Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Losing Afghanistan

As if the situation in Iraq wasn't bad enough, things in Afghanistan are looking dire. Unfortunately, due to the obsession with Iraq of our political leaders (both Republican and Democrat) and the myopia of our national media, Afghanistan doesn't get much press here.

Not so in Great Britain, where the UK's most senior generals have told the prime minister that NATO is facing a catastrophic failure in Afghanistan, one that even threatens the stability of Pakistan. The Guardian reports that "Lord Inge, the former chief of the defence staff, highlighted [the generals'] fears in public last week when he warned of a 'strategic failure' in Afghanistan." According to the report:

'The situation in Afghanistan is much worse than many people recognise,' Inge told peers. 'We need to face up to that issue, the consequence of strategic failure in Afghanistan and what that would mean for Nato... We need to recognise that the situation - in my view, and I have recently been in Afghanistan - is much, much more serious than people want to recognise.'

Inge's remarks reflect the fears of serving generals that the government is so overwhelmed by Iraq that it is in danger of losing sight of the threat of failure in Afghanistan. One source, who is familiar with the fears of the senior officers, told The Observer: 'If you talk privately to the generals they are very very worried. You heard it in Inge's speech. Inge said we are failing and remember Inge speaks for the generals.'

Inge made a point in the Lords of endorsing a speech by Lord Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, who painted a bleak picture during the debate. Ashdown told The Observer that Afghanistan presented a graver threat than Iraq.

'The consequences of failure in Afghanistan are far greater than in Iraq,' he said. 'If we fail in Afghanistan then Pakistan goes down. The security problems for Britain would be massively multiplied. I think you could not then stop a widening regional war that would start off in warlordism but it would become essentially a war in the end between Sunni and Shia right across the Middle East.'


Ashdown said two mistakes were being made: a lack of a co-ordinated military command because of the multinational 'hearts and minds' Nato campaign and the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom offensive campaign against the Taliban. There was also insufficient civic support on, for example, providing clean water.

'There is a very short shelf life for an occupation force. Once that begins to shift against you it is very very difficult to turn it round.'

The warnings from Ashdown and the generals on Afghanistan will be echoed in a report this week by the all-party Commons defence select committee. MPs will say that the combination of civilian casualties, war damage and US-led efforts to eradicate lucrative poppy crops risk turning ordinary people towards the Taliban.

The immediate impulse here is to blame President Bush and the war in Iraq from diverting focus and resources away from Afghanistan, and such criticism would most definitely be valid. But it would also not be complete. NATO as an institution has had problems before with its military command: Read General Wesley Clark's or Robert Kagan's account of the intervention in Kosovo for excellent descriptions of this. Divided command and competing national interests have hamstrung NATO, making it difficult to conduct military operations in a coherent, unified manner. Furthermore, many NATO members have not been willing to provide sufficient troops or materiel for the Afghan campaign.

These are some of the critical problems with multilateral military action, and it is not surprising that they are present in Afghanistan. If the situation is to be saved, two things, neither of which is likely to occur must happen. First, the US must increase the number of ground forces in Afghanistan. The all-too-frequent air strikes with high civilian casualties are undermining the "hearts-and-minds" campaign, undoing all the good work being done in other areas. More troops are needed to secure villages and hunt down the Taliban units. Second, NATO needs to develop a more unitary command structure, in which member states provide troops to be used at the discretion of the NATO commander. If NATO is to remain a serious and competent military force, it cannot continue to be incapable of sustaining military operations.

1 comment:

Matt Eckel said...

I would imagine U.S. planners would very much like to be able to deploy more troops to Afghanistan. Where would they come from?