrate the dwindling violence. But free elections have been held. European and regional airlines are now returning to Iraqi airports. Who'd have thought it possible back in 2007?

Politicians in the UK have again voiced arbitrary (election-based) dates - this time 2015 - for military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Not even the best informed combatant, spook, diplomat or journalist yet knows what compromise deals or tentative peace scenario could emerge in the territory (I won't yet say country) over the coming years. What we can say is that while civilian deaths might continue to go unreported and underestimated, Taliban losses have also been consistently downplayed to a press and public squeamish even about enemy casualties.

The Taliban has made plenty of costly mistakes itself. Its zealots have cowed many vulnerable Afghans into compliance, but they have also terrorised a large proportion of the population into siding with coalition troops. Before switching to the current, highly successful tactic of peppering the roads with hidden IEDs, they were too easily tempted into the folly of open scraps against the weight of coalition firepower, including some suicidal frontal assaults made on British positions in Helmand in previous summers.

Nobody (aside, perhaps, from George W Bush) believed Afghanistan would be a quick win "over by Christmas". The historical precedent is for guerilla wars to span a decade or more. So for now the military will continue to prosecute its long war, without parades or ticker-tape, maximising what can be achieved, before eventual egress from Afghanistan.

Update on 30/07/2010: For a well considered news piece in response to the 'Afghan War Diary' leak and questions over current strategy and tactics in Afghanistan, see the article "Don't go back" in this week's Economist.

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