Saturday, November 14, 2009

Conn Hallinan: "Why the Afghan Surge Will Fail"

Lately we've been hearing a lot in the news about the war in Afghanistan, but very little about how that war is fought on the ground. Oh yes, we've seen the reports of the "surge" troops "clearing and holding" towns, "protecting the population," and other bullshit catchphrases that the media takes directly from the military PR staff without commentary. Up until now, I haven't read or seen much about how the American military is specifically taking on the Taliban as it "clears and holds." Conn Hallinan paints that picture in a great article for Foreign Policy in Focus, and it ain't pretty.

He describes a Marine unit's incursion in the 2,000-person town of Zananeh in the southern Helmand province. They enter the town and are soon attacked by the Taliban, who were tipped off by the villagers. The opposing forces battle for a few days after which the Taliban sneaks back out of town. The Marines end up with a "cleared" and shot-up village with 12 dead insurgents, who as Hallinan points out probably weren't all insurgents.

What's really striking is our military's detachment from reality. To begin with, they think the town is crucial even though it's one of thousands of similar sized villages across the countryside. They think they've interfered with Taliban operations, when in fact the Taliban are very comfortable retreating to the countryside, which has been their modus operandi since the Soviet invasion and even farther back.

In short, the insurgency is adjusting. "To many of the Americans, it appeared as if the insurgents had attended something akin to the U.S. Army's Ranger school, which teaches soldiers how to fight in small groups in austere environments," writesKaren DeYoung in The Washington Post.

Actually, the Afghans have been doing that for some time, as Greeks, Mongols, British, and Russians discovered.

One Pentagon officer told the Post that the Taliban has been using the Korengal Valley that borders Pakistan as a training ground. It's "a perfect lab to vet fighters and study U.S. tactics," he said, and to learn how to gauge the response time for U.S. artillery, air strikes, and helicopter assaults. "They know exactly how long it takes before...they have to break contact and pull back."

I usually argue against the war on 1) the strategic basis that it won't protect us from terrorism and could likely cause more terrorism 2) the economic basis that we desperately need the funds for job programs at home and c) moral basis that we're killing and maiming tens of thousands of innocent Afghans as well as our own men and women. But I think the argument that the war is unlikely to be won is a powerful one, especially for those who don't agree with the above 3 points.

Here's some questions the Obama administration (who has already added 20,000 troops plus replaced 13,000 supply soldiers with combat soldiers through outsourcing) and the pro-escalation crowd should answer but likely won't except with catchprases from "counterinsurgency doctrine" and references to the 2007 surge in Iraq:

1) Callinan writes that the military's counterinsurgency manual advises a ratio of 20 troops for every 1,000 civilians. By their own logic, we would need 600,000 soldiers. How do they intend to win without enough troops? (see the part of Callinan's article on problems with building up Afghan forces)
2) How does protecting the cities make sense when only 10% of Afghans live in cities? How does it make sense when the Taliban seems to prefer the countryside to urban battlefields?
3) What does "protecting the populace" mean when that populace often informs the Taliban about our troop movements and the intended act of protection leads to ambush?
4) How can we rout the Taliban when they can slip easily into the forests and mountains where our troops rarely go?
5) What does it mean to defeat the Taliban? What quantitative and qualitative benchmarks are there to show that we are gaining the upper hand with them? What does gaining the upper hand even mean in asymmetrical warfare?
6) Finally can our military wage counterinsurgency war when it seems so ill-suited for it? This runs the gamut from vehicles to personal equipment to soldier training to the strategic abilities of our generals.

I urge you to read Hallinan's article in its entirety; he breaks things down very well. Our politicians who are for the escalation and even those who think keeping current troop levels is a good idea need to think critically: can we defeat the Taliban in some meaningful way? If so, how? Whether yay or nay, the burden is on them to do so.

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