The AfPak Reader

September 25, 2009

The Economist Magazine – AfPak Summer 2009 – Week 4

Filed under: Defense News,Diplomacy & Development,Summer 2009 — huntingnasrallah @ 4:15 am

The Economist Magazine – AfPak Summer 2009 – Week 4

The war in Afghanistan

Hold your nerve
Jul 16th 2009
From The Economist print edition

It has been a bloody month in Afghanistan but America’s allies, especially Britain, should not lose heart
AFGHANISTAN is said to be the graveyard of empires. The British army came to grief there in the 19th century, the Soviet one in the 20th. Such was Afghans’ reputation for ferocity that Rudyard Kipling told those left wounded on Afghanistan’s plains: “Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains.” These days British soldiers are again dying in Afghanistan, along with Americans, Canadians and many others. The Taliban are resurgent. Each fighting season is bloodier than the last.

President Barack Obama is deploying an extra 20,000 troops there this year. But some allies are already on their way out. The Netherlands will withdraw fighting forces next year, followed by Canada in 2011. Now the public in Britain, which has the second-largest contingent in Afghanistan, is agonising over the country’s role in the war after a dreadful month in Helmand.


After eight years of disheartening warfare, it is tempting to see NATO’s mission as a repeat of past misadventures in the Hindu Kush. The Soviets lost even though they had more troops than NATO has today, a more powerful Afghan army and were supported by a cadre of motivated Afghan communists. But such comparisons are wrong. Unlike the anti-Soviet mujahideen, who were backed by America, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the Taliban have no superpower sponsor. In the 1980s Soviet aircraft were shot down with American-made Stinger missiles; today NATO has mastery of the skies. The Taliban are a Pushtun faction, not a national movement; their insurgency is largely limited to the southern half of the country.


Afghans may feel anger over the death of civilians killed by foreign forces, frustration at the chaos and insecurity, and dismay at the corruption of President Hamid Karzai’s government. But opinion polls say that most want Western troops to stay; they remember the misery of the civil war and the oppression of Taliban rule too well. They want the West to do a better job of securing the country.
The price of friendship
For America Afghanistan is a war of necessity; it is from there that Osama bin Laden ordered the attacks of September 11th 2001. For many European allies, though, it is less vital—a war of solidarity with America, a war of choice. Such operations quickly turn unpopular when they go badly, and governments tend to inflate their aims. Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, talks of promoting “an emerging democracy”.


Critics say the effort is misconceived: the real danger is in Pakistan, where al-Qaeda’s leaders are now hiding. But helping Pakistan fight Islamic militants will only be harder if the Taliban and al-Qaeda can claim victory in Afghanistan. Others say the West is being over-ambitious. It can never hope to create a stable democracy in Afghanistan; all it needs is a small contingent to protect Kabul, and some special forces and bombers to deal with any returning al-Qaeda fighters. But such a minimalist approach is what allowed the Taliban to regroup.


The cost to NATO countries is immediately apparent: tens of billions of dollars and the lives of more than 1,200 soldiers. The cost of leaving is harder to measure but is probably larger: the return of the Taliban to power; an Afghan civil war; the utter destabilisation of nuclear-armed Pakistan; the restoration of al-Qaeda’s Afghan haven; the emboldening of every jihadist in the world; and the weakening of the West’s friends.


America will naturally take on most of the task in Afghanistan. But allies are vital. They share the burden, they confer political legitimacy and their joint commitment makes it harder for too many to drop out. Yet some are expending a disproportionate amount of blood. Britain is among them, but it is not alone. As a share of their population Canada, Denmark and Estonia have suffered more military fatalities.
Friends and allies
Britain’s ambition to be a global “force for good” comes at a cost. As America’s best friend, with privileged access to intelligence, it feels compelled to take part in America’s wars. As the most capable militarily of NATO’s European members (together with France), it helps to rally others. But fighting in Afghanistan is not just about prestige. With its large population of Pakistani origin, it has much at stake in helping to maintain the stability of Afghanistan and Pakistan. London has been attacked by al-Qaeda more recently than New York.


