Yes, for once an Afghan war is winnable

By Anthony Loyd (THE TIMES, 10/03/07):

Blazing their way through yet another firefight with the Taleban at Shurakay, on the west bank of the Helmand river last Friday, British Royal Marines were carrying more than just the weight of bandoliers, radio sets and grenades on their shoulders.

The legacy of past wars burdened them too: Doctor Brydon, wounded and alone on his limping pony, sole survivor of the British Army’s withdrawal from Kabul in 1842, stalked their gun-chattering advance along the Shurakay heights; the ghosts of Russian soldiers, slain during the Soviet Union’s failed ten-year occupation of Afghanistan, stared on from the surrounding ridgelines. Each spectral voice gave a warning that, despite the best efforts of the Marines, they were just the latest foreign soldiers with a walk-on part in another unwinnable war, destined for ultimate defeat.

From the outside, much of the news from Afghanistan does little to contradict this picture, providing an often confusing miasma of information complete with phrases such as “quagmire”, “wasted lives”, “failed cause”. The initial deployment of British troops to Helmand province last year certainly started badly. Given an opaque set of tasks, 16 Air Assault Brigade arrived in the province juggling contradictory plans for war fighting, reconstruction and counter-narcotic operations.

The British knew that the Taleban were a self-generating ball that would always bounce back, regardless of short-term defeat, unless the majority of Pashtuns in the south rejected the insurgents from within their own communities. To win the counter-insurgency campaign, the British aimed to cleave the Taleban from the local population through hearts and minds, as well as fighting operations.

Yet, as last summer dragged into autumn, the mission’s language was only that of the gun: reconstruction efforts in central Helmand, so crucial to winning over Afghan civilians with the promise of a better life, remained stymied amid heavy fighting.

However, the Taleban suffered a similar failure in their intent. The insurgents’ mistaken efforts last summer to concentrate their forces around Kandahar, the centre of gravity for southern Afghanistan — where in 1994 they had been well received by a population exhausted by civil war — were smashed by Nato attacks. More importantly, this time there was no groundswell uprising of locals in support of the Talebs.

There were a number of reasons for the Talebs’ inability to regenerate a popular jihad. The Pashtuns well remember the Soviet occupation, and most so far remain canny enough to realise that Nato’s presence and behaviour is totally dissimilar. The Soviets were an occupying force that alienated the entire country through their barbaric behaviour. By contrast, Nato was invited into Afghanistan to establish security by a president elected by the Afghan people. Though many of his former supporters are now sick of President Hamid Karzai’s ineffectual and remote leadership, Afghans have yet to lend their backing to the Talebs, whose tenure they recall as much for its feudal inefficiency as its austere disciplinarianism.

This year, with spring looming, the military situation has changed, and the advantage in southern Afghanistan lies with Nato. Despite US pressure, British commanders have dropped all pretences at poppy eradication in order not to antagonise the local population, most of whom have no other means of livelihood. Support for the Taleban remains feeble and localised. In Gereshk two months ago, British forces, returning from a big battle with the Taleban, were actually cheered by crowds of Afghans.

British tactics have changed, too. Rather than fight in static defensive positions, they now prefer to operate throughout Helmand using mobile columns in intelligence-led missions to identify, disrupt and destroy Taleb concentrations. Though the British still have a long way to go in understanding their enemy, their nascent accumulation of knowledge is showing results.

The force they are fighting is weakened. Though fierce, sometimes dedicated and expert in low-level tactics, the Taleban have yet to draw on the expertise of global jihadists fighting in Iraq. With a few exceptions, their attempts at asymmetric warfare have been crude and relatively ineffective. They have lost many experienced men and commanders over the past eight months. After a winter of fighting, usually on British terms, Taleb promises of a huge “spring offensive” ring hollow. They are far from beaten but they are no Viet Cong.

Victory or defeat lie not in force of arms but in the judgment of the Afghan civilian’s heart. So far, British battlefield successes have neither been matched by efforts of the Afghan Government to establish itself as a legitimate and credible power in the south, nor the timid and laggardly work of reconstruction agencies. So the Afghan heart remains undecided.

But the game remains in play, with much to win, and even more to lose. For time is not neutral. As each day passes without tangible benefit for the local people, the Taleban will grow a little stronger. The Afghan Government will have to move fast to capitalise on the opportunity given to it by Nato. If they can do so, then maybe, just maybe, history will not repeat itself in Helmand province, and the spectres of Doctor Brydon and the dead Russians will fade. Fourth time lucky, British soldiers may just win an Afghan war.