Saturday, August 29, 2009

A depressing but detailed British evaluation of the situation in Afghanistan...

...from Prospect Magazine.

It's like the Vietnam war -- either one of them -- never happened.

An excerpt:
Britain’s new Afghan war began shortly after 9/11, with the deployment of special force units to support the US campaign against al Qaeda. But it was a Nato plan to extend the writ of the Kabul government across the country that brought Britain to Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest province, in April 2006. Bloody as it was to be, the mission was defined initially in benign terms. John Reid, then defence secretary, emphasised reconstruction and a “development zone” in the centre of the province, with the 3,300 troops deployed to provide basic security. A commander from those early days told me that the British came equipped for defence, not attack. But from the start, the mission crept forward with dangerous confusion to include fighting terrorism, defeating an insurgency, rebuilding an economy, supporting the government and suppressing illegal drugs.

In spring 2006, a revolt was already underway across Helmand by those seemingly loyal to the former Taliban government. Though the rebellion was poorly understood, the imperative to defeat it pushed all other objectives to one side. Under Afghan political pressure, Britain’s limited combat strength was deployed to establish so-called “platoon houses”—defensive positions in towns across northern Helmand and around the Kajaki dam. It seemed, at the time, that unless the government was defended the rebellion could sweep across the entire south of the country. But this came at a cost. Under siege that first summer, the British defended their ramparts with heavy weapons and air power. The fighting reduced parts of Sangin to rubble, destroyed Musa Qala’s mosque, and drove the population out of other towns. Almost no meaningful reconstruction was carried out. The base at Musa Qala was eventually abandoned in a truce with the Taliban, but during the winter of 2006-07 the British clung on elsewhere. General David Richards, then Nato commander in Kabul (and now incoming head of the army), later told me that hanging on to these outposts had little strategic impact beyond helping to save face with the Afghans.

Then there is this piece of black humor:
Beyond our strategic interest in stability there also remains a moral case for the fight. Achieving a modicum of stability in Afghanistan would give meaning to all that loss of life. We cannot in good conscience abandon the place to anarchy. And Britain can still do good if it learns deeper lessons from its campaign.


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