Wait, What?

Every so often, I will have a mild revelation and ask myself, “Why are we still in Afghanistan?” It’s similar to the mental whiplash I developed in the run-up to the Iraq War, when all of a sudden the national conversation switched from one about Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan, and Tora Bora to yellowcake uranium and l’Affaire du Plame.

Despite his somewhat over-exaggerated blame (though sadly, his position grows a little more plausible each day), I found Howard Hart’s recent take on our efforts in Afghanistan a pretty convincing echo of my own thoughts. To wit:

Leaving Afghanistan would mean that the Taliban would officially take over the country – most of which they already control. So what? It has controlled Afghanistan before. America is under no moral or political obligation to re-make the country into some sort of “democratic” state. It would make it easier for Pakistan to deal with both its internal radical Islamic threat and with a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan (which Pakistan knows will be the end result of the war).

Difficult as it is for us freedom-and-democracy-loving Americans to admit, free elections will not be how the war in Afghanistan ends. Perhaps we are under some sort of moral obligation to attempt to stabilize the country, having brought war and destruction to it, but we’ve had nine years to work that out, and failed miserably. There are no positive outcomes. The only question is whether the Taliban returns sooner or later. And the longer we wait, the more it costs us.

Your depressing thought for the day.

Reagan, Thatcher, and the ‘Tilt’

The British election has decided in favor of no one in particular. The possibilities seem confined to a Conservative minority Government or a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition one. With so much going wrong for Britain (just look at the accidental disenfranchisement), the last priority of whatever the new British Government is will be their friend across the pond.

At the same time, Rockhopper has claimed to have discovered oil in the area of the Falkland Islands, reversing the disappointment felt by Desire Petroleum earlier this year. With these two events in mind, it seems like a perfect moment to look back at the last time the special relationship really came to the fore, while the Falklands were in the news.

 

The Falkland Islands

One of the last vestiges of British empire, the likelihood that the Falkland Islands would ever become a household name – let alone the site of a major twentieth century conflict – seemed slim at best. Yet when the military government of Argentina dared to invade in April of 1982, the successful British retaking of the Falklands entered into the realm of legend and revitalized both Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government and Great Britain as a whole.

The extent to which American assistance was a crucial part of the British war effort is still debated. Paul Sharp claims that “Britain’s success in the Falklands War…would not have been possible without US support.”[1]Then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger downplayed the role of American aid, characterizing himself as a mere “assistant supply sergeant, or an assistant quartermaster.” He placed the glory of victory solely with the British:

Some said later that the British could not have succeeded if we had not helped. This is not so – I think the decisive factor was Mrs. Thatcher’s firm and immediate decision to retake the Islands, despite the impressive military and other advice to the effect that such an action could not succeed.[2]

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan's cabinets meet at the White House, 1981.

While the revival of the wartime Anglo-American ‘special relationship’ did not necessarily ensure a British victory, the effects that American support had on British and Argentinian morale and indeed, world opinion, were significant. As Sharp explains, “had the Americans decided to oppose Britain’s recovery of the Islands, then the war would have been impossible and Thatcher’s political demise all but assured.”[3]

The sophisticated weaponry supplied by the Pentagon, such as the Sidewinder air-to-air missile and the Stinger man-portable surface-to-air missile, helped to minimize British casualties. Especially crucial was US intelligence. That support was all the more surprising as it constituted a near-complete reversal of the centuries-old Monroe Doctrine demarcating the western hemisphere as an entirely American preserve.

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More on Clausewitz

Patrick Porter takes on Admiral Mullen’s classification of Kandahar as the enemy “center of gravity” in anticipation of the upcoming offensive there:

Is Kandahar the centre?  Does the Taliban even have a centre that we can meaningfully disrupt within time? The critical condition for most violent insurgencies is external and usually international support. If that applies to this case, the Taliban’s centre may not be its sway in Kandahar, but its relationship with Pakistan, both the state and powerbrokers within it.

This isn’t the first time a major operation has been launched to strike at an enemy “center of gravity.” In fact, it happened fairly recently, and as I then pointed out, the military’s insistence on a) clinging to the term and b) if applicable, attacking that center of gravity is just irresponsible.

But more generally, this seems to be a movement lacking any important centers of gravity. That’s the whole problem with counterinsurgency; there’s no decisive point at which to apply pressure. It’s trying to tighten your grip on a handful of sand. Obviously I’m not saying give up the ghost, but I am suggesting that perhaps the whole concept of a large offensive whilst fighting an insurgency is an anachronism.

Kandahar probably is where we need to be, but if we’re doing so for these Clausewitzian theories… then we’re just missing the point.

Marjah

Lance Cpls. Keith B. Lawson and Spence G. Press, scout snipers attached to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, work together to identify targets as Taliban fighters approached from Marjeh toward their position at the “Five Points” intersection Feb. 9, 2010.

Last night, the American, British, and Afghan assault on Marjah began. 6,000 soldiers were in the initial wave, and another 15,000 have been committed to rooting out Taliban-aligned elements operating in the area. Early reports have five Taliban fighters and one British soldier killed.

Resistance has been “light.”

In the run-up to the attack, there was no shortage of criticism over the advance warning given, the stated objectives, and even the target of Marjah itself. It was certainly well-founded. Registan argued that the strategic value of Marjah was limited at best and that the amount of opium production in the area was overstated, while Wired characterized the Coalition heads-up as asking residents to “please, please, pretty please don’t leave the warzone.” But everyone may be wrong about the purpose (or at least the timescale) of fighting in Marjah altogether. From Free Range International:

When the Marines crossed the line of departure today, the battle for Marjah had already been won.

Like a master magician General Nicholson mesmerized the press with flashy hand movements to draw attention away from what was important.  The press then focused on the less important aspects of the coming fight.  Just like a magic show the action occurred right in front of the press in plain view yet remained out of sight.

In an unparalleled combination of regular and special forces units, the real conflict over Marjah was conducted mostly behind the scenes. It’s too early to say for sure, but the FRI analysis sure does raise some interesting points. If the goal was to convince the Taliban (and not the civilian inhabitants of Marjah) to leave, doesn’t that just allow them to escape and regroup? (i.e., what’s the point?) Obviously avoiding civilian casualties is of huge concern, but there still seems to be a disconnect over goals and methods.

Conversely, even if everything is going as planned and the Taliban bugs out, “somebody has to do the hold and build – it is not fair or smart to put that burden on the 2nd MEB.” Absolutely. I can’t help but wonder how thoroughly the post-battle plan was thought out.

Either way, at this point nothing to do but play the waiting game. Now let’s see how this plays out.