In 1996, Sir Robert Cooper published a pamphlet
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
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
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
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.