Monday, November 02, 2009

SOS Afghanistan – Are the SAS on a doomed mission?

An interview with US Afghanistan expert Thomas Johnson
by Gordon Campbell

On August 20th Afghanistan will hold a general election that is deemed virtually certain to return Hamid Karzai and his cronies to power. At best, the opposition is hoping to win enough votes to force a run-off vote, but that seems unlikely. It will be a hollow victory. Over the past five years, the Karzai government has squandered the goodwill it originally had – and is now widely seen among Afghans as being corrupt, inefficient, beholden to foreigners, warlords and the drug trade, and to be losing its war with the Taliban.

It is against this backdrop that the Key government has signaled its intention to put our combat troops back into the fray. In a couple of weeks, Cabinet is expected to respond positively to the US request for our special forces that was conveyed a few months ago by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Foreign Minister Murray McCully. This decision will entail re-deploying SAS units – presumably to the hot spots in the south of the country, and along the border with Pakistan. It will also entail winding down our successful aid and reconstruction work in the province of Bamiyan.

The wisdom of choosing to put our troops into this combat zone – in a war that many claim has already been lost – is obviously open to question. A few months ago, Prime Minister John Key was indicating that he would need to see a workable policy with a clear exit strategy, before re-deploying our combat forces. Obviously, that is no longer the case. Key is now offering the vague goal of ‘combating global terrorism” as his rationale.

At the very least, New Zealand needs to know far more about the country whose destiny we will now be fighting – and in some cases, dying – to determine. To that end, Werewolf contacted US Afghan expert and leading military adviser on Afghanistan, Thomas Johnson.

Thomas Johnson is not some left wing academic opposed to the Afghan war on principle. Far from it. He is a senior faculty member of the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey California. This link makes it clear that in his capacity as the director of the Program for Culture & Conflict Studies, Johnson works in co-ordination with the Department of National Security Affairs to conduct research in support of United States initiatives in Afghanistan :

Our research provides comprehensive assessments of provincial and district tribal and clan networks in Afghanistan, anthropological assessments of Afghan villages, and assessments of the operational culture of Afghan districts and villages.

Johnson’s analyses – based on extensive field research embedded with US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan – are fed back into briefings to the likes of the Council of Foreign Relations, to military commanders and deploying troops, to academics and the general public. Last October, Johnson published in Atlantic magazine an assessment of the current policy failures of the US Afghan strategy. In a nutshell, US forces are winning the battles and losing the war :

The U.S. engagement in Afghanistan is foundering because of the endemic failure to engage and protect rural villages, and to immunize them against insurgency. Many analysts have called for more troops inside the country, and for more effort to eliminate Taliban sanctuaries outside it, in neighboring Pakistan. Both developments would be welcome. Yet neither would solve the central problem of our involvement: the paradigm that has formed the backbone of the international effort since 2003—extending the reach of the central government—is in fact precisely the wrong strategy…..

To reverse its fortunes in Afghanistan, the U.S. needs to fundamentally reconfigure its operations, creating small development and security teams posted at new compounds in every district in the south and east of the country….

Deploying relatively small units in numerous forward positions would undoubtedly put more troops in harm’s way. But the Taliban have not demonstrated the ability to overrun international elements of this size, and the teams could be mutually reinforcing. (Air support would be critical.) Ultimately, we have to accept a certain amount of risk; you can’t beat a rural insurgency without a rural security presence.

As long as the compounds are discreetly sited, house Afghan soldiers to provide the most visible security presence, and fly the Afghan flag, they need not exacerbate fears of foreign occupation. Instead, they would reinforce the country’s most important, most neglected political units; strengthen the tribal elders; win local support; and reverse the slow slide into strategic failure.

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