The News |By Rahimullah Yusufzai | Tuesday, June 29, 2010
“…it is amazing that nobody is aware or is willing to talk about the tactics being used by the Taliban to pin down the greatest armies of the world. So many US and Nato generals have been rendered helpless and consigned to oblivion by the superior strategies being applied by largely unknown Taliban military commanders. No credit is given to the outnumbered Taliban fighters who are armed only with Kalashnikov rifles, or at best with RPG-7 rockets, and are able to fight soldiers driving in armoured personnel-carriers and Humvees and protected from the air by jet-fighters, helicopter-gunships and drones.”No policy is working in Afghanistan. Old strategies are being discarded and new ones formulated in the hope of finding the right formula for success. But the Americans and their allies are finding out the hard way that victory against the Taliban is becoming elusive even as they pour more troops and allocate greater resources for their nearly nine-year-old Afghan military campaign.
Afghanistan has been aptly described as the graveyard of empires. In modern times the British and the Soviets suffered defeats at the hands of the freedom-loving Afghans, and before long their mighty empires started collapsing. The United States, arguably the most powerful military and economic power on earth to-date, isn’t about to lose the war in Afghanistan. But its failure to score a decisive victory against the largely resourceless Taliban, despite the help in terms of troops and resources from more than 40 countries, should be counted as a defeat. And the withdrawal of US and Nato troops from Afghanistan without accomplishing their stated objectives and their inability to subdue the lightly armed Taliban would amount to a resounding victory for the latter.
When the going becomes tough and defeat stares in the face, it is more than likely that a blame-game will begin among the allies. This is already happening as the civil and military leaders in the US indulge in backstabbing and accuse each other of incompetence and lack of commitment in pursuing the Afghan war. The blame-game has already cost Gen Stanley McCrystal his job and it could claim more scalps as the coalition forces continue to suffer ever-rising human and material losses. June is not yet out and it is already the deadliest month for the US-led foreign forces since the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, with 96 soldiers, mostly Americans, dying in action. The month also saw a record number of helicopter-gunships crashing and military vehicles getting hit and being put out of business. The monthly cost of the war in Afghanistan is now stated to be $7 billion, and rising.
The McCrystal episode is a clear example of a general fearing defeat after having raised hopes by coming forward with what seemed to be a winning strategy. Here was a stubborn and egoistic military commander convinced of his own superior judgement and having a low opinion of the civilian leadership that is seeking to retain control of the war effort. In comments published in the devastating Rolling Stone article, McCrystal recalls that during a White House meeting with him Obama was intimidated by the military brass, which in a way insinuated that he was a weak and vulnerable president. In McCrystal’s view, Obama’s national security adviser James Jones was a clown and his special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke was someone fearful of losing his job. US ambassador in Kabul Karl Eikenberry was portrayed as being more concerned about whether or not he would be on the right side in history books in case the Afghan war effort falters. On an earlier occasion, Vice President Joe Biden’s counter-terrorism opinions and his opposition to the escalation of the Afghan military campaign were lampooned when McCrystal publicly stated that this could turn Afghanistan into “Chaosistan.”
There have been suggestions that McCrystal was waiting to be fired from his job after having realised that he was failing in his mission to turn the tide in the battle against the Taliban. He had come with a big reputation as a general who meant business. He got extra troops after arm-twisting President Obama to back his plans for a military surge. He promised to reverse the Taliban momentum by launching first a big military operation in Marja in Helmand province and then in Kandahar. Nothing went right for him. Marja was neither fully cleared of the Taliban, nor got the “government in a box” that McCrystal had promised. The Kandahar operation was postponed, perhaps indefinitely, because failure in rooting out the Taliban from the birthplace of their movement would have sealed the fate of the Nato military campaign in Afghanistan.
McCrystal’s strategy of protecting the Afghan civilians rather than hunting down the Taliban fighters was hailed as a game-changer in an effort to win the hearts and minds of the people. No thought was given to the fact that most Afghans were now wary of the foreign forces that brought misery to the villages and towns they intended to protect. Their habitations became battlefields between the foreigners and the Taliban and there was death and destruction in places that may have escaped damage earlier. This was the reason for lack of public support for the military offensives by the Nato and Afghan armies. Even pro-government politicians and tribal elders, with the exception of certain Northern Alliance leaders, have been demanding negotiations with the Taliban for a peaceful end to the Afghan conflict. This was also reflected in the recommendation by the recent Consultative Peace Jirga in Kabul for talks with the opposition and removal of the names of the Taliban leaders from the UN “black-list” of terrorists to facilitate peace talks.
If McCrystal wasn’t delivering, there was no point for Obama to continue with him. The success of the military and civilian surge ordered by Obama in Afghanistan was crucial to the improvement of his fortunes in US politics and in saving the world’s only superpower from an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the ragtag Taliban militia.
Damage-control was done by the appointment of the popular Gen David Petraeus in place of McCrystal. This enabled Obama to claim that only a general was changed, and not the strategy, as Petraeus had been involved in finalising the new war strategy for Afghanistan. He was fully on board in his capacity as head of the US Central Command and as Gen McCrystal’s immediate boss. In fact, Petraeus should share some of the blame for the lack of success of the war strategy in Afghanistan. In future, though, he would be held solely accountable for the failure of the Afghan mission of both US and Nato forces. It is going to be a test of the calibre of someone known as a warrior-scholar. Like McCrystal, he too has come with a high reputation and, in the words of Senator Lindsey Graham, is America’s only hope in turning around the war in Afghanistan.
On the topic of war strategies, it is amazing that nobody is aware or is willing to talk about the tactics being used by the Taliban to pin down the greatest armies of the world. So many US and Nato generals have been rendered helpless and consigned to oblivion by the superior strategies being applied by largely unknown Taliban military commanders. No credit is given to the outnumbered Taliban fighters who are armed only with Kalashnikov rifles, or at best with RPG-7 rockets, and are able to fight soldiers driving in armoured personnel-carriers and Humvees and protected from the air by jet-fighters, helicopter-gunships and drones.
One in every three Taliban fighter is now able to put together an improvised explosive device (IED), which is the scourge of the coalition forces and has caused more soldiers’ deaths than any other weapon. In some cases, an IED costs only around Rs150 and yet is able to blow up military vehicles costing millions of dollars and kill and maim soldiers. Taliban and jihadi literature has been recording some of the military exploits of Taliban commanders and fighters in Afghanistan, but the world still doesn’t know how the world’s best-paid, best-trained and best-equipped armies are being humbled by fighters armed more with faith than weapons.
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar.
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