Coalition Generals Split on Afghan War
Basic differences exist between the way Britain & America want to conduct wars play
By Richard Walker
British and American generals are at loggerheads about how to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, and their disagreements mirror a fundamental flaw in the way military strategists in both camps define counterinsurgency.
The first signs of discord began after May 2006, when the British were given the task of controlling Helmand Province. The central government of Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, had already shown it could not bring stability to the region and its security forces were regarded by locals as brutal, corrupt and ineffective. As a result, many people supported the Taliban or local warlords.
Helmand mattered a lot to Karzai because he reckoned that eliminating the Taliban there would send a message to rest of the country that they could be defeated.
But Helmand also held a special significance for insurgents because some former Taliban leaders and a lot of its best, young fighters before and after 9-11 were from tribes in the area. Many senior Taliban figures fled to Helmand after the U.S. invasion, following on the heels of the defeat of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his militias in their stronghold at Kandahar.
The British strategy to defeat the Taliban was based on a long history of fighting insurgencies in British “colonial emergencies” in the 20th century, in places as far away as Kenya, Aden and Cyprus. In more recent times, the British also gained considerable experience in antiterrorism warfare, or what is often called counterinsurgency, by combating the Irish Republican Army for several decades.
Those conflicts provided the British with a wealth of knowledge and important lessons on how to defeat insurgents. First, it is vital to win the hearts and minds of the local population. Second, local elements can be empowered to act as intelligence agents and can be trained and armed to counter the insurgents in their own communities. Any action by an occupying power that alienates the local population is therefore counterproductive because it serves the aims of the insurgents. It can also provide the enemy with ready-made propaganda, or recruits, and possibly both.
In 2006, the 6,000 strong British force quickly set about wooing the local population with promises of reconstruction. British commanders opposed U.S. demands to destroy the poppy crop, which was the only source of revenue for many poor farmers. From a British perspective, it was a negative policy to destroy the crop before creating industry and jobs. The British also criticized the U.S. military’s use of heavy air power to support its small bands of Special Forces that operated throughout the country, especially in Helmand.
British commanders felt massive air strikes were killing innocent civilians and making the task of winning over the locals much more difficult. For example, in one incident, 57 civilians were killed, many of them women and children.
In a surprising move in August 2007, a British commander openly called for the removal of U.S. Special Forces from his region. He pointed out that because Special Forces teams could not deal with large groups of insurgents they called in airpower that killed civilians.
While that debate pointed to a growing war of words about tactics, other issues quickly added to further tensions between generals. One was secret deals the British negotiated with the Taliban. The deals were called “ceasefire arrangements” by some and “capitulation” by others. They required both sides to pull back from several population centers.
But the biggest disagreement about tactics is the one that is now raging and causing a serious rift at the highest levels of NATO, as well as in the corridors of power in London and Washington. It concerns British plans to train and arm village militias to fight the Taliban. The strategy has the backing of the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, who recently said Britain would expand its plans for “community defense initiatives” in Helmand.
He stressed the policy would be based on the Afghan principle known as the “arbakai” system, a tradition in part of the country whereby local militias banded together to confront a threat to their communities. It is clear the British favor exploiting this tradition because they successfully employed similar tactics in Kenya and Aden.
Later, the U.S. used the Hmong tribes in much the same way during the Vietnam War. From a British perspective, arming Afghan militias could create a counterinsurgency force with vital local knowledge. British generals argue it is necessary because the Afghan police force is outgunned, corrupt and thin on the ground.
American generals say the British will seriously undermine their efforts to retrain and rebuild the police force. They also point out that armed militias could end up being controlled by corrupt warlords. In a sign that tensions within NATO have reached boiling point, the U.S. general in charge of restructuring the police, Maj. Gen. Robert Cone, has openly criticized his British counterparts.
The result has been heated exchanges between diplomats in London and Washington. Cone and his command believe the British plan is too much like their disastrous effort to create an Afghan auxiliary force, a project that was abandoned in 2007.
Cone is not alone in condemning the British move. The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Dan Neill, has told reporters the British strategy will fail. He said his knowledge of Afghan history indicated that the arbakai community militia system worked in only a few areas of the country, and Helmand was not one of them.
His comments represented a stern put-down of his British counterparts. And, as if to rub more salt into the wound, Cone added that the $7.4 billion the U.S. has set aside to rebuild the police force would eventually create a force that was highly trained—a force of which the Afghan people could be proud. He said he backed greater community support and involvement with the police.
Overall, the U.S. top brass see the British strategy undercutting their plans to make the police force the vehicle to defeat the Taliban. And, for its part, the Pentagon is also angry. It feels that, with more than $7 billion earmarked to make the Afghan police force the preferred weapon of choice, the British are putting a monkey-wrench in the works by going off in the opposite direction.
In the midst of this battle of ideas, the Afghan government has weighed in and made it clear it will expel any diplomats who engage in secret talks with insurgents.
To show it was serious, it recently sent packing two EU and UN diplomats after they met with Taliban commanders to talk about conflict resolution.
The debate about arming community groups is not confined to Afghanistan, where some UN observers argue it will undercut efforts to disarm militias through the country. It also has echoes in Iraq, where the U.S., much to the consternation of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, has been arming and training Sunni insurgents to fight al-Qaeda. Some observers fear those insurgents will one day turn their weapons on Iraqi government forces after the U.S. withdraws.
Richard Walker is the nom de plume of a former mainstream news producer who now writes for AFP so he can expose the kinds of subjects that he was forbidden to cover in the controlled press.
(Issue #4, January 28, 2008)