Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Have The British Learned Nothing?

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on June 17, 2010

The British are having a tough time in Afghanistan.

That’s the observation of Stephen Grey, a foreign correspondent for London’s Sunday Times, someone who has traveled to Afghanistan numerous times for the paper and a man who just recently put out a new book about the Afghan conflict last year.  In fact, Grey is so compassionate about his conclusion that he’s scheduled to give a talk (at the New America Foundation) today about the British experience in the Afghan theater; an experience, he says, that has been mired by miscalculation, a lack of resources, weak troop strength, and confusion in the British command.

Now keep in mind that this is not really a groundbreaking discovery.  Washington is facing many of the same challenges today, despite the fact that the U.S. Military has been fighting inside Afghanistan for close to a decade.  The latest blunder for the United States came last March and April, when the Taliban re-established a presence in Helmand after they were driven out by coalition forces a few weeks earlier.  The Taliban, by the way, is still very much alive in that area, made abundantly clear by the insurgency’s relentless intimidation campaign against the local population (targeted assassinations included).

So the charge that the British Government is having problems in southern Afghanistan is not a breaking-news story.  Rather, what could be considered highly consequential is the slow pace with which the British Army has adapted to the war’s changing environment.  And according to Grey, this conventional mindset is not going to go away anytime soon.

This quote really jumped out at me:

“The charge then against British commanders is that despite the sacrifice and heroism of their troops, they failed to alter their strategy and their people fast both from conventional war to counterinsurgency”.

Gee, doesn’t this sound a bit similar to the U.S. experience in Iraq from 2003-2006? Apparently, the British have learned nothing from Bush’s troubled campaign in Iraq seven years earlier.

So in order to prevent a terrible instance of déjà-vu, here are a few pointers for the British (or anyone else for that matter):

1)  Don’t “paint a rosy-picture” to your citizens when the war effort is going horribly. This is the equivalent of a police commissioner claiming that police brutality is nonexistent, despite the existence of video footage showing officers blatantly pummeling unarmed civilians (Rodney King reference).

2)  Don’t pretend that events on the ground will quickly evolve to your war plan. I’m afraid that this is exactly what happened to the Bush administration during Iraq’s bloodiest days, and apparently what is happening today to the British.  Bush & Company waited too long for a change in policy, instead sitting on their heels and hoping for the best (to their credit, they did eventually embrace counterinsurgency, thanks to General Petreaus).  The Brits still have time to avoid making a similar mistake, just in time for the upcoming offensive in Kandahar this summer.

3)  Be honest with yourself and admit when the war is going badly.  This is a hard step to take, because it may not be politically acceptable in the short-term.  Your party may lose a few seats during election time, and you may take a big hit credibility wise for a few weeks, which seems like an eternity in political life. But such a step could reap enormous benefits by jump-starting a process of getting the war plan right. The sooner you admit failure, the quicker you’ll be able to fix that failure.  It worked relatively well for the United States back in 2007, and it could be promising for the British as well.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Stephen Grey at the AfPak Channel**

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4 Responses

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  1. Suresh Sheth said, on June 17, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    As long as US continues to ignore Taliban’s Pakistani connections, problems faced by US in its Afghan mission will continue to not only persist but compound.

    As Times of London reported yesterday (6/13/10) on Matt Waldman’s report titled ‘The sun in the sky’ from London School of Economics, “support for the Afghan Taliban is ‘official ISI policy’ and is backed at the highest levels of Pakistan’s civilian administration. Pakistan appears to be playing a double game of astonishing magnitude. There is thus a strong case that the ISI orchestrates, sustains and shapes the overall insurgent campaign in Afghanistan.”

    The ISI is said to compensate families of suicide bombers to the tune of 200,000 Pakistani rupees, claims the report. Thus US aid to Pakistan goes directly to finance the death of US/NATO soldiers in Afghanistan.

    Pakistani government issued its usual denials just as it had denied existence of Mullah Mohammed Omar’s ‘Quetta Shura Taliban (QST)’ in the provincial capital Quetta of Baluchistan. But General Stanley McChrystal confirmed the existence of QST in his report to President Obama in August, 2009.

    Can American CIA not know what Matt Waldman knows? How come Obama administration is continuing Bush’s mollycoddling of Pakistan with such incriminating evidence against Pakistan’s double game? How can US mission in Afghanistan succeed if Obama administration continues to ignore such damning evidence against Pakistan?

    • Arvay said, on June 17, 2010 at 4:59 pm

      yes, and our only way out is to recognize both Pakistan’s legitimate concerns and its ability to keep us bleeding as long as we support an India-friendly government in Afghanistan. Without our interference, it will be relatively easily for Pakistan to achieve its goal.