So what should Britain do? To begin with, the government must act with conviction, rather than wish the problem away. It cannot be at war with a peacetime mind-set. As a share of the budget, defence spending has shrunk since 2001. The defence ministry is a parking place for weak ministers or a stepping-stone for strong ones. Priority should be given to manning fully the army’s ranks, and probably expanding them. More must be done to provide helicopters, transport aircraft, drones and better-protected vehicles. This would wreck budgets and upset the navy and air force. So be it. Losing a war is even more demoralising than losing ships or jets. The government should have announced a Strategic Defence Review a long time ago, not delayed it until after the election.


At the very least Mr Brown should agree to the army’s request for a permanent uplift of 2,000 troops for Helmand. Western forces are never going to garrison the whole province, let alone Afghanistan. But what they hold must be held securely. And above all, they must train and expand the Afghan army and police so they can gradually take over. That will not be cheap, but it is the best way to bring home Western troops.


In many ways, the push to pacify Afghanistan is only just starting, now that the war in Iraq is ending. America’s marines launched a big operation in Helmand on July 2nd.
Afghanistan’s presidential elections take place next month. It will not be clear until the autumn, and probably not until late next year, whether Mr Obama’s “surge” has worked.
This is not the time to lose heart. Security must be improved, economic activity encouraged, government strengthened and insurgents offered inducements to defect. But for those things to happen, the Taliban must see that the Afghan government and its foreign friends are winning, not losing.
British forces in Afghanistan

And the soldier home from the hill
Jul 16th 2009 | NAD ALI
From The Economist print edition

The British public is honouring its fallen troops as never before. But for how long will it support the war in Afghanistan?
FIRST came the tolling bells of St Bartholomew’s church. Then the traffic disappeared and the throng on both sides of the road fell silent. The order for the members of the Royal British Legion to dip their standards was shouted out. The undertaker, in a black top hat, began his slow march, followed by eight gleaming hearses, each carrying the coffin of a fallen British soldier wrapped in the Union Flag. Their passage was punctuated by faint thuds of flowers being thrown on the bonnets. Hesitantly at first, then vigorously, a ripple of applause rose from the onlookers. Finally came the sound of muffled sobbing.


The village of Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire, close to RAF Lyneham, has honoured British servicemen killed in war dozens of times since the first impromptu show of respect in 2007. But never has there been a public salute such as the gathering on July 14th. It became a national day of mourning, broadcast live on television, with thousands of people from across the country—veterans of wars past, and citizens who have never known war—honouring the dead soldiers. It was not a day for politics. But there was a clear sense of anger with the government, whether for sending boys to die in a distant war, or for trying to fight that war on the cheap, without the right manpower or equipment. “I’m here to respect them young lads that have lost their lives over what I consider an unnecessary war,” said a former soldier wearing three campaign medals. “They [the Afghans] thrashed the Russians, and they’re going to thrash us again.”


The British public has long been accustomed to the deaths in action of its servicemen. Almost every year since 1945 has seen military fatalities in some corner of the world. Indeed, Britain prides itself on being a nation of fine soldiers. It invaded Iraq with America, and provides the second-largest contingent of forces to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. But something is shifting in the attitude of the British public towards the war in Afghanistan, and it will be watched closely by America and other allies. President Barack Obama has been quick to praise the “extraordinary” work of British troops, recognising that he needs to help keep them in the fight.


It has been a particularly bloody month in Helmand province, where British troops have been slugging it out with the Taliban for three years for limited gains. Fifteen soldiers have died so far this month; more have now lost their lives in Afghanistan than in Iraq. The eight who arrived at Wootton Bassett died in the space of 24 hours. Five were killed in a double bombing in Sang in that all but put their platoon out of action. The rest died in the district of Nad Ali, where the British forces are trying to push the Taliban out in Operation Panchai Palang, or Panther’s Claw. The operation has been making slow progress through a maze of irrigation canals—a terrain as hard as the bocage of Normandy in the second world war, mixed with Iraq-like fighting around civilian compounds and countless home-made bombs. To a growing number of critics, it is the British who are caught in the Taliban’s claws.


The war in Afghanistan has, until recently, had an oddly low political profile in Britain. One reason is that it was long overshadowed by the conflict in Iraq. With the withdrawal of Britain’s last combat troops from Basra, that is no longer the case. The other reason is that, unlike the conflict in Iraq, the Afghan war has commanded broad political support. Whereas the Liberal Democrats, the country’s third party, opposed Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq, all the main parties have supported the country’s involvement in Afghanistan since the outset. At least, they have done so until now.


