Sunday, October 5, 2008

Heck in a handbasket

A stream of informed opinion now holds that the US and its allies are losing the war in Afghanistan. Adding to the chorus with a trio of explosive articles in The Sunday Times is Christina Lamb, writing from Helmand province where British troops lead the NATO forces there:

The Sunday Times
War on Taliban cannot be won, says army chief
By Christina Lamb

HELMAND, Oct 5 - [...] Carleton-Smith, commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, which has just completed its second tour of Afghanistan, said it was necessary to “lower our expectations”. He said: “We’re not going to win this war. It’s about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army.” ...

“We want to change the nature of the debate from one where disputes are settled through the barrel of the gun to one where it is done through negotiations,” Carleton-Smith said.

“If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this. That shouldn’t make people uncomfortable.”

Last week Gulab Mangal, the governor of Helmand, said the Taliban controlled more than half the province despite the increased presence of British forces. (link)
Lamb vividly illustrates just how far gone the war is:
The Sunday Times
Grim reality of life beyond Helmand

HELMAND, Oct 5 - [...] Known as Helmandshire, the concrete building inside the heavily guarded British headquarters in Lashkar Gah houses what is surely the most bizarre outpost of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and one of the costliest. By December it will employ 140 people - the size of one of Britain’s larger embassies - for a population of fewer than 2m, smaller than that of Wales.

Most never venture beyond the compound walls. Those who occasionally brave the five-minute drive to the governor’s office do so in armed convoys, surrounded by bodyguards and travelling at high speed. The cracks on the vehicles’ windows from rocks thrown almost every time they go out are a measure of the locals’ appreciation.

The Taliban might be in control just seven miles down the road in Nad Ali, but earnest civil servants boast of British success in winning over the population and creating five zones of development in Lashkar Gah, Sangin, Musa Qala, Gereshk and Garmser.

A day spent in this Foreign Office fantasy land was reminiscent of a propaganda tour I was taken on by the Russians in the dying days of their occupation in the late 1980s. They too controlled the cities and towns but not the roads or countryside.

They spoke of building up Afghan capacity and sent many locals to be trained in the Soviet Union. One of their commissars was Gulab Mangal, now governor of Helmand, the survivor of 13 assassination attempts and the object of much British praise.

The man heading the British project could hardly have better diplomatic credentials. Known as the viceroy of Helmandshire, Hugh Powell is the son of Lord Powell, Margaret Thatcher’s foreign policy adviser, and a nephew of Jonathan, who was Tony Blair’s chief of staff. Another uncle, Chris Powell, an advertising executive, recently visited to advise on public diplomacy. . .

When I asked for evidence that Britain is improving life in Helmand, Hugh Powell said: “You saw the bustling bazaar.”

I pointed out that we had had to drive through it at great speed in heavily armoured vehicles. When I added that in April 2006, before the British forces arrived, I stayed a week in Lashkar Gah and the bazaar was thriving, he replied: “That’s not what I’ve heard.”

Derided by a senior British military officer as “Powell’s folly”, the place has the feel of a cult where the mantra is “Believe” and anyone who dares question the enterprise is regarded as a Jeremiah. . .

This week wheat seed and fertiliser will be distributed to 32,000 farmers. “We’ve provided £6m but told the governor, ‘Don’t say it comes from us, say it’s from the government’.” . . . (link)
That's not all. Lamb has another article:
. . . Yet, while the British claim 78% of the population [of Helmand] lives in their zones, the governor of Helmand says half the province is under Taliban control and they are fighting in Nad Ali, less than 10 miles from brigade headquarters in Lashkar Gah.

Carleton-Smith acknowledges the preponderance of Taliban ringtones proclaiming “Death to the Invader” that are heard on the street, but dismisses them as “quite a good insurance policy to have on your phone”. He insists that “the very conventional battlefield of 2006 no longer applies”. . . (link)
The BBC adds some reinforcement to Lamb's story:
. . . The BBC's Martin Patience in Kabul says Brig Carleton-Smith's comments echo a view commonly-held, if rarely aired, by British military and diplomatic officials in Afghanistan.

Many believe certain legitimate elements of the Taleban represent the positions of the Afghan people and so should be a part of the country's future, says our correspondent. . . (link)
Addendum:
More today from The Times:
[Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith] told The Times that in his opinion, a military victory over the Taleban was “neither feasible nor supportable”.

“What we need is sufficient troops to contain the insurgency to a level where it is not a strategic threat to the longevity of the elected Government,” he said. . .

Brigadier Carleton-Smith admitted that it had been “a turbulent summer” but he said that the Taleban were “riven with deep fissures and fractures”.

He added: “However, the Taleban, tactically, is reasonably resilient, certainly quite dangerous and seems relatively impervious to losses. Its potency is as a force for influence.”
(link)
And the UN's envoy Kay Eide chimes in on similar lines:
"I've always said to those that talk about the military surge ... what we need most of all is a political surge, more political energy," Kai Eide, the U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, told a news conference in Kabul.

"We all know that we cannot win it militarily. It has to be won through political means. That means political engagement." (link)
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1 comment:

Theodore Walters said...

Mark Carelton- Smith is director of special forces not commander of british forces in Afghan so if you get that wrong why should we believe anything you say.