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December 28, 2006

Blair's Folly


Britain's Afghan quagmire

by Bahlol Lohdi

In 1996, Sir Robert Cooper published a pamphlet entitled "The Postmodern State and the World Order" [.pdf]. In it, he suggested,

"The postmodern world has to start to get used to double standards. Among ourselves, we operate on the basis of laws and open cooperative security. But when dealing with old-fashioned states outside the postmodern continent of Europe we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era – force, preemptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary…"

That Sir Robert, the archetypal product of Delamere School for Boys in Nairobi and British rule in Kenya, should express such views would not have been remarkable. However, as Cooper was Tony Blair's top policy adviser at the time, his views were shocking. The egregiousness of the expressed ideas was compounded by Blair's effusive praise of them in the foreword to Cooper's pamphlet.

Cooper's pamphlet proposed such a radical "reordering of the world" that "commentators expressed surprise and alarm at the very public neo-imperial ambitions of Blair's Britain [and] sections of his own party dismissed the prime minister's foreign policy adviser as a maniac."

Therefore, it was unsurprising that within days of 9/11 Blair sent a plan, based on the maniac's ideas, to the Bush administration as an outline for the forthcoming reordering of Afghanistan. Moreover, Sir Robert represented Britain at the crucial Bonn Conference and played a decisive role in engineering the rise of Sir Hamid Karzai, and the Tajik "Northern Alliance," to the stewardship of Afghan affairs.

The U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan and the British-inspired political dispensation were supposed to demonstrate the new paradigm of British brains and American brawn in reordering world affairs. But, the meager military resources available to the London neo-imperialists limited their ability to have a lasting effect on the situation unfolding in Afghanistan, and subsequently in Iraq.

During the initial phase of Operation Enduring Freedom, the British forces were given a minor role in the hunt for foreign and domestic extremists in eastern Afghanistan. As British press reports indicated, this was not appreciated. The U.S. decision to limit ISAF, a British project, to the confines of Kabul also created tensions. Britain would have liked to join forces with the U.S., and so be able to "reorder" the Pashtun heartland in the South, thereby clearing the way for Karzai and his Tajik-dominated regime to extend its power beyond the suburbs of ISAF-controlled Kabul. The British knew that they did not have the necessary resources to do this alone.

As the American objective of destroying the infrastructure of foreign jihadists neared conclusion, Washington agreed to the expansion of ISAF's areas of responsibility to the Afghan provinces, first in the north, then west and south, under the guise of NATO. The final phase was to be handing over the east, where U.S. forces are still battling al-Qaeda and its Afghan component. These "handovers," meant to be part of the U.S. "exit strategy" from Afghanistan after accomplishing its primary objective, was seized on by the British press gleefully as an indicator of the U.S. military's failure, and consequent a cry for help from their stalwart British allies.

The Daily Mirror, a British tabloid newspaper, crowed that Britain intended to deploy a substantial number of troops to Afghanistan. "5,000 BRITISH TROOPS TO BE SENT INTO CHAOS OF AFGHANISTAN … TO BAIL OUT U.S. IN HUNT FOR BIN LADEN," roared the headline.

This public insult must have angered the American military, particularly as it came after some British officers' widely reported derogatory comments about the U.S. military's fighting prowess, when Britain first joined the hunt for al-Qaeda in the initial phase of Operation Enduring Freedom.

In any event, British troops saw little or no action at that time, and their casualties consisted of a hundred or so soldiers laid low by a mysterious stomach "bug" contracted in the line of duty, forcing them to do "The Bagram Quickstep."

The Daily Mirror reported that the second deployment was to be different; a senior defense source was quoted as saying: "What is needed is to make the back end of the country secure, the warlords disarmed, and the Taliban destroyed." One could imagine a Colonel Blimp figure smoothing his mustache and clearing his throat before adding that "the feeling is the current setup is not cutting the mustard."

The current setup was U.S. forces battling a spreading Pashtun-led insurgency against Karzai and his regime of venal warlords-cum-war criminals. Consequently, the writ of the impotent, benighted British favorite did not extend beyond the precincts of his palace in Kabul. So the British cavalry was going to ride to the rescue of the alleged "American Project."

John Reid, the British defense secretary, visited Kabul several times to prepare the way for the British deployment. On his last visit prior to leaving his post, he famously said that the British army hoped to leave Afghanistan "without firing a single shot."

