Thursday, December 15, 2005

Strategic Drift

It is reported that the Government is beginning to have second thoughts regarding Operation HERRICK, the deployment of British forces to Afghanistan next spring under which the UK-led NATO Allied Rapid Reaction Corps HQ will take over both an expanded ISAF, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, and a British-led strike force in Helmand Province. The plan was, as well as the ARRCHQ and supports and about a battalion-equivalent of infantry going to Kabul, and the British PRT in Mazar e-Sharif, that the 16th Air Assault Brigade would take on the task of deploying to Helmand, where they might be tasked with pursuing the Taliban and/or destroying opium plantations, as well as attempting to coerce warlords and uphold the Afghan government's authority.

This made a certain degree of sense; compared to the disaster in Iraq, at least, there's an argument that success is still within reach in Afghanistan. Never reinforce failure, as they say. And the (much delayed) expansion of ISAF out of Kabul has done so much better that one might well wonder why it didn't happen back in 2002. But the deployment has been mired in wrangling and confusion of roles. On our side, there seems to have been a difficulty between Britain and the US about the 16AAB's role. The Americans, bless their hearts, have been fighting a war of massive cordon-and-search sweeps through the mountains pursuing, I suppose, Osama bin Laden. The British Army would probably prefer a strategy of getting control of the population centres. A cynic might suggest that 16AAB are going because their dramatic formation title (Air Assault! Hooooyaah, Colonel Kilgore!) and fleet of helicopters, which ought to satisfy the US on this score.

More serious has been the inter-NATO falling out about the role and chain-of-command of ISAF as opposed to the southern task force. Given the idea that 16AAB will have a more aggressive role than the rest of ISAF (which as we have seen is a necessary illusion for US consumption), some other NATO partners are unhappy at the idea of serving under the same flag. ISAF Kabul has been quite a quiet posting during the last couple of years, which is a testament to its success. France, Germany and some others now fear that their units in Kabul could be targeted if the British down south annoy anyone powerful. Because of this, they have been arguing for a distinction between ISAF and the "antiterrorist" or "counter-insurgency" role in the south, and have demanded a dual chain of command under ARRCHQ. Further, no troops for the south have been forthcoming except for the Dutch, with the result that the "southern force" is likely to be a sort of Son of Commonwealth Strategic Reserve made up of British, Canadian and Australian forces.

There is of course one cracking great fallacy here, caused primarily by the need to present HERRICK to the Americans as a he-man chopper blitzkrieg. There is no sensible distinction between the ISAF peacekeeping role in Kabul and Mazar e-Sharif and the "fight against terrorism and drugs". Maintaining the condition, as Rupert Smith puts it, of peace and a modicum of normality is the only effective way to hope for a strategic success in Afghanistan. Indeed, it is worth asking what the Operation ENDURING FREEDOM sweeps through southern Afghanistan have actually achieved, compared with the ISAF and PRT operations in the north and west. They have certainly rearranged a lot of rocks and killed a number of people, some of whom turned out to be guests at wedding parties. No doubt some of them were the enemy. I think there's a case that OEF post-Anaconda and Shah-i-Kot has been far less productive of security than the ISAF.

All this uncertainty about aims has shaken up unpleasant memories with the Dutch, who are now remembering Srebrenica and rowing back on their commitment to send 1,000 men to Uruzgan province, next door to 16AAB. This in turn seems to have unsettled John Reid to the point that a really awful decision might get made. It has been suggested that Reid is considering trimming Op. HERRICK and sending just two of 16AAB's infantry battalions to Helmand rather than the full monty. This is dangerous nonsense. Just reducing the stakes does not necessarily reduce the risk. It's possible - like the Provincial Reconstruction Teams - to be safe through keeping a low profile. It's possible to be safe through being overwhelmingly strong. Two battalions of light infantry - in fact, airborne infantry, the lightest of the light - spread across a large tract of wild mountains are enough to present a wide range of attractive targets, but not enough unless concentrated to be secure.

The full 16AAB includes a field artillery regiment with 105mm guns and the capability to deploy by parachute or helicopter, and an Army Air Corps regiment that has just completed re-equipping with the WAH64-D Apache attack helicopter, and an engineer squadron. With this backup, and the RAF Harriers currently stationed at Kandahar, even small groups of Paras can essentially go anywhere in Afghanistan. But the new option is to leave essentially all the Brigade's support firepower at home, as well as one-third of the infantry. Bizarrely, the government appears to be thinking along the lines that having fewer allies means we need less power of our own.

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