Sunday, June 01, 2008

Just Whose War Are We Fighting?

One reason (but just one of several) why we'll never "win" in Afghanistan is that there are too many wars going on. The Americans are waging one war in Afghanistan. NATO (ISAF) is waging another. Then there are the American military campaigns involving Iraq, Pakistan and - yes, Iran. Each of them constantly bounces off all the others.

Most of these wars are long past their "best before" date. They've dragged on inconsequentially too long. Stand in one place in the mud and eventually you'll sink down to your knees.

Now some senior American officers are musing about US forces being in Afghanistan for generations. From the Globe & Mail:

"Lest anyone think this is a soft or peaceful process, [US Navy] Cdr. Dwyer's base was rocked, every minute or so all day, by the terrifying shock of its line of 155-mm howitzers firing their village-destroying shells over the hills and into the Korengal Valley.

The building of mosques and roads is matched with absolutely ferocious fighting in places such as Korengal — the Americans are much more willing to use air strikes and heavy artillery, with the resulting heavy civilian casualties, than other militaries.

There are good reasons to be suspicious of this approach.

"We do not believe in counterinsurgency," a senior French commander tells me. "If you find yourself needing to use counterinsurgency, it means the entire population has become the subject of your war, and you either will have to stay there forever or you have lost."

The Americans obviously see it differently.

"We're trying to raise the opportunity cost of picking up a weapon or growing poppy," says Alison Blosser, a Pashto-speaking State Department official.

(The Americans, unlike Canadians or Brits, have a surprising level of co-operation between their foreign-affairs people and their military officers these days.)

"We want to get to the point where there's long-term sustainable employment that leads to economic growth. … If the insurgents do decide to come back, they will face a great wall of resistance from a population that has experienced economic development."

It sounds good. But I should mention that eastern Afghanistan is facing the highest military casualty rate in the war's history at the moment, and a British report has just concluded that their heavy-handed poppy-eradication strategy is creating hundreds more Taliban fighters.

I ask one officer how long it is going to take to make this new strategy bear fruit.

"Look," he says, "we're still in Germany and Japan 60 years after that war ended. That's how long it can take. I fully expect to have grandchildren who will be fighting out here."

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