However, these conciliatory statements were contradicted by the asides of his officers, who vouchsafed that such remarks were meant to lull the Pashtuns while British forces set up bases and prepared for battle: "A certain amount of deception is essential, don't you know," remarked one valiant officer to reporters in Kabul.

That British intentions were anything other than the settling of old scores with the Pashtuns was belied by the naming of all their military bases after the "heroes" of past British defeats suffered at Pashtun hands. This was reinforced by the widely reported utterances of their top commanding officers in Afghanistan.

Brig. Ed Butler, commander of the British forces in Kandahar, let it be known that he kept the memoirs of Lord Roberts of Kandahar by his bedside. This was the same "vicious runt" whose idea of honorable warfare was to tie captured Afghan nobles to the mouth of cannons and blow them to pieces so their relatives would be unable to find and bury their remains. Gen. Richards, the overall British commander, boasted that he was very happy to be in Kabul, prosecuting the war in Afghanistan: "It's in the blood, you know!"

All this jingoism and British military swagger was predicated on the assumption that NATO forces would be available to achieve British objectives when Richards assumed command of all Western forces in Afghanistan, as ISAF expansion out of Kabul morphed into a NATO presence throughout the country. However, events in Iraq and the "ground realities" in Afghanistan conspired to turn Britain's neo-imperial dreams into a nightmare of military reverses and humiliating retreats, which no amount of obfuscation and spin could hide.

In the prosecution of the Iraqi campaign, the British authorities frequently leaked to the press criticism of American efforts to control the violence in Iraq. It was intimated that the superior British methods of how to tame recalcitrant natives were not inculcated in the American occupying forces. Much was made of the British "soft hat" versus the American "hard hat" approach to peace enforcement. This debate was rudely terminated by the citizens of Basra, who forgot to play their assigned role of obedient natives and began to attack British forces at every opportunity. This was to have consequences for their planned operations in Afghanistan.

The rapid deterioration of the situation in the south of Iraq accentuated the bitter public debate about Britain's deepening involvement in Afghanistan, particularly as their forces were besieged in Basra. The British military responded by pointing out that American behavior had poisoned the atmosphere in Iraq. They said that, unlike in Iraq, in Afghanistan, "[Britain] would be in charge."

The "we would be in charge" hubris infected even the reporters of British broadsheets – there were incessant allusions to the fact that Gen. Richards would be commanding U.S. forces in Afghanistan; this singular event would mark only the second time since World War II that this had happened. What everyone failed to recall was that the American experience of the first occasion was unhappy. Gen. Eisenhower was constantly bombarded with unsolicited criticism and advice by Gen. Montgomery, forcing the mild-mannered and stoical Ike to rebuke the opinionated British general. History repeated itself when Gen. James L. Jones, supreme allied commander and Richards' superior, recently rebuked him and said if Richards had been an American officer he would have been dismissed.

While the British and their Canadian sidekicks were preparing to deploy troops to the Pashtun heartland in southern Afghanistan, it soon became clear that other NATO nations were not as keen to deploy their forces outside Kabul. This reluctance was most marked in Holland, where tremendous pressure was brought to bear on the Dutch to agree to the deployment of their men to the troubled Uruzgun province, despite the Dutch public's opposition to such a move. Germany chose to move their forces to the relative calm of the north, well away from the troublesome Pashtuns.

In the months prior to the deployment of ISAF forces to the south and west, the British took the lead in calling for a change in the rules governing the ISAF mission. Their efforts produced the term "robust peacekeeping"; it was intended to lend legitimacy to British offensive military operations in dealing with their historical enemy, the Pashtuns. The British intention to humble the Pashtuns was further signaled by symbolically placing Camp Bastion, their main base, close to Maiwand in Helmand province, where a major British force was almost annihilated by the Pashtuns in the 19th century.

The British deployment to Helmand was to be spearheaded by the Parachute Regiment. "The Paras," as they are fondly called, form the elite shock troops of the British army. Their fierce reputation is much trumpeted by the British public and media, and is meant to intimidate opponents even before they arrive on the scene. The Pashtun resistance leaders' response was the Afghan equivalent of "Bring 'em on!"

Within days of the British deployment to the south, articles appeared in the British press bemoaning the lack of past American commitment to controlling the spread of resistance in the south of the country in general, and Helmand in particular. It was emphasized that only 300 American troops were stationed in an area the size of half of England. Consequently, Helmand had become the bailiwick of Pashtun resistance in the south, thus making the British task more difficult, but not impossible.

