March 8, 2012

Death by 1,000 Taliban Cuts

In a conventional war between two armies of decent strength, the deaths of six soldiers would normally register as a small blip on a long casualty list. In an unconventional war between foreign powers and a nationalist insurgency, six dead soldiers now dominates a 24-hour media cycle that influences fourth-generation (4GW) conflicts across the world.

The trauma of Kandahar province’s latest explosion - Britain’s highest singular loss of life since 2006 - is a product of the complete journalist MO: who, what, when, where and why? The six soldiers had only patrolled Afghanistan for several weeks when their armored vehicle struck an “enormous” explosive device, pushing Britain’s overall death toll above the round number of 400. Five of them were under the age of 21, while one soldier recently told his mother not to worry because they would be “fine.” Although the explosion’s scale left NATO and Afghan sources to conclude that no vehicle could have survived, the Warrior’s scrutinized underside is drawing its own inferno.

Its ignited ammunition cache caused the fire to burn for hours.

The fog of war is also seeping into a potential evolution of the Taliban’s improvised explosive devices (IED), supplied either from international supporters or acquired through Iran. Double or triple-stacked mines remain another possibility. Equally disturbing is the area in question; NATO units have stepped up their patrols in Kandahar's Maywand district to curtail a rise in Taliban activity. One Afghan intelligence official explained, "They knew that for quite some time that there was an increase in Taliban presence in the area, they had been active and present in the area and had been planting roadside bombs."

The Taliban essentially detonated a propaganda bomb in Kandahar, spilling fresh toxins into Britain’s low war-approval and NATO’s political sphere. To this end British officials immediately launched a full-scale counterattack on the information front, dousing their public in reassuring rhetoric and “toughness.” Prime Minister David Cameron told a meeting of parliamentarians, “We need to restate clearly why we are there and why it is in our national interest. Our mission in Afghanistan remains vital to our national security.”

Getting directly to his point, Defense Secretary Philip Hammond told BBC’s Andrew Neil that he “absolutely rejects” the notion that Britain is fighting a pointless war. He also told ITV television that morale remains "extremely high,” saying British soldiers are “hugely satisfied by the level of public support that they have back home.” This situation mirrors America’s learned ability to support its troops while opposing the war they fight.

Hammond’s attempt to convince a majority of the public is likely to fall flat. Both Americans and Britons have become immune to the progress reports of their militaries, and too much sunshine tends to generate new doubts over the mission. Hammon simply regurgitated the U.S. line: “Of course, addressing the terrorist threat in Afghanistan is not the whole solution, any more than the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan has extinguished al-Qaeda. But we have got to make sure that Afghanistan is secure and that the terrorists who thrive in chaos cannot re-establish their pre-9/11 training camps.”

“The reinvigoration of campaign strategy in the past few years is achieving our aims – building the capability of the Afghan government to maintain its own security and by extension protecting ours. We are not there to impose a Western liberal democracy. But an enduring solution in Afghanistan, that meets the needs of UK national security, must encompass all its different peoples. Security must be linked with progress on development and governance, and crucially, with a sustainable political settlement.”

Afghanistan’s mission is so clear that NATO officials feel the constant urge to repeat themselves. They refuse to acknowledge an overwhelming lack of confidence in their strategy’s feasibility.

Despite massing in large numbers and being nearly destroyed during the initial invasion, the Taliban is fighting NATO forces with the same mindset that jihadists applied to Russia’s occupation. “They have the watch, but we have the time” became synonymous with “death by 1,000 cuts.” The Taliban’s leadership has never possessed any other strategy to secure victory against a vastly superior force, nor does Mullah Omar and his shura have any need to. After 10 years of warfare (and no tangible end in sight), each high-profile IED blast, helicopter crash, civilian casualty or protest sticks another needle in NATO’s long-term viability.

Because of Bagram (and Pakistani requests to postpone the announcement), the Obama administration was forced to delay a planned apology for the deaths of 24 troops. Now the survivors and their comrades are wondering where’s their apology. Mushtaq Khan, a major with Pakistan’s communications wing, told The Associated Press, "We also don't understand: If they made a mistake why didn't they say sorry? This is the question we ask ourselves in our heart.”

A formal apology is tentatively planned for late March, when Islamabad is scheduled to review its policy towards America. However the reach of a Pentagon apology remains limited.

Publicly unfazed, U.S. and NATO officials have kept their message “on course” as they resist the popular pressure to accelerate their withdrawal. Part of this message includes the signing of a “Strategic Partnership that reinforces Afghan sovereignty while addressing the practical requirements of transition,” according to a White House statement on President Barack Obama’s regular teleconference with Hamid Karzai. Multiple media sources have reported otherwise, claiming that Karzai is pushing back until he receives his terms over detention centers, night raids, foreign bases and other hot-button issues.

Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, told reporters, “Hopefully we’ll be able to sign the document before the Chicago conference. We want to sign this document with the US, there is no disagreement, but we have conditions which have to be met.”

U.S. officials expect to sign an agreement before May and install a springboard for NATO’s Chicago summit. This tactic is designed to cut both ways: assure Americans and NATO populaces that the war is headed towards a conclusion, and “form a cornerstone of a broader western commitment not to abandon Afghanistan as most foreign troops withdraw.” The overriding downside is a swell of pressure to accelerate the withdrawal beyond NATO’s 2014 time-line. Cameron will travel to Washington next week for consultations with Obama and synchronize their policies ahead of Chicago.

“I do believe it’s important work for our national security right here at home but of course this work will increasingly be carried out by Afghan soldiers and we all want to see that transition take place.”

Unfortunately this transition continues to drift in dangerous waters. On Wednesday an anonymous U.S. general said that Marines, the bulwark of Obama’s surge in Kandahar and Helmand, would cut their numbers in half by the end of September. Only time separates the Taliban’s re-infiltration efforts, and Afghanistan’s Tajik-led security forces are ill-positioned to police the southern portion of the country. The effectiveness of Karzai’s central government poses its own dilemma.

An early transition to Afghan control, as advertised by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, would allow the Taliban to prematurely build its momentum into 2015. If they do choose to accelerate their training and transition, NATO officials are sure to spin their decision as a sign of progress - but so will the Taliban.


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