Afghanistan: Get Serious or Get out

Unless there is a change in how it perceives the nature of warfare, the West will lose the war in Afghanistan, despite declaring victory, and spend the next 10 years in splendid isolation wondering what went wrong.

Patrick Bury is a former Captain in the British Army’s Royal Irish Regiment who has served in Afghanistan; he delivered his Masters dissertation on Military-Media Relations and a memoir of his experiences, ‘Callsign Hades’, is to be published in September by Simon and Schuster

The leaking of the contents of log reports two weeks ago from an American military headquarters in Afghanistan may have surprised the media and the populace, but it will not surprise any soldiers who have served there.

It appears that much of the media and many people are out of touch. That they still think that war should be clean, clear cut and concise. It is none of these.

Maybe the precedent of low casualty victories, like Iraq in 1991 and Kosovo in 1999, delivered by the technological Revolution in Military Affairs, has helped shape this false belief, maybe it is the failure of the media to convey the true horrors of war, but for leaked reports, detailing civilians getting killed by accident, special forces operatives on ‘kill or capture missions’, and Pakistani intelligence service collaboration with the Taliban to surprise anyone who knows anything about either war or Afghanistan, is ridiculous.

Of course, the media has an important watch-dog role in modern society and there is a definite need for the primacy of rule of law in military operations. Yet the way some of the media, and therefore the population in general, expect soldiers to win wars that are ostensibly fought in their name is unrealistic, and given the changing nature of war, becoming even more so.

The leaked logs show higher civilian casualties than previously reported. When our enemies fight us amongst the people, high rates of civilian casualties are unfortunately inevitable. Indeed, as in the Taliban’s case, inducing the West to cause civilian casualties is an explicit tactical and strategic goal of insurgents. And it seems much of the West’s population and media are not aware of this manipulation.

Moreover, heavily armed young men, despite the best training and restraint, make mistakes sometimes. You would, if you were in Afghanistan and a car that you couldn’t make out was hurtling toward your checkpoint and ignoring your shouts and warning shots and driving right toward you, and what about that report of three vehicle borne suicide bombers in the bazaar just before you left base?

And unfortunately, war makes both states and men act in ways they may not like to act normally. Special operations provide an example. They operate in the grey area between Realpolitik and law, they execute foreign policy at the tactical level, with all the myriad moral complexities this entails. If you think ‘kill or capture missions’ are morally suspect you are right, if you think they are always unnecessary you are wrong.

War has changed, probably irreversibly. The prospect of defeat in Afghanistan for NATO and the U.S is now real. Wars amongst the people and Improvised Explosive Devices have negated Western militaries’ once all powerful control of the battlespace and turned soldiers into little more than heavily laden slow-moving targets.

Meanwhile a lightly armed, agile militia called the Taliban are using every trick they can to win. They use children proxy bombers, they use human shields, they lay ambushes for NATO soldiers returning Taliban dead to their mosques. They do not care for the Geneva Convention, nor human rights. And it pays off.

And they have time and a long term view of strategy.

The only time the West fights to win is in a war of necessity, such as in World War 2. Then the rules are bent and the gloves come off, for a period. This is usually acceptable, if unknown, to the population the state is acting to protect. This happens in a war of survival; survival of the fittest, the most adaptable.

A government should not go into a war if it is not a war of survival, if it is not prepared to fight to win. It owes that to those risking their lives on its behalf.

Unless there is a change in how it perceives the nature of warfare, the West will lose the war in Afghanistan, despite declaring victory, and spend the next 10 years in splendid isolation wondering what went wrong.

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