The media enthusiastically reported Gen. Richards' remarks about past British successes in defeating insurgencies during the glory days of their empire. Aspects of the forthcoming campaign to tame the Pashtun hoards were elucidated. The "ink spot" strategy, a term translated from the French term tache d'huile, was explained. The British public, as well as the international audience, was being readied for a bravura performance by British forces. Alas, this did not happen; in fact, quite the opposite occurred.

The name of Sangin will join the battle at Maiwand in British and Afghan military lore. The Guardian in London gave the following account:

"On Wednesday August 30, a couple of Chinook helicopters landed at Camp Bastion, the main British base in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, and a filthy, exhausted group of armed men walked down the ramp into the dust. The men of A Company of the 3rd battalion, Paratroop Regiment, had just completed their third and last stint in a town whose name has come to stand for the bloodiness of Britain's struggle against the Taliban: Sangin.

"Other British units have fought and suffered losses over the summer in that outwardly unremarkable town of 30,000 people, but none fought longer and took more casualties than A Company and the few dozen non-paras grouped with it. For the best part of two months, they experienced the kind of vicious combat British troops haven't seen since Korea. Roughly every seventh man in the original 65-strong company was killed or wounded. One platoon, the 1st, lost almost a third of its fighting strength: not quite D-Day levels, where airborne units were halved by combat, but getting close."

The Independent gave an equally harrowing account of the battle, but added that one of the Paras said that his bowels opened and he soiled himself when faced with leaving the transport helicopter in the midst of a fierce battle.

The news of other battles (Panjwii one and two, Operation Medusa, etc.), when investigated and reported, was just as shocking to British pride. The tough Paras had been stunned by the Pashtun determination to stand and fight; some of them even voiced their admiration for the skill and bravery of their foe.

As the realization and full import of British reverses sank into the minds of forces on the ground, but apparently not among their political masters in London, accounts of bitter recrimination and blame-apportioning surfaced in the British press.

In unprecedented actions, senior British field commanders began resigning and publicly speaking out against "Blair's War."

"[One] officer decided to leave after Tony Blair told exhausted troops that they were in war-torn [Afghanistan] for 'reconstruction.' The officer said: 'I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It is not a reconstruction exercise in Afghanistan. Every day lives are put at risk on the frontline. Hearing that message was a kick in the guts for me and the rest of the boys. The truth is not being told and there is anger on the frontline….'"

Another officer, "Captain Leo Docherty – aide to Colonel Charlie Knaggs, commander of British operations in Helmand – resigned claiming [British] strategy was 'barking mad.'"

The much-vaunted Royal Air Force's role in Afghanistan did not escape withering criticism: "in leaked e-mails, [Maj. James Loden] condemned the force as 'utterly, utterly useless.'" The RAF began to be called "The Royal Air Farce" by troops on the ground. The Ministry of Defense spokesman, safely in London, said, "We don't believe these views represent a widespread problem on the ground in Afghanistan."

Eventually, the military high command's solution to the grave situation facing British forces in Afghanistan was provided by Sir Richard Dannatt: Get British troops out of Iraq, where they were "part of the problem" and redeploy them in Afghanistan; otherwise, Britain faced defeat in both theaters. This "bombshell" put the beleaguered Blair on the spot – he couldn't act without permission from Washington.

Consequently, an unedifying British media campaign of denigrating the contribution of its European NATO allies was begun. The French and Italians were reported as propping up the bars at Kabul Airport, a drink in one hand and fondling the charms of comely ladies with the other. The German contingent was deemed to be acting as "traffic wardens and social workers" in northern Afghanistan.

By September 2006, the situation of British forces had seriously deteriorated, and it became obvious that NATO allies, apart from Canada and Holland, did not wish to join Britain's campaign against the Pashtuns. Therefore, Gen. Richards, from his bunker in Kabul, ordered ever increasing air strikes – it is estimated that the number of bombing sorties in Afghanistan was 10 times that flown in Iraq during the same period.

The concomitant civilian casualties were horrendous: whole families, and in some cases entire villages, were wiped out. The net result was the swelling of the ranks of the Pashtun resistance and increasing hatred of the Karzai regime and its foreign friends.

In October 2006, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist visited Kabul. On leaving he said that the war against the Taliban guerrillas could never be won militarily because the fighters were "too numerous," and "had too much popular support" to be defeated on the battlefield. "You need to bring them into a more transparent type of government. If that's accomplished, we'll be successful," he added. This was unwelcome news to those who had set out with different aims.