      We have no business or real interest in getting in the middle of the India-Pakistan conflict.

      • anan said, on June 18, 2010 at 12:57 am

        Arvay, 90% of Afghans dislike the Taliban. The Afghan National Army is anti Taliban, and widely respected and popular among Afghan Pashtuns. The ANA is 42% Pashtun.

        When is the last time Mullah Omar’s QST was able to defeat an ANA company in combat?

        “Without our interference, it will be relatively easily for Pakistan to achieve its goal.” By which you mean what? As long as the ANA gets funding they will fight the Taliban. The Taliban cannot defeat the ANA.

        However, the ANA and ANP lack the funding to defeat the Taliban either. Give the ANSF more funding and time, and watch what happens.

        Arvay, the same people who want to mass murder Americans also want to mass murder Europeans, Russians, Chinese, Indians, Iranians, Shiites, Sufis, Ahmedis, Jews, Afghans, and yes . . . even Pakistanis who happen to be “lesser muslims.”

        India, NATO, Russia, China, and the world in general share a common shared interest in defeating the AQ and Taliban linked networks and in transforming Pakistan into a successful free democracy.

        JayDee001, what is the difference between Sirajuddin Haqqani, Lashkar e Taiba, TTP, TNSM, Al Qaeda, IJU/IMU, the Uighar AQ linked groups, and Lashkar e Jhanvi? In many ways they are different aspects of the same thing that are fighting against Pakistan, Afghanistan, Stans, Russia, China, NATO and Iran. Only if they are defeated everywhere can they be truly defeated anywhere.

        The only way America can avoid future terrorist attacks is to help Afghans, Pakistanis and others fight their own war against their enemies.

        Suresh, your analysis was right on for a long time. However, it looks like Pakistan has genuinely fallen into a civil war with powerful part of the establishment fighting on all sides. For the first time since 1947, large parts of the Pakistani public and Pakistani establishment are genuinely motivated to fight terrorists who attack India. Not for India mind you, but for themselves. If India and the world don’t sieze this moment, when will it come again?

        Daniel R. DePetris, what was the real lesson of Iraq? Until 2006, the MNF-I and GoI [Government of Iraq] refused to sufficiently fund, train and equip the Iraqi Security Forces. Iraq suffered enormously because of this mistake.

        In late 2006, the ISF finally go the funding it needed [from the GoI and MNF-I] and Iraq turned on a dime. The Iraqi Army successfully fought a series of engagements in late 2006 and early 2007, and the rest is history.

        The real problem in Afghanistan was the refusal of the international community to fund, equip and train the ANSF at remotely adequate levels until November 2009. Even now the Afghan MoI trains only 9 thousand ANP at any given time. Compared to the Iraqi MoI which trains about 40 thousand Iraqi Police at any given time for a country that is much smaller and less populous than Iraq. If the Afghan MoI were funded to train 40 thousand ANP at any given time, how long would it take them to defeat the Taliban?

        Britain did an awful job training the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police. The 10th Iraqi Army Division that they trained was the worst in the entire Iraqi Army. The British trained Basrah and Maysan Iraqi Police were similarly the worst in the Iraq. This is Britain’s mistake. They appear to be doing better with the ANP and ANA. They are learning.

        “The latest blunder for the United States came last March and April, when the Taliban re-established a presence in Helmand after they were driven out by coalition forces a few weeks earlier. The Taliban, by the way, is still very much alive in that area, made abundantly clear by the insurgency’s relentless intimidation campaign against the local population (targeted assassinations included).”

        DePetris, three ANA brigades [1st, 2nd, 3rd Bde, 215th ANA Corps] now control most of Helmand, not the Taliban. True, the Taliban haven’t been completely defeated in Marja yet. But that is only one small pocket in Helmand. The Taliban are too busy running for their lives to amount militarily significant attacks against 215th ANA Corps and the ANP, even in Marja. The Taliban’s ability to intimidate in Marja is being degraded, and is a far cry from the way the Taliban controlled the large majority of Helmand in 2008.

  2. JayDee001 said, on June 17, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    The US will bail out the Brits in Helmland. That’s nice, so now it will be our turn to chase the Taliban fox around the province, to no good end.

    The Brits have enough experience with Afghanistan from past military mis-adventures to know how futile it can be. We should have learned from their experience and that of the Russians – no good end will come to empires that dare to fight a land war in that damned place.

    The people we were after have been in Pakistan since at least 2002. After we failed to bring OBL to justice, the smart thing would have been to focus on the Pakistani support for, or acquiescence to their presence. Had we left Afghanistan to the Taliban, it would have been well on its way back to the 13th century by now – and of little concern to anyone.


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