Wednesday, 11 March 2009
Broken Record Day: Afghanistan
If I’m going to say the same thing over and over again anyway, I might as well pretend it’s all part of the plan.
So I hereby create the institution of the ‘Broken Record Day’ during which I am allowed to repeat myself and go on and on about the things that really bug me.
That sorted, I might as well inform you that today is a broken record day and my subject is Afghanistan. Then again, when the subject is Afghanistan, every day is a broken record day.
Things are not going well in Afghanistan.
Things have not gone well in Afghanistan since the beginning of the operation.
Of course, there have been good days and bad days.
But on an average day it is evident that US and coalition forces are approaching this all wrong: from rotating troops out of the country pretty much the minute they are beginning to understand what’s happening on the ground; to falling prey to cheap emotional tricks like trying to befriend the local children and being drawn into ambushes; to getting caught up in regional and tribal disputes they do not understand and cannot resolve - but can exacerbate. And exacerbate them they do.
No-one is saying it’s easy.
The US troops are battling on many fronts: fighting the insurrection; trying to help Afghanistan build new institutions, structures and a new political culture; undermining these institutions, structures and culture via their very presence; fighting the drug cartels; trying to discourage poppy cultivation and encourage alternative crop cultivation whilst simultaneously trying to build the roads via which the alternative crops will be taken to market without rotting while the farmers are negotiating treacherous terrain; grappling with the centuries’ old system of feudal debt and bondage that would keep farmers bound to poppy cultivation even if viable alternatives did exist; watching their reconstruction work being undermined by their counter-insurgency fighting and their counter-insurgency fighting hampered by their reconstruction work.
It’s not easy.
But it was never going to be easy.
And now accusations are being made that US forces are failing to share counter-insurgency intelligence with their international military allies.
A report prepared by RAND and leaked to Wikileaks suggests that efforts in Afghanistan are hampered by the twin evils of US commanders being overwhelmed by information on hundreds of contradictory databases and the same commanders not comparing notes and/or sharing this information with their counterparts within the coalition.
Meanwhile much of this closely guarded intelligence is coming from local contacts that get tipped for every tip they offer, thus providing unreliable and often erroneous information that the US army then spends time and money to code, analyse, counter-reference and guard. From their own allies, among others.
The report describes a force drowning. In information. In confusion. In despair.
Having gone in without a plan.
Realising slowly that the military commanders do not understand Afghanistan with its tribal politics, deep-rooted religious entanglement and drug-fuelled economy based on debt bondage and serfdom.
And now, not seeing a way out that wouldn’t push the country over the brink into complete civil war and political disintegration, the force is drowning.
Things are not good for the US troops.
But they still need to send reports home. And ‘we are in this way over our heads’ is not a good report. Besides, you can only say it so many times.
So, it seems, the US forces have devised complex economic, military and political ‘progress indicators’ the relevance of which is shaky but the purpose clear: they allow for reports to be sent back home, for activity to be measured, for an illusion of progress to be maintained.
All the while, according to the same report, coalition forces at Camp Holland near Tarin Kowt in southern Afghanistan maintain 13 different intelligence sections as nobody is talking to anyone else.
If nothing else, the coalition is leading by example: a true inspiration for the fragmented, tribal and bitterly divided Afghan society.
Broken record day.
You cannot provide a solution to a problem you do not understand.
You cannot navigate an unknown land without a map or compass.
Good intentions and a cheery disposition suffice only if your name is Polyanna.
‘On s’engage et puis on voit’ didn’t work out all that well for Napoleon.
Why Bush thought it would work out for him beats me.
And yes, I know: ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy’.
But if you start out without a plan, without even knowing what you are setting out to achieve, in general terms, it’s you that may not survive contact with the enemy. Especially if your enemy knows what he’s fighting for, and you don’t.