Thursday, January 17, 2008

Gates Backtracks on NATO Criticism

Robert Gates is in hot water. Here's what he told the Los Angeles Times this week about NATO troops in Afghanistan:

"I'm worried we're deploying [military advisors] that are not properly trained and I'm worried we have some military forces that don't know how to do counterinsurgency operations," Gates said in an interview.

Canada's government was quick to provide cover for Gates by trying to reassure Canadians that he wasn't talking about Canada's troops but his press secretary, in an attempt to backtrack, said this:

Mr. Gates "most certainly did not" finger Canada, Mr. Morrell said.

Mr. Morrell said Mr. Gates's view, that NATO members lack counterinsurgency training and combat effectiveness, was general and applied across the entire 26-member alliance, including, to some extent, the United States.

In other words, he reinforced Gates' criticism by including all allies and that does include Canada. Somehow, in the mind of the US defence department, that explanation makes everything better.

"The secretary never criticized any specific member of the alliance," Mr. Morrell added, although he declined to release a transcript of the interview with the Times.

Jason Motlag and Jim Lobe writing for the Asia Times offer a different perspective on the counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan:

Washington hopes that the additional troops will help both stabilize Afghanistan and shame its reluctant NATO allies into sending more troops to the same end. Of the 3,200 new troops, about 1,000 will be used for training the Afghan army, and the rest will be deployed to southern Afghanistan to fight the Taliban alongside British, Australian, Dutch and Canadian troops, who have taken record casualties during the past year.

Tainted record

Commandant General James Conway first pitched the plan last year after hostilities in Iraq's al-Anbar province in Iraq calmed down, saying marines on the ground there could either return home or "stay plugged into the fight" and head to Afghanistan.

Marines with a "more kinetic bent", Conway said, are needed to take the fight to the enemy.

But trend lines show that in an Afghan-style counter-insurgency, strength in numbers may not apply. In fact, successive troop buildups since the Taliban were ousted in late 2001 have been matched by a steady increase in insurgent-related violence.

Overall, attacks increased from nine in 2002 to 103 last year, according to the Rand Corporation, and some 300 foreign troops have died in the past two years.

While north and west of Afghanistan are today relatively safe, the Pashtun-dominated southern and eastern provinces are much worse. Six years on it's understood that the crucial window to inject development and win over disillusioned Pasthuns when the Taliban fled was diverted by the Iraq war. According to the Congressional Research Service, Washington has spent about US$3.4 billion a year on reconstruction, or less than half of what went to Iraq.

The aid that has trickled into Afghanistan has gone almost wholesale towards military expenditures. But the integrated "light footprint" strategy used so effectively to topple the Taliban, in which special forces on horseback and small ground units reinforced Northern Alliance irregulars, was replaced by blast-walled compounds and heavy armor vehicles.

Security efforts stood to receive a big shot in the arm from the US Congress' latest military spending package, which exceeded $10 billion - a massive upgrade from years past. Yet about 80% of the total was earmarked for military purposes versus just 20% for reconstruction. This makes little sense in an agrarian country where infrastructure has been shattered by 30 years of war.

So, who's really responsible for the current situation in Afghanistan? That answer seems obvious.

And, will the infusion of 3,200 US marines save the day? Don't count on it.

Today these four basic principals of counter-insurgency, based on army and marine doctrine, are taught to Afghan security forces at the Afghanistan Counter-insurgency Academy in Kabul. However, it is the marines themselves who have courted controversy in the country for being too heavy-handed.

Last March, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, the former top US commander, expelled a marine special operations company after their convoy was ambushed and they went on a "rampage" in Nangarhar province that left 12 civilians dead, including an infant and three elderly men, according to a report by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. One man was said to be so riddled with bullets that he could not be identified.

"In failing to distinguish between civilians and legitimate military targets, the US Marine Corps special forces employed indiscriminate force," the report said. "Their actions thus constitute a serious violation of international humanitarian standards."

Faced with mounting public anger over the shootings and a series of botched air attacks, President Hamid Karzai is said to have pushed for the expulsion. The unit had been the first marine special operations company sent overseas before the incident, and US officials noted that an order for all 120 men to be redeployed was unprecedented, stressing the gravity of the incident. At present, only 300 marines are stationed in Afghanistan.

The bottom line is that it doesn't matter how much counter-insurgency training you have if you can't or won't use it in an environment as challenging as Afghanistan and it bears repeating that this is yet another war that officials and commanders have admitted won't be won militarily.

By focusing so much money on military efforts while not dealing with extreme poverty, leading farmers who have reverted to growing poppies while making deals with the Taliban to protect them, the US has hamstrung its own efforts and those of its allies. It's hard to get people to trust you when you've admitted torturing their neighbours and family members.

So, no matter how much the Canadian government wants to apply cover for its conservative brothers in Washington, it can't be denied that US actions and inaction over the past 6 years in Afghanistan have led to what NATO is dealing with today. Add to that the Bush administration's backing of Musharraf, who has not dealt with insurgent forces in Waziristan, and anyone can clearly see where the blame really lies. Sending in a few extra US marines will certainly not fix the problem - especially since only 1,000 of those 3,200 marines will actually be joining NATO allies in the south.

...violence has continued to rise in the south, which is controlled by a 11,700-soldier NATO force largely made up of the British, Canadian and Dutch forces. Britain saw 42 soldiers killed last year, almost all in southern Afghanistan, its highest annual fatality count of the war; Canada lost 31, close to the 36 from that country killed in 2006. American forces lost 117 troops in 2007, up from 98 in 2006, but U.S. forces are spread more widely across Afghanistan.

The latest news:

Seven Canadian soldiers received minor injuries in two incidents involving suspected roadside bombs in southern Afghanistan, the military said Thursday.
Seventy-seven Canadian soldiers and one Canadian diplomat have been killed in Afghanistan since the mission began in 2002.

What are you going to do about that, Mr Gates, besides blaming training for all of your problems?


Germany and the United States Failed to Train Afghanistan's Police

Canada eyes leaner role in Afghanistan

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