In an eloquent piece a few days ago in a British broadsheet, that alas I can’t find, Anthony Loyd reported an optimism amongst commanders in the field that we are turning things around in Afghanistan.
And the rationale? Bodycounts! The Taliban, he writes, are suffering an attrition level on the battlefield at ‘an industrial scale.’ Their talented top and mid-ranking leaders are being wiped out. Their capabilities and fighting strength is depleted. Their morale is taking a hit.
Some simple thoughts about this: we shouldn’t be surprised that with an increase in American troops, that the US-led coalition is inflicting physical bodyblows on the Taliban. If the world’s premier league fighting force can’t do that to a few thousand guerrillas and their supporters in a Third World State, it would be time to lay down their spears and go fishing. And no doubt it does dampen down the Taliban’s raw fighting power.
But since when does lethality dictate the political outcomes of war? If it did, the Soviet Union would be regnant in Afghanistan, the US would have triumphed in Somalia, Britain would have put down the Jewish insurgency in Palestine, and as for Vietnam…
What is missing from the ‘bodycount victory’ account is any engagement with basic political questions. A comparison with the Anbar Awakening might help. There, the US was able to bring its lethal force to bear very effectively against Al Qaeda’s franchise. But only after a fundamental political realignment had begun, the shift of former Sunni insurgents, powerbrokers and criminal warlords against the Islamist militants in their midst, the wily encouraging of this shift by US and British players, and the new coalition of former enemies against predators who had become unbearable.
Sir Lawrence Freedman once compared military force to an axe. It cuts or chops much more effectively against a tree that is rotten and yielding than against one that is hard and resistant. The changing political context in Anbar meant that lethal force could be applied to accelerate and confirm a favourable new political condition.
Nowhere is this kind of major political realignment evident in the Loyd piece. The conditions that favour our ultimate defeat there are still active – the sheer difficulty of turning the country into a strong centralised state, the existence of safe havens and sanctuaries where insurgents can regenerate and remobilise, the failure to convince our own people that the country is more than peripheral to our national interests, and the Taliban’s apparent ability to establish a broad and wide ‘shadow state’ as the provider of law and order, albeit a brutal one.
Maybe heavy attrition levels are the only good news we have. In which case, for obvious historical reasons, victory is nowhere in sight.