Monday, August 24, 2009


“Past empires that have dared to enter Afghanistan — from Alexander the Great to Great Britain and the Soviet Union — have found initial entry possible, even easy, only to find themselves fatally mired in local resistance.” Which is why that harsh and mountainous country has become known, in the words of his book’s title, as “the graveyard of empires.”

In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan,” by Seth G. Jones (2009).

“It is serious and it is deteriorating....The Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more sophisticated. Their tactics, just in my recent visits out there and talking with our troops, certainly indicate that Afghanistan is very vulnerable.”

U.S. Joint Chief of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen quoted in: "Mullen says Afghan situation 'serious' Getting worse". 24 August 2009, in

The results of the Presidential elections in Afghanistan are still unknown at this time. However, it appears that as compared to the elections of 2004, there has been a considerable degree of backsliding by the Afghan population, in terms of both popular participation (perhaps as low as 40%, as opposed to the prior elections 70%), and, in terms the security environment for the elections, cynicism about the entire process and the prospective end result. With many contending that the likely victory of the current President, Hamid Karzai, is likely to be more the result of vote rigging more than anything else. The upshot of the entire matter is, as the Financial Times put it recently:

"It is something of a miracle that Afghanistan has been able to hold elections, given the circumstances. These include: a raging insurgency, in which Nato forces have been unable to regain the initiative from a resurgent Taliban; a central government that has failed to provide security, services or jobs, and whose writ barely reaches beyond the boundaries of Kabul".

"Afghanistan Votes and Hopes for the Best," 21 August 2009, in

Notwithstanding the recent 'surge' of American forces into the country (all 21,000 of them), the security situation does on the fact of it, from most indications, the recent elections included appear to be getting worse. And, with an increase in American and British causalities recently, there has been increased criticism of the Anglo-American effort in the country. With some voices once again being raised to argue that NATO forces should be reduced in size, not increased, and, that what is needed is a policy of Afghanistanization. A build-up of the native forces, under Anglo-American tutelage, which would allow the former to properly police the country, and, thus provide a political space for serious socio-economic reform and reconstruction in the countryside. Mr. Seth Jones of the Rand Corporation, quoted above, is perhaps the most cogent advocate of this point of view arguing that:

"There is no clear-cut answer – and certainly no magic number – of U.S. and Afghan forces. However, the current problem that the U.S. faces is that the clock is ticking more than seven years into the Afghan insurgency. Local perceptions of the U.S. have deteriorated over the past several years from high levels in 2001. This suggests that the percentage of Afghan security forces (both national and local) needs to increase in the south and east. A relatively small U.S. and international footprint of, for example, 50,000 forces in the south and east may be more than adequate if they can effectively leverage a mixture of Afghan National Police, Afghan National Army, National Directorate of Security (Afghanistan’s intelligence agency), and tribal forces in urban and rural areas.

Based on the increasing Pashtun aversion to outside forces, it is unlikely that the United States and NATO will defeat the Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan through a heavy international military footprint that tries to clear, hold, and build territory. Virtually all counterinsurgency studies – from David Galula to Roger Trinquier – have focused on building the capacity of local forces. Victory is usually a function of the struggle between the local government and insurgents. Most outside forces are unlikely to remain for the duration of any counterinsurgency, at least as a major combatant force. Most domestic populations tire of their forces engaged in struggles overseas, as even the Soviet population did in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In addition, a lead outside role may be interpreted by the population as an occupation, eliciting nationalist reactions that impede success.9 And a lead indigenous role can provide a focus for national aspirations and show the population that they – and not foreign forces – control their destiny.
This reality should lead to a strategy that involves conducting clandestine operations by leveraging local entities and building Afghan capacity – rather than a large U.S. footprint".

Seth Jones, "U. S. Stategy in Afghanistan," Testimony before the House of Representatives, Foreign Affairs Sub-committee for the Middle East and South Asia, 2 April 2009.

The only problem with this analysis is that it has in fact been tried already: it was in essence former American Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld's policy for fighting the war between 2002 and 2006. A very, very light American and NATO footprint (less than 25,000 trooped in all), with an emphasis on the Afghans themselves doing much of the security work. The results of this strategy are all too clear, so that one does not need to even mention it...Which leaves us where you might well inquire? Well from my perspective, the only likely path for success, admittedly not quick success, is for a major build-up, in Anglo-American (meaning mostly American) forces in the country. To a level of at least 120,000. While not by any means the 'ideal' number (Seth Jones in his testimony uses the rather plausible figure of 270,000 Afghan and NATO troops as a minimum). Again, while not a scenario which promises a 'Blitz Victory', it is by far the only likely one which offers some degree of success. In the long-run if not the short term. As per the argument made by Jones, and, other like him, that in such a scenario, the Americans will simply be following in the footsteps of the Russians in the 20th century and the British in the 19th, it is the case now, that the Americans are following in both their footsteps by endeavoring to fight a war on the cheap. So for example: while many accounts of the First Anglo-Afghan War focus (obsessively so in fact), on the annihilation of Elphinstone's army in January of 1842, most neglect to point out, that only this consisted of a small contingent of 4,500 troops, most of which were Indian. Additionally, neglected is that in the aftermath of the destruction of the Kabul occupation army, was the fact that British forces re-entered the country, defeated the Afghan armies in the field, re-captured Kabul and destroyed a portion of the capital. Per se it was the retrenchment policies of Sir Robert Peel's government in London, not the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, which forced the withdrawal of British forces from the country. Similarly forgotten is the fact that via Field-Marshal Lord Robert's military victories, in the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), that London was able to impose a semi-hegemony on the country, which lasted until the end of the Great War.

I am not contending that the past is prologue to the future in Afghanistan. Or that the Americans need copy the tactics employed by Lord Roberts over one hundred years ago. What I am contending is that the only path of a suitable settlement in this country is putting in place, x number of troops, mostly Americans and British and having them engage in operations to 'clear and hold' territory so that a decent opportunity can be made to reconstruct the country. Currently Afghan forces are neither equipped nor motivated, much less ready for anything approaching active duty on this scale. The only alternative is a Vietnam style 'decent interval' of pushing the natives forward and withdrawing prior to the whole structure collapsing like a house of cards. Given the local security situation in the region, any such result will be a disaster of the first magnitude.


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