Ministers against generals


The cross-party consensus on Afghanistan is under more strain than ever before. Both the Tories and the Lib Dems still say they back the deployment, but they attack the government’s perceived lack of strategy and its parsimony towards the armed forces. Liam Fox, the Tory shadow defence secretary, has accused the government of “the ultimate dereliction of duty”. The Tories have concentrated their fire on the shortfall in the helicopters available to British forces—though the criticism is undermined by their reluctance to promise extra defence spending if they win the election due by next year. Nick Clegg, the leader of the Lib Dems, has been sharper: he talks about soldiers’ lives being “thrown away”, describing the mission in Afghanistan as “over-ambitious in aim and under-resourced in practice”.


Yet the most important divide may not be between political parties but between government ministers and military commanders. Gordon Brown’s ill-judged appointment of Des Browne in 2006 as defence secretary, doubling the next year as Scottish secretary, alienated some of the top brass. Confidence has hardly been increased by the loss of his successor, the well-liked John Hutton, during last month’s crisis over the future of Mr Brown, and the promotion of the junior defence minister, Bob Ainsworth, to the main job as the least bad option.


The prime minister now stands accused by many generals, more explicitly than is customary, of skimping on the men and kit needed for the Afghan campaign. In an interview this week in Helmand General Sir Richard Dannatt, the outgoing head of the army, noted that he was flying in an American helicopter because a British one was not available. He had asked in public for a reinforcement of 2,000 troops (and more in private), but received the promise of only a temporary boost of 700 soldiers, amid resistance from the Treasury and the Foreign Office. All this feeds the generals’ belief that Mr Brown does not much care for the armed forces. One general says: “Tony Blair did not understand us. Gordon Brown does not like us.”


This vocal disgruntlement is one factor that may sway public opinion about the war. Polls have offered wildly varying impressions of the support it enjoys among the electorate. One conducted this week, for the BBC and the Guardian newspaper, found that roughly equal proportions declared themselves for and against the war—and that support for it was actually higher now than it had been in 2006. Britain’s precarious fiscal position will make a difference; voters may be less inclined to back expensive military adventures as state expenditure at home is cut, as it soon must be. And, above all, the rising level of fatalities may tilt sentiment, and embolden politicians, against the war.


Matters are only aggravated by the fact that the service chiefs are not just fighting the war in Afghanistan, but are also scrapping among themselves over scarce funds and the future of defence policy. On current plans, the bill for military equipment will amount to billions more than the defence budget provides for, and nobody expects more money. Today’s wars are being fought primarily on land, but the big money is being spent mostly on fighter jets, ships and submarines. For some officials in Downing Street, the army’s request for more resources is a ploy to shore up its position relative to the other services—a policy of “use it or lose it”.


Such suspicions are not without foundation. Consultations have started for a Strategic Defence Review, the first since the one overseen by George Robertson in 1998, that both Labour and the Tories promise to set up after the next general election. General Sir David Richards, the incoming army chief, says there are two contending visions: “fortress Britain”, in which the country equips itself for a conventional all-out war against, say, Russia; and “asymmetric” warfare, in which Britain continues to involve itself in messy counter-insurgency campaigns. In his view, Britain needs to concentrate on asymmetry—by implication, cutting big programmes for planes and ships. The “risk” it would take in high-end warfare would be mitigated by NATO’s protection.


Bloodied in the green zone


Such debates seem distant from the men of the 1st battalion of the Welsh Guards, pushing grittily along the Shamalan canal. The idea behind Operation Panther’s Claw is to extend control of the populous, irrigated “green zone” by linking up the capital of Helmand, Lashkar Gah, with Gereshk, on the main ring road. The canal would become the new defensive line, keeping the Taliban out in the west while protecting the population on the other side. By controlling the bridges over the canal, and by using biometric technology, they will keep a close watch on those crossing in and out. For now, though, the British troops are under fire from both sides of the canal. Their only supply route is the narrow road along it, where the Taliban have been planting as many bombs as they can muster. Attacks on the British positions at dawn and dusk are routine; one Welsh Guards company was attacked 15 times in a day.


