A War Undone?

March 14, 2012 7:44 pm

Having always been a strong supporter of the war in Afghanistan, when I awoke on Sunday morning to read the reports of a rogue US soldier in the Kandahar Province killing 16 innocent civilians, I could not help but re-question my own views and examine the potential futility of the mission. Combining these actions with the riots that were sparked by the news of copies of the Koran being burnt on a US army base makes it seem reasonable to be concerned that a war of over a decade, that has increasingly become about winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local population, has been undone in the space of a few weeks. However, I hope to show in the course of this article, by highlighting the progression of our involvement there, my belief that we cannot allow withdrawal and failure to become the inevitable result of such devastating events and that they should instead re-affirm our commitment to see the job through.
From the moment that the first bombs fell in 2001, the war in Afghanistan has been described by many as ‘unwinnable’. Despite countless billions of Pounds and Dollars being poured into the conflict and the tragic loss of so many lives, it is perhaps reasonable to ask ‘what has really been achieved?’ For me it is a matter of perception and adapting our views to events on the ground.

The early phases of the war can be perceived as a major military victory as Operation Enduring Freedom created some astounding early results. With the invasion beginning on October 7th 2001, the fact that the Taliban had been forced out of Kabul and into hiding by November 12th marked a great success for the coalition forces and represented a major coup for the relevant governments. However, since then the war has become less a battle of standing armies and technological superiority, and increasingly a war over the will of the population both at home and abroad (something which the ISAF forces appear far less comfortable with). Once the Taliban were forced into hiding they very quickly adapted a new form of fighting, more akin to guerrilla warfare, which played into their favour. Using incredibly basic techniques they were able to undermine the vast superiority of opposing forces; for example smearing their vehicles with mud prevented tracking by drones and creating movable operating bases meant that conventional strikes could not remove their organisational structure. This forced us to change our perceptions as to how the war could be won. It would not be through an outright conventional battle but rather through a prolonged involvement in the rebuilding of the Afghan state and gaining territory through the political control of the population. The war, therefore, became one of Counter-Insurgency (COIN), a term that causes concern and confusion amongst all governments and armies and which, for the US, was particularly troublesome in bringing back damaging memories of Vietnam.

Provincial Reconstruction Team at work

Because of these developments, a major overhaul of the campaign strategy was undertaken by all the parties involved (UN, NATO, UK, USA, etc). The result was what has come to be known as the Comprehensive Approach which involves combining regular forces with civilian counterparts (known in the UK as Provincial Reconstruction Teams, PRT’s). The idea is simple (in theory): the soldiers push forward into an area clearing out Taliban insurgents as they go, whilst the civilian members follow behind and carry out a programme of development and reconstruction. This can involve supplying basic medical support, provision of running water and electricity, and also education. The hope is that in doing so not only will the coalition appear less like an invading force, reminding the population that they are there fighting for the Afghan cause, but it will also produce more positive results in terms of ‘winning’ the war. Many have been critical of this approach claiming it still provides the military with too much control and does not really achieve the peaceful image that was hoped for. This, however, is a necessity as it is still the troops who have the combat training to ensure the safety of the civilians, and who should, therefore, be trusted to manage the situation to ensure the success of these missions. In a war against an enemy that is more than happy to fight for decades rather than months, people have been too quick to criticise an approach that is still in its earliest formulation and needs time to develop as all successful counter-insurgency tactics and strategies do. I believe again the development of such a strategy has marked a significant victory in the Afghan campaign (once our perceptions have shifted away from preponderance upon outright military victory). This is part of the reason why it is necessary, in spite of recent events, to remain in Afghanistan until our stated exit date of 2014 to ensure that these strategies, which have cost huge sums and many lives, have the opportunity to come to fruition. Again people have been heavily critical of the army’s inability to change, but it is in fact these critics who need to update their perceptions and realise that we are not there for a quick fix victory but rather we are committed to a prolonged involvement and results that will reflect such an approach. This is necessary to achieve many of our stated aims, including specifically winning back the support of the local population, no matter how painful or costly that might be. We cannot take knee-jerk reactions to every-set back that we face otherwise we would never be able to build on long-term policies that appear to offer the promise of future success.

Winning the 'Hearts and Minds'

If we return to the more recent developments, the cases of the Koran burning and the rogue soldier, again these should not be seen as a cause to reformulate and advance our exit strategy. As previously stated this is a battle for hearts and minds and although these event have been extremely damaging, to react in such a way would merely serve to cement the anti-western sentiments that have sprung up as a result. As part of this new Comprehensive Approach we need to work to demonstrate to local populations that these should be viewed as devastating anomalies rather than a broader stance and therefore, undo the damage done. Though I strive to ensure that I do not understate the tragic consequences of these actions which must be seen as entirely wrong, I hope that people (both in Afghanistan and at home) can see past them and continue to focus on the heroic and hugely constructive work of the members of the task-force who remain in theatre. Again, we must remember that this war will be won by direct and prolonged interaction with the Afghan people and government. If we pull out now all we will leave behind is a hugely unstable state fuelled with anti-western sentiment. This plays directly into the hands of the Taliban who would have a relatively easy task of riding on the back of such emotions and regaining broad support. This would create exactly the situation that we went in to end and would entirely negate all that has been achieved in the interim period. It is obviously vital that this is not allowed to happen, and the best way to ensure that this does not turn out to be the case is to persevere with the new COIN tactics. We must rebuild the broken bridges with Afghan locals rather than accept their degeneration so as to ensure they can create their own future rather than falling back into the arms of the Taliban.

In other words our mission in Afghanistan is by no means over. The Afghan National Army (ANA) is not in a state to cope alone, nor is the government for that matter. They still depend on the coalition’s involvement to provide stability and help in reconstruction whilst they develop to the point where they can become self-sufficient. An early withdrawal would commit them to a hasty and bloody downfall. To remain there, absorbing the difficult impact of such events is more important than taking a knee-jerk reaction and adapting our strategy to satisfy short-term criticism. These events may have lost us a significant battle, but this is not to say that we cannot still win the war that we set out to fight.

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