Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Limits of Western Military Power

Afghanistan is witnessing a most curious war. A war best fought quickly that has, instead, dragged on for more than eight years and could easily linger on for decades to come. A war in which we made ourselves dependent on allies who ought to have been, in normal circumstances, our logical enemies and who will, if and when it suits their interest, turn on us without the slightest qualm. A war in which we foolishly, make that stupidly, substituted firepower for manpower and, in the process, betrayed and alienated the civilian population. A war whose outcome will be decided mainly by events beyond the defined battlefield where our efforts are focused.

Now, we're told, American and ISAF forces are mustering for a massive battle to retake Marjah, said to be the last Taliban village stronghold in Helmand province. Western forces have been advertising this attack for better than a week now. They claim all the publicity is a form of psychological warfare intended to intimidate the Taliban into laying down their weapons or fleeing.

If this sounds like a curious way to defeat the Taliban, that's because it is. Then again, it seems the victory that US General Stan McChrystal is hoping to win isn't really in the village of Marjah but on Main Street, USA.

This business about intimidating the Taliban into laying down their arms is nonsense, utter garbage. When, in the course of our eight years of fighting the Taliban, have they ever laid down their arms? If they're cornered they'll fight to the death but surrender doesn't seem to be in their playbook.

Remember Operation Medusa, when Canadian and ISAF forces trapped the Taliban in Panjwai district? Remember how our generals crowed about the Taliban fighters having but two options - surrender or die? Do you remember how the Taliban showed us their own option by exfiltrating in the middle of the night, totally undetected and unmolested, straight through our iron cordon, with their weapons, to make good their escape, regroup and fight another day?

That leaves us with Option B, forcing the Taliban to flee. Now that is in their playbook. That's what they do when confronted with overwhelming force and total fire superiority. They melt away to regroup and fight again. They have to do that. They don't have any tanks or artillery or jet fighters or attack helicopters. They don't even have our numbers. But that doesn't matter to the war they're fighting. Because the element of time is on their side, not ours, escaping still gives them the tactical victory. In the war the Taliban are fighting, to simply survive is to win.

It is a sign of a war in which logic has been stood on its head that, when our forces finally do roll into Marjah and take over the place, we'll be told that's a great victory - for us. If nothing else, our side will have cleared out the Taliban, or so we'll be told. Just like we cleared the Taliban out of Panjwai during Operation Medusa until some time later when we've moved on they simply moved back in. That's because, despite the supposed "surge" of 30,000 additional troops, Western forces in Afghanistan remain less than half the strength prescribed by the American military's own counterinsurgency doctrine. That leaves them unable to effectively secure territory which is the only way to drive out the Taliban. Well, the American people were easily duped into believing that the Iraq "surge" pacified that country so for General McChrystal it's a reasonably safe bet they'll swallow the Afghan surge to boot.


LeDaro said...

"In the war the Taliban are fighting, to simply survive is to win." This sums it up. Rest is baloney which Americans are being fed and Harper fed us.

Fish said...

Good point Mound, except we're the ones who are making it hard for ourselves by making it a matter of time. Demanding exit strategies and setting time limits on how long we're prepared to stay only gives the enemy a "home free" date.

Can you imagine if Winston Churchill had said we shall fight them on the beaches... but only until 1942"?

The Mound of Sound said...

Fishman, can you imagine if Churchill had said "we shall fight them on the beaches" until 1955 or 1965 or maybe even 1975 or until we run out of beaches? You might also recall that Churchill & Co. didn't sit around for eight years with their thumbs up their arses either.

BTW Fish, don't overestimate Churchill's resolve to fight on.

This misconception is gutted quite nicely in Clive Ponting's 1990 book, "1940 - Myth & Reality," in which, using Churchill cabinet memoes, the author reveals just how close Churchill came to suing for peace, that's right - throwing in the towel, even as he made grand speeches about "their finest hour."

Much or our understanding of Churchill comes from his own, post-war depiction of himself. He took full advantage of the victor's right to reshape past events to his liking. He even openly said that's what he intended to do.

It's sort of like the myth that the French folded on the Brits before Dunkirk.

Fish said...

I don't recall him setting up an official date like 1959, but I do recall the following "This is not the beginning of the end, it is merely the end of the beginning". I can't say that I blame him for PRIVATELY thinking over peace talks, but I don't think the Nazis would have been terribly intimidated if they did not think that the British public would back him in a full scale war effort.

Remeber that in the end, the Germans decided that invading the Soviet Union was a better idea than invading England! Obviously there was a certain cost/benefit analysis involved, but only after the Brits made it clear that they would not go down without a fight.

LeDaro said...

Fish, Brits also tried to win in Afghanistan but failed. So did Alexander the Great and more recently so did USSR. They all failed. What does that tell you?

The Mound of Sound said...

Fish, WSC wasn't "privately thinking" about capitulation. He and his cabinet were working on that option. They were afraid a full-blown war with Germany would bankrupt Britain and they were quite prepared to fold rather than risk that. It was only when FDR worked out the "lend lease" deal that the Brits decided to continue fighting.