Progress has been slow, partly because the troops are being methodical in holding on to their gains and partly because they are meeting strong resistance from the Taliban. The British have advanced only two kilometres in two months of fighting. It is a tough, frustrating and bloody business. One of several fatalities in the operation was the battalion’s commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe. The Ministry of Defence has resorted to boasting about the number of Taliban it has killed in the operation, nearly 200, even though senior officers know that such “body counts” are irrelevant.


In parallel, American marines are making a big push to extend control of areas farther south. The American overall commander, General Stanley McChrystal, has urged his troops to minimise civilian deaths, even at risk to themselves. It is easier said than done, as Major Giles Harris, a company commander, explained. “When we meet the bad guys, we win,” he said. But protecting civilians was “a continual challenge”. “It is the discipline required not to take the gloves off. You are asking my guardsman not to empty the magazine of his weapon into the compound wall from which he is being shot at.”

All along the canal, a frequent refrain from soldiers is: “Do you think we are winning?” The more pertinent question, perhaps, is why the area was lost in the first place. Until 2008 Nad Ali had been held by pro-government militias financed, in large part, by the drugs trade. In 2007, when the Taliban took root around the town of Babaji, they were evicted by British forces helped by the militias. The next year, however, Toor Jan, the leader of the biggest militia, was killed, security collapsed and the Taliban took over. One factor was the influx of Taliban fighters pushed out of the Garmser district, where American marines were clearing insurgents. Another was that Nad Ali, as a government-held area, was the only part of Helmand where large-scale eradication of opium poppies took place, helping to turn the population against the government. By late 2008 Nad Ali became known as a place of tough, pure Taliban justice, in contrast with the corrupt ways of Toor Jan’s henchmen.


Haji Meshan Khail, a tribal elder from the district, says: “Before the British soldiers came to Helmand we had very good security and peace. Now we are escaping from one place to another because there is a lot of fighting and bombing. People in the Nad Ali district are tired of ISAF and Taliban. They don’t like either of them. But they think that Taliban is better. When British soldiers capture a place they start checking all the houses and arrest the civilians without any reason.”


The story of Nad Ali illustrates the unhappy experience in Helmand. British forces never really wanted to deploy there; they would rather have gone to Kandahar, the biggest city in the south, but it was allocated to the Canadians. British paratroopers arrived in Helmand in the spring of 2006, with the then defence secretary, John Reid, declaring incautiously that he would be “perfectly happy to leave in three years’ time without firing one shot”. The British had planned to concentrate on creating a “development zone” between Lashkar Gah and Gereshk. But under pressure from the government to stop outlying towns from falling to the Taliban, the force was parcelled out into “platoon houses” that came under severe attack. In their first six-month deployment, the paras fired about half a million rounds.


Subsequent British contingents were similarly stretched out. One aim was to clear the road to the Kajaki dam to allow the refurbishment of a hydroelectric plant. Another was to retake the town of Musa Qala, abandoned by the British in 2006 despite American protests. British tactics changed with each six-month rotation of troops. One especially damaging practice was “mowing the lawn”—raiding areas repeatedly to clear out insurgents without holding the ground, exposing anyone friendly to the British to grisly retribution. Whereas the American army and marines drew up a new manual on counter-insurgency in 2006, the British have yet to revise their doctrine. They rely heavily on American thinking, without American resources.


There were several reasons why British commanders asked for more troops last year: to “thicken” the forces available to hold central Helmand, to deal more efficiently with bombs and to release men to train the Afghan police, widely regarded as corrupt and predatory. Demand for helicopters has always outstripped the (growing) supply. Yet the British debate over military resources misses important points: heavy mine-resistant vehicles are unable to move off the roads and surprise the enemy; helicopters are vulnerable and must stay away from high-threat areas; and Britain will never have enough troops to secure Helmand province. Counter-insurgency is about engaging local populations, and that cannot be done from the air or from inside a Mastiff armoured vehicle.


In any case, the question of whether Britain should send a few hundred more troops and a dozen extra helicopters, useful as they may be, is marginal compared with the military power that the Americans are bringing into Helmand this year: 10,000 marines (more than the total number of British, who are nominally in charge) and 100 or more helicopters. But even these reinforcements are not enough.


