How many insurgents, militants, Taliban – call them what you will – are fighting in Afghanistan? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? Does anyone in the Afghan government or the International Security Assistance Force have any idea of the number?
But there are a few things that are certain, no matter how few or how many Taliban (let’s use that inaccurate term for want of a better collective noun) there might be. For a start, the Taliban have no air force. Not one single aircraft. And deployed against them are hundreds of strategic bombers, ground-attack helicopters, ground-attack jet fighters, drones and surveillance aircraft of a sophistication that takes the breath away.
Foreign forces have monster balloons that fly above their fortresses with cameras to film their perimeters. These, and the surveillance aircraft and the vast array of satellites whirling round the globe ensure that not a movement is undetected; not a telephone conversation goes unrecorded. Not a communication is unread. (Which happens elsewhere, of course, courtesy of various democratic governments.)
In 1986 the Soviets had some 250 combat aircraft and 140 attack helicopters in Afghanistan, along with a massive intelligence capability, and a fat lot of good that did them. They lost 15,000 dead and 50,000 wounded in their ten years of occupation.
So far the toll of corpses of foreign troops in the Fifth Afghan War is 3,411 in twelve years. The wounded are estimated at some 20,000. Nobody knows how many Afghan soldiers have been killed or maimed, and nobody cares, except their families. Little wonder the Afghan army desertion problem is so grim.
The Taliban have no tanks or other armoured vehicles. The foreigners have thousands of them, roaring around in their search for the raggy-baggy irregulars they seek to destroy. The Taliban have no artillery. While the foreigners pound them with high explosive there is no possibility of reaction, save, perhaps, by a few ancient Soviet-era mortars.
You’re getting the picture: here we have the most technically dazzling military force in the world, with every conceivable martial contraption of the most amazing efficiency, and a bottomless pit of money, and it hasn’t been able to defeat “a bunch of dudes in bed sheets and flip-flops” as the Taliban are so well described by one of the few American military officers who has dared to speak truthfully about the Afghanistan disaster.
Retried US Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis wrote a paper on the debacle in Afghanistan a few years ago and nobody in Washington paid attention to it. His reports about the idiot senior officers and defence officials responsible for so much of the shambles are revealing. Here, for example, is his record about a particularly stupid commander, one General Stanley McChrystal, who told the US Senate in December 2009 that “additional forces will begin to deploy shortly and by this time next year new security gains will be illuminated by specific indicators and it will be clear to us that the insurgency has lost the momentum. By the summer of 2011 it will be clear to the Afghan people that the insurgency will not win.” Just how wrong can you be?
Perhaps not as wrong as another fool, the Department of Defence’s Michele Flournoy, who in 2010 told the Senate that “our overall assessment is that we are heading in the right direction in Afghanistan . . . indicators suggest that we are beginning to regain the initiative and the insurgency is beginning to lose momentum.” Phooey.
Mind you, not all senior military officers are stupid. Five years ago British Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith said that “We want to change the nature of the debate from one where disputes are settled through the barrel of a gun to one where it is done through negotiations. If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this.”
Nobody heeded him, either, and I was amazed when he was promoted major general because he also said that “this is a task which one measures in decades.” But the likes of Carleton-Smith are few and far between, and much of the responsibility for losing this war must, alas, be placed squarely on the generals. I have no doubt they’re brave in battle – but they didn’t stand up to their own politicians.
When a country decides to go to war, the process is in essence simple. The politicians tell the generals precisely what is to be achieved. They define the national mission that makes it so important to hazard soldiers’ lives. The generals make plans and go back to the pollies and tell them exactly what they want: how many troops, the level of tactical support, and so on – all the costs of war must be made clear. And the main thing is the ‘mission’: can it be achieved?
If the politicians tell the generals they can’t have sufficient resources to achieve the mission – in numbers of troops, for example – then the generals must resign, because it would be totally dishonourable to commit soldiers to battle without being guaranteed absolute support.
There are complexities, of course, because the mission that used to be given to military men was usually pretty straightforward: ‘To Defeat the Enemy’ was generally regarded as being a reasonable aim. But the present mission of foreign troops in Afghanistan is to “reduce the capability and will of the insurgency, support the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces and facilitate improvements in governance and socio-economic development in order to provide a secure environment for sustainable stability that is observable to the population.”
How on earth can you tell how many troops are needed to “facilitate improvements in socio-economic development”? That’s absurd, and that’s why there has been defeat in Afghanistan. Alas, it’s the generals who bear the final responsibility. They should have told the politicians that it was Mission Impossible.