This wasn't a matter of idle speculation as you imply. Not at all. Sorry to burst your Churchillian bubble but you're clinging to fantasy.

I'm pretty sure the "end of the beginning" reference came quite a bit later following the defeat of Rommel's Afrika Korp which was, of course, well after American troops made it to North Africa.

The Mound of Sound said...

Fish, here is one of several accounts furnished by Ponting about Churchill's war cabinet's deliberations on surrendering.

"The meeting also considered what Britain might have to give up in order to obtain a settlement. There was general agreement that mussolini would want Gibraltar, Malta and Suez and Chamberlain thought he might well add Somaliland, Kenya and Uganda to the list. ...The war cabginet were united in agreeing that Britain could not accept any form of disarmament in a peace settlement but that the return of German colonies taken away in the Versailles settlement was acceptable. At one point Halifax asked Chruchill directly 'whether, if he was satisfied that matters vital to the independence of this country were unaffected, he would be prepared to discuss terms.' Churchill's reply shows none of the signs of the determined attitude he displayed in public and the image cultivated after the war. It reveals little difference between his views and those of Halifax and shows he was prepared to give up parts of the Empire if a peace settlement were possible.

...Neville Chamberlain's diary ..quotes Churchill as saying taht 'if we could get out of this jam by giving up Malta and Gibraltar and some Afrifcan colonies he would jump at it.'

That, Fish, is but one of the lengthy deliberations Churchill and his cabinet were going through at this time. They were more than willing to throw the French to Hitler's mercies, quite content to make a peace that saw Germany control Europe.

Sorry Fish but all that Churchillian stiff upper lip business is crap.

Fish said...

Mound, during that little history lesson, did you happen to notice that you conceded the point? None of this was ever public!

Ledaro, as I have told you before, the fact that something has never been done before does not mean that it cannot be done.

LeDaro said...


Are 8 years not long enough for such a victory. Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires and remains so.

As far as Churchil, sorry Fish, I consider him a clown. He was racist and would not shake hands with Ghandi. Probably he won't shake hands with Obama either if he was alive. He did try to rewrite history in his final term to make himself look good - Dick Cheney style.

The Mound of Sound said...

Fish, you're comparing apples and oranges. Churchill was dealing with total war and we're not. We are effectively babysitting what has returned to a classic, civil war.

And Fish, your remark to LeDaro, is even weaker. The sort of warfare we're involved in has been done before many, many times. In a few instances it has been done successfully. In most cases our side, the government side, has failed. We know well what causes our side to fail in this sort of war. We know that because Caesar wrote about it and TE Lawrence wrote about it and Giap and Che wrote about it and all of their collective and remarkably consistent wisdom was ably boiled down into the US Military's new counterinsurgency field manual FM3-24. What's even more remarkable is that we've ignored just about every principle set out in that manual.

So Fish what you're saying is that we - for some unexplained reason - don't have to fight to win and the fact that nobody has ever won this sort of war the way we've been fighting it does not mean that it cannot be done. Brilliant, Fish.

Christ, Fish have you even noticed that we can no longer put forward a coherent definition of what 'winning' means in Afghanistan? We defined victory when we went in - defeat the Taliban and establish Western democracy in Afghanistan. We've already ditched both of those goals. We've already lost. That's the way these wars tend to go Fish. The issue is often decided years before the government side accepts it has lost.

Fish said...

Come on Mound, you answered your own question!

If the war is unwinnable because we've not been following the "manual", don't you suppose that maybe there's a possibility that our lack of fortune may be due to the fact that we have not been following the manual, rather than owing to the myth that Afghan fighters are invincible?

If you want to argue that the war is not being fought properly then sure go ahead; but until you figure out what your position is you're tripping over your own feet.

The Mound of Sound said...

Fish you're going to cling to your belief that this thing is still winnable and that's all there is to it. Your stand is taken on blind faith such that neither fact nor history is relevant.

You see this as a military war. That sort of warfare can just keep going. You merely add more weapons, more soldiers, more ordinance.

The important war here, however, is the political war. It's the war for the 'hearts and minds' of the Afghan people. That's the war that matters. Once it's lost, it is irretrievable. We've already lost that war.

Petraeus headed the team that wrote that field manual. Well prior to becoming commander in Iraq he discussed the cardinal tenets of counterinsurgency.

The first rule was "go big or go home." Effective counterinsurgency is the most labour-intensive form of warfare and by a big margin. We never went big. We still haven't gone big and no one's planning on going big.

Another cardinal rule expressed by Petraeus is that, once our side loses the political struggle, once we've alienated the civilian population, it's over. Finis. You don't get that back - ever. He noted (quite correctly) that our side has a very limited shelf-life before we go, in the public's mind, from liberator/defender to occupier/oppressor. That hinge point, Fish, comes well before you reach your eighth anniversary on the battlefield.

But don't let facts and history get in your way Fish because your case is based entirely on faith.