Thursday, January 17, 2008

Trajectory of disaster

Paul Weinberg writes an excellent piece in Toronto's Now Magazine, pointing to a fundamental contradiction in the Canadian military's counterinsurgency strategy. The basic problem is that Canadian troops, in an effort to avoid or reduce the effects of insurgent attacks, are kept isolated from Afghan civilians. Rather than a strategy that involves lightly armed foot patrols and development projects (said to be COIN 'best practices' if you will), Canadian troops are patrolling in armoured vehicles and generally pointing a lot of guns at a lot of people. The resulting alienation of the population undermines public support for the occupation forces and thus of the Afghan government.

... “We don’t have as many boots on the ground as the government would like us to think,” [UWO professor Peter Langille] says.

The Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies estimates that of the 2,500 Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, only about 450 are currently on foot or in armoured vehicles, and another 100 are engaged in big-gun artillery. The rest are playing support roles.

Langille claims Canadian soldiers have been shooting off thousands of rounds of ammunition from their M777 155-millimetre howitzers at suspected insurgents, risking the lives of civilians, rather doing foot patrols and village visits.

These big guns can fire from a distance of 30 to 40 kilometres but do not have pinpoint line-of-sight accuracy.

Described as “area weapons,” they may hit anything or anybody within a 300-metre radius of their target.

He suggests the Canadian Forces are acting out of frustration with the refusal of other NATO countries to provide combat reinforcements. “By the time [the Canadians] chose to deploy tanks and heavy artillery, they had to know they were going to lose [the war]. So they chose systems to lose the fewest people.”
According to UBC prof Michael Wallace:
“The problem is a combat strategy that seeks maximum isolation between the Afghan population and Canadian soldiers, whether it is fast-moving LAVs, tanks, or helicopters. The message is, if we need to use these on a long-term basis, we’ve lost, no matter what the relative body count.
Weinberg continues:
Take what happened in the foreign affairs committee November 27. There, according to committee minutes, Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister Leonard Edwards declared the Afghan mission’s much-vaunted “three Ds” mandate – development, diplomacy and defence – dead as a doornail.

When NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar opined that this sounded suspiciously like a policy shift, Edwards waved him off, replying that the change is only a matter of government branches working in one effort. “We don’t have a three-D strategy; we have a one-D strategy – we’re all working together,’’ he said. (link)
It's interesting to compare the comments above, especially Wallace's, with yesterday's blog post here. British forces in Helmand, who famously lack tanks and other heavy armour vehicles, seem to have compensated for their lack of protection. In 13 months, they fired 4 million rounds of ammunition. (See this photo of British troops in Helmand, versus this photo of Canadians in Kandahar.)

Picking up on themes similar to those of Weinberg, the Inter Press Service relates:
Six years on it's understood that the crucial window to inject development and win over disillusioned Pasthuns when the Taliban fled was diverted by the Iraq war. According to the Congressional Research Service, Washington has spent about US$3.4 billion a year on reconstruction, or less than half of what went to Iraq.

The aid that has trickled into Afghanistan has gone almost wholesale towards military expenditures. But the integrated "light footprint" strategy used so effectively to topple the Taliban, in which special forces on horseback and small ground units reinforced Northern Alliance irregulars, was replaced by blast-walled compounds and heavy armor vehicles.
They quote a former practitioner who gives a usable definition of counterinsurgency:
Former marine Captain Nathaniel Fick, a seasoned veteran of the Afghan and Iraq campaigns, highlighted in an August 12 Washington Post op-ed what he called "the paradoxical world of counterinsurgency warfare - the kind of war you win without shooting".

Those now backing on a "surge" of marine manpower to hunt Taliban appear to have forgotten what he reminds us: "The laws of these campaigns seem topsy-turvy by conventional military standards: money is more decisive than bullets; protecting our own forces undermines the US mission; heavy firepower is counterproductive; and winning battles guarantees nothing."
And concerning other COIN approaches:
A related option [i.e. related to a plan to ally with tribal leaders who are hostile to the Taliban] is to ensure that at least some US military aid is tied to specific performance, step up counter-insurgency training for the army and the paramilitary Frontier Corps, and provide $750 million in development aid to FATA over five years as part of a long-term effort to weaken the insurgency.

But Christine Fair, a regional specialist at the Rand Corporation, has argued that such a plan is "four years too late", given the degree to which radical forces have taken control of the region. "I'm not sure who we would spend it on," she said at a recent briefing. (link)

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