Friday, July 30, 2010

The real lesson from the leaked records of fighting in Afghanistan

SOME people, including the group that supplied them, thought more than 75,000 secret military records released on July 25th contained devastating revelations about the war the West has been fighting in Afghanistan for the past nine years. Many more saw nothing new, but nonetheless feared that page after page of ugly detail would bring home to the public just how badly the Afghan campaign has turned out. In fact, the most voluminous leak in the history of warfare holds an altogether different message—that, for the moment, the West is tackling Afghanistan with what is probably the right strategy.

The Afghan War Diary contains over 91,000 entries filed between the start of 2004 and the end of 2009, mostly in Afghanistan, and given to WikiLeaks by an unknown hand. It takes a while to make sense of that much raw field reporting, and 15,000 sensitive records are yet to be released. But so far the diary seems to be long on detail and short of revelations.

Individual reports are sometimes troubling; occasionally poignant. One describes a botched attack ordered by German forces on stolen fuel trucks, killing dozens of civilians. A fleeing Afghan, shot after he ignored warnings, turned out to be a deaf mute. Special forces act as death squads hunting down insurgent leaders. Yet there is no corroboration of the most intriguing reports, such as an attempt to poison the drinks of NATO troops. Much of the rest sets out the grim routine and costly errors of an insurgent war: searching for weapons, enduring daily attacks, dealing with locals who could be friend, foe, or something in between. Not much of this would interest a senior officer, let alone someone in search of the Truth.

Even so, they paint a messy, depressing picture. Corruption in Afghanistan is rampant and corrosive; civilians are often killed and the soldiers responsible sometimes try to minimise their wrongdoing; unmanned aircraft go wrong; Iran is meddling; and, most disturbing, even though Pakistan is supposed to be America’s ally, parts of its intelligence service are helping the enemy (see article).

Not the Pentagon Papers

The diary has been widely compared to the Pentagon Papers, a leaked official history showing how Lyndon Johnson’s administration had lied about its strategy in Vietnam. But President Barack Obama has been telling the truth. And none of the big claims is new. Even America’s generals have said that there can be no clear victory in Afghanistan. If ordinary people already know that their soldiers are dying in Afghanistan and that the fight is hard, why should a blizzard of details lead to a sudden shift in public opinion?

Yet despite its absence of startling revelations, the diary is useful. It serves to remind its readers why America changed its strategy in Afghanistan, and why the administration would be wrong to bow to pressure to change it back again.

Debate in Washington about what to do in Afghanistan centres around two military strategies. One is counterterrorism (CT), championed by the vice-president, Joe Biden, which would give up trying to build a state and concentrate on killing enemies. Under CT, troops stick mostly to safeish areas, using airpower to hit terrorist havens. The other is counter-insurgency (COIN), championed first in Afghanistan by the sacked General Stanley McChrystal and now by General David Petraeus, the new commander there. This seeks to win over the population by assuring their security, creating the conditions for stability and isolating militants.

Until 2009 the strategy was pretty close to CT. Then, after Mr Obama ordered a review, COIN came out top. Now its cost has begun to shift opinion against it among America’s politicians. Progress is hard to spot and soldiers are dying; COIN is expensive and the government of Hamid Karzai commands little affection and less respect. But the diary, which describes Afghanistan before the COIN doctrine was favoured, shows that you cannot rely on CT alone for long. Poor intelligence and extravagant firepower kill civilians. This feeds the insurgency and undermines a Western presence of any sort. In the longer run, you may destabilise Pakistan; and you do nothing to hollow out Islamic terrorism—which cannot be contained for ever.

Just now, Afghanistan needs foreign troops to undertake COIN. In a few years newly trained Afghan forces may be able to take over the job. Meanwhile, development and diplomacy are needed to reform the frustratingly poor Afghan government. It is not pretty and there is no guarantee that it can be done before voters lose patience, if ever. But it looks less ugly and less dangerous than the Afghanistan found in WikiLeaks’ War Diary. The Economist

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