More Afghans, not more Brits


General McChrystal privately reckons he needs about 400,000 Afghan soldiers and police, double the number now envisaged, though the proportions of each are subject to debate. In Helmand there are just 3,000 Afghan soldiers compared with around 20,000 foreign troops. “I need ten Afghans for every British soldier,” says one British commander. Worse, Afghan battalions are exhausted. They do not rotate out of the front line: soldiers fight without a break for the three years they are enlisted. Afghanistan cannot afford the army it has, let alone a bigger one. Expanding Afghan forces will cost donor countries several billion dollars a year indefinitely. But trying to garrison Afghanistan with foreign troops would be even more expensive.


The country needs a lot more than just military force, above all a legitimate and functioning government and a process to bring Taliban fighters and commanders back into the fold. For all of this, creating strong Afghan forces is the prerequisite. Without them, British soldiers will continue to die, and the people of Wootton Bassett will continue to line the road—until the day, that is, when the British public has had enough and demands that the troops come home. A retreat without securing some sort of success would be the cruellest blow for the men on the ground.

India and Pakistan

Sharm offensive
Jul 16th 2009 | ISLAMABAD
From The Economist print edition

The prime ministers meet to talk about restoring peace talks
AS THE prime ministers of India and Pakistan prepared to air bilateral grievances at a meeting in Egypt on July 15th, Indian police issued a reminder of the most urgent of them—warning of a fresh terrorist threat in Mumbai, the Indian port-city devastated by Pakistani terrorists last November. That outrage caused India to withdraw from a promising four-year diplomatic effort to normalise relations between the two old rivals. This week’s meeting between Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, and Pakistan’s Yusuf Raza Gilani, on the fringes of a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Sharm el-Sheikh, was the first serious effort to talk about terms on which it can be restored.


Since Mumbai, India has demanded Pakistan bring to justice those responsible for the attack, in which 175 people died, and dismantle the networks of anti-Indian militancy that spawned them. Yet in recently declaring himself ready to meet Pakistan “more than halfway”, Mr Singh sounded a more conciliatory note. As The Economist went to press, it seemed likely that, provided Pakistan prosecutes, in earnest, five alleged ringleaders of the attack (as on July 12th it said it would start doing this week), and if it gives further evidence of its seriousness in investigating the plot, India will agree to restart the peace process soon.


It is a sign of that process’s former strength that both countries want this. A “composite dialogue” aimed at settling outstanding disputes which was launched in 2004 by India’s then prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and Pakistan’s then generalissimo, Pervez Musharraf, the process brought the foes closer together than at any time in their violent history. They reached outline agreements on how to settle three territorial disputes—including, though most tentatively, the status of divided Kashmir, over which they have fought three of their four wars.


And war became less likely—as demonstrated by India’s laudable restraint after Mumbai, when, against the wishes of many Indian commentators, it threatened Pakistan with no military reprisal. After an attack on the Indian parliament by Pakistani Islamists in 2001, by comparison, both sides rushed troops to their frontier, and raised a threat of nuclear war.


Yet the peace process will not recommence in its former hopeful place. In the latter part of 2006, it had promised a swift end to disputes over the Sir Creek estuary, which has prevented demarcation of the countries’ maritime border, and the Siachen glacier at the edge of the front-line that divides Kashmir. According to proposals put forward by Mr Musharraf, even that fault could have been mended: mainly by turning Kashmir’s front-line into a “soft border” and granting autonomy to Kashmiris either side of it. This was an historic recognition by Pakistan that India will not relinquish its richer portion of Kashmir. Yet India was reluctant to make any deal. And as Mr Musharraf became distracted by a losing battle to retain power, the peace process drifted.


Once resumed, the talks are likely to be dominated by how to combat terrorism, not solve Kashmir. Nor is India likely to welcome settlements on any other issue until Pakistan shows more signs of clamping down on the Islamist militants it once launched against India—including Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), the banned group responsible for the Mumbai attack, whose founder and alleged leader, Hafiz Saeed, was released from house arrest in Punjab last month. Under Indian pressure, Pakistan’s government launched a half-hearted legal challenge to Mr Saeed’s release. But so long as it fails to charge him and his most senior lieutenants with any serious crime—such as killings carried out by LET when they were its undisputed bosses—they are likely to remain at large, preaching jihad against India.


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