To counter Frist's definition of America's policy objectives in Afghanistan, Blair flew to Helmand in November to rally the demoralized British contingent. Trying to sound Churchillian, he informed the bemused troops, "Here in this extraordinary piece of desert is where the future in the early 21st century of world security is going to be played out." Raising the threat posed to "world security" by the Pashtun refusal to submit to a foreign yoke to the same level as past threats posed by the Wehrmacht or Red Army sounded ridiculous to anyone but the discredited and desperate Blair.

Churchill coined the aphorism that "In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." The British media and public have become convinced that Blair has been engaged in this practice all the time, irrespective of a state of war or peace.

Blair's dissembling had little effect on the world stage: on the eve of the NATO summit in Riga, the Belgian defense minister announced that the conflict in Afghanistan could not be resolved militarily, and a political process had to be considered as part of NATO's exit strategy from the Afghan morass. The leaders of France, Germany, and Italy quickly voiced their support for the Belgian position. Seemingly, Britain was alone in wishing to keep slaughtering Pashtuns until they accepted Karzai as their leader and the cutthroats of the Northern Alliance as the new Afghan elite.

The decisions taken at the NATO Riga summit, and the anodyne statements issued at its close, dashed British hopes of using other countries' troops to achieve Britain's objectives. The ensuing British bitterness and anger can be gauged by the recent British claims published in The Independent: "British intelligence and military commanders have accused the U.S. of undermining British policies in Iraq and Afghanistan…"!

The neo-imperialists in London had failed to grasp what was obvious to M.K. Bhadrakumar, a seasoned Indian diplomat who, in numerous published articles, cautioned India against using the tag of "Taliban" to stigmatize the insurgents in Afghanistan. He added that the U.S. does not view the Pashtun "Taliban" through the same prism as India and Britain. Interestingly, the Pashtuns do not view the United States the way they view Britain: an insurgent commander in Kandahar province reportedly said, "We don't hate America – anyone is entitled to one mistake. But we hate the British because this is the fourth time they have invaded our land. We're determined to kill them and send them home in coffins."

Throughout the 10 years of Soviet occupation, and now five years of Western troops' presence on Afghan soil, the Pashtun majority has refused to accept direct or indirect foreign domination of their land. But during both periods, notwithstanding the myths spun about "heroes" such as "The Great Masood," the ethnic minorities, mainly inhabiting the north of the country, have either remained largely quiescent or actively collaborated with all foreign forces. Consequently, it has become an accepted fact in both Washington and Moscow that only the Pashtuns form a bulwark against any foreign power's efforts to drag Afghanistan into its sphere of influence. Therefore, both the United States and Russia have an interest in ending the present marginalization of the Pashtuns and facilitating their reintegration into the Afghan political calculus, thereby ending the present insurgency. Afghanistan's geo-strategic position, as well as its social fabric and cultural identity, dictates its natural destiny to be a neutral buffer between competing geopolitical tectonic plates.

Hence, as the United States nears the achievement of its primary objective of dismantling the international jihadist infrastructure in Afghanistan, it is naturally exploring modalities whereby it can withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. A successful and honorable withdrawal demands the formation of a new government acceptable to the majority of Afghans, as well as a different foreign security architecture for bringing peace to the country, while Afghan forces are being formed and trained.

The idea of a coalition government headed by Hamid Karzai is proposed by his Kabul supporters. However, the leadership of Hamid Karzai is as unacceptable to the insurgent Pashtuns as the leadership of Mullah Omar would be to those presently ensconced in Kabul. The means to resolve this conundrum would be the formation of an apolitical, technocratic transitional government, without the inclusion of either claimant or their circles. The concept of such a regime was mooted by some leading Afghans at the first "jirga" held in Kabul, but it was quickly stifled by the adherents of the Tajik Northern Alliance.

The Pakistani proposal of reconvening meetings of the "six plus two" (the U.S. and Russia plus Afghanistan's six contiguous neighbors), as well as its proposal for holding a joint "jirga" of all Pashtun tribes living on either side of the Durand Line, appear to be aimed at achieving this mode of settlement of the Afghan problem . Unfortunately, it has been vehemently rejected by the British-supported Karzai and those who wish to continue hanging onto power in Kabul, whatever the cost in Afghan lives or foreign blood and treasure.

Sir Robert Cooper's idea of "force, preemptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary" remains the British policy in Afghanistan. It remains to be seen how long others will be deceived into supporting Britain's position and the hapless Karzai.

 

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Bahlol Lohdi is an Afghan writer.

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