Thursday, February 21, 2008

"Making Do" in Afghanistan

When you're the attacker you get to concentrate your forces on the target being attacked. When you're the defender, however, you have to spread your forces around to cover all the vital targets your enemy might attack. The more places you want to defend, the more diluted your force becomes. The fewer soldiers available for the job the fewer targets that get defended and, sometimes, the weaker the defences for those points you do try to protect. I think it was Stalin who said that quantity is a quality of itself.

In Kandahar province, Canada lacks the quality of quantity. A combat group of 1,000 at best on a good day is said to yield a sustainably deployable force of about 500. Kandahar province is over 50,000 sq. kms. in area. When you do the math it's not comforting.

A panel discussion on the CBC two nights ago examined "the mission" in the context of a resurgent Taliban. Finally I heard what won't pass the lips of Hillier or Harper or MacKay - we're shaping "the mission" according to our weakness.

Put another way, it's our limitations, our weakness in numbers, that now increasingly defines "the mission." Our lack of force has come to dominate other factors such as the growth of the insurgency, the needs of the Kabul government or provincial reconstruction. One reflection of this is our retreat from the countryside into much smaller, strategic areas. That leaves the insurgency more uncontested areas in which they can transit, mass, operate and - govern - in between waging a barbarous form of guerrilla warfare in ISAF territory.

It's not just the Taliban that sees our weakness. The ordinary people are keenly aware of it also because, to some extent, it portends their own fate. They have to weigh their options and choices very carefully. They know Westerners come. They know those Westerners go. They know what can await them when we're gone. So, in order to genuinely support us, they need to see real and tangible success in defeating of somehow taming the insurgency. They need to know they can safely bet on our side.

Only days ago 80-Afghans gathered to watch dog fights were killed by a suicide bomber. The very next day three dozen more were felled by another suicide bomber who notionally attacked a Canadian army convoy. I've thought about it and I don't think his real target was the convoy but rather civilians in proximity to the convoy and I think his brutal message got through.

Just about everybody now gets it that we can't defeat the Taliban militarily. We can, however, lose to the Taliban militarily. That's not to say they can actually defeat our soldiers with our tanks and artillery and air power but they don't have to physically destroy us. They win - militarily - by wresting the support of the populace away from the government we're notionally supporting.

America's counter-insurgency guru, General David Petraeus, makes it powerfully clear that there is no substitute for numbers, for the "quality of quantity," in fighting against an insurgency. It's the type of war where you either go big or go home.

So, if we're not in Kandahar to win, explain to me why we're there at all and why we're planning on staying until 2011?


Fish said...

Well said MOS.

Either we have to fight this war to win it, or we shouldn't be in it at all.

I know we've been over this before, but I'm not convinced that this war is unwinnable just yet.

To be fair (much as it pains me to come to Harper's defence), from what I've read, the motion essentially states that troops will be pulled out by 2009 if the additional NATO troops do not arrive. So at least the numbers concern is being addressed.

Just the same, I think it's still just as clear as ever that there needs to be an Afghani solution to this conflict. Unfortunately, history does not look kindly on this avenue. Nickson's "Vietnamization" phase of the Vietnam war did not prevent the Republic of Vietnam from falling, so one must wonder if there are any lessons that can be learned. Is there a more effective way of handing over the fight to Karzai?

I suppose the one key difference is that there is no "North Vietnam" to this conflict, only a "viet cong" type of guerilla that seeks to seize power. I think it might be possible to at least control the Taliban insurgency if the Afghani armed forces can get their act together (and then all we have to worry about is Karzai becoming the next Saddam, but hey, one problem at a time!)

The Mound of Sound said...

Fish, I have to give you full points for unshakeable optimism. If you can find a way to bottle that, you'll be enormously wealthy.

Fighting the insurgency ought to be our greatest challenge and would that it were so but it's not. I think we face a much greater hurdle in the very government we're supposedly there to uphold- the corrupted and compromised Karzai/warlord regime. It's the foundation upon which all progress must rest and yet we're squandering lives and treasure to build on shifting sand.

Another 1,000 troops in Kandahar is an empty gesture, good enough for the political posturing but SFA in terms of the counterinsurgency mission. That would need to start at 15,000, especially given the Taliban resurgence in that province.

To those who support this farce I always ask them to show me one example where this size force employing the same tactics has succeeded and then explain to me why ours will prevail when none has before in the same circumstancese. Forget all the failures, just give me one success, just one. But if you can't give me one, then give me one explanation of why we should walk in the failed steps of those who've gone down this road before.