You are here

‘A Hard Pounding, Gentlemen’: The Coming Year in Afghanistan

Commentary, 11 January 2009
Land Forces, Terrorism, Europe, Central and South Asia
The UK needs more troops on the ground to relieve pressure in Helmand, but unless an increase is accompanied by significant victories elsewhere, the Coalition’s long-term prospects are not good. A new approach to strategic thinking in Afghanistan and the means to give some effect to it are sorely needed in the new year.

The UK needs more troops on the ground to relieve pressure in Helmand, but unless an increase is accompanied by significant victories elsewhere, the Coalition’s long-term prospects are not good. A new approach to strategic thinking in Afghanistan and the means to give some effect to it are sorely needed in the new year.

By Michael Clarke, Director, RUSI

British strategy in Afghanistan was struggling to move forward last year, and the coming year is not likely to be much easier. Afghanistan is certainly not a lost cause for the Western powers and there is a hard-edged logic in the Coalition being there. But the campaign has not been a strategic success so far. If the country keeps failing to ‘turn a corner’, then the prospects of meaningful success will soon become indistinguishable from the mere extrication of forces from a foreign campaign going nowhere.

Pinned down in Helmand

The immediate problem in the autumn of last year, and for the coming months of 2009, is that the Taliban have got British and Coalition forces in Helmand pinned down. Western intelligence became aware of direct orders around September 2008 from the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, for Taliban units to switch tactics in Helmand and go back to attempts to overwhelm a Coalition outpost somewhere. In the rest of Afghanistan Taliban tactics remain that of the terrorist – to plant bombs, assassinate officials and kidnap foreigners. But in Helmand the new objective is to pin Coalition forces down and then turn up the heat on them in every way possible. And if this pulls more Coalition troops into Helmand then it opens up more opportunities for the Taliban elsewhere.

That is why the end of 2008 saw a hard pounding of British forces, and why it will remain that way until the pressure can be relieved. It is not that British troops are now uniquely vulnerable. They are less vulnerable than they were in 2006 when they were spread too thinly over a large area. But they are now effectively tied down at five main points. They can look after themselves but it is increasingly difficult for them to get out and about to do the job they are there to perform to create the conditions for local, civilian development that enhances the authority of the Kabul government. That also means dealing more effectively with the narcotics problem in the South of the country and creating an effective Afghan National Army and – more critically – an Afghan National Police that commands some respect.

None of this can be achieved in 2009 without more troops on the ground. The United States has recognised this and will be sending perhaps 20,000 or even 30,000 more into the theatre of operations. We will know the precise numbers soon. When we do, the United Kingdom will almost certainly respond with a modest increase in its own numbers. Much more mobility is required in-theatre. The UK’s air-bridge to Afghanistan is at full stretch and landlines of communication from Pakistan have become vulnerable for the whole Coalition. Defence planners are looking at ways to address both of these problems. Even then, it will take some time in the coming year to relieve the immediate pressure and get the civilian operations in Helmand back on track.

This is all entirely possible, but the longer-term problems of the UK’s Afghanistan strategy are more worrying, not least because the UK government has limited power to affect them. The hard fact is that what happens in Helmand (or for that matter in Uruzghan) will not make very much difference to the path that Afghanistan ultimately takes. This means that the Coalition can lose the Afghan campaign by losing in Helmand, but it cannot win it there. It can lose the whole campaign on the home front through a disaster in Helmand, but it cannot win on the ground in Afghanistan itself without significant victories elsewhere.

Events in Kandahar are different. Both the province of Kandahar and the city have a big impact on the rest of Afghanistan. Kandahar is the trading hub and a city of up to 1 million people; it is also the centre of Pashtun culture, is 100 per cent Pashtun, and the heart of the Taliban. Prevail here, in both a military and a civilian sense, and the coalition affects the balance of forces across the whole country and certainly in Kabul; fail here, and Kabul, with its 4 million mixed population, becomes more isolated than ever from broader Afghan society.

A confused strategy

The British contribution can only be as good as the strategy it supports. The second hard fact is that the strategy of the international community – and that of the Karzai government in Kabul – is confused at best. There is still too little convergence of the military and the developmental/aid efforts; too little synergy between the ISAF stabilisation mission and the ‘Enduring Freedom’ anti-terrorist mission; and too great a hole of corruption and ineffectiveness at the heart of Afghan governance to allow for a clear and logical international strategy. A new American approach to strategic thinking in Afghanistan would be a very welcome start to the year, but until that is articulated and has time to take effect, and until President Karzai can regain some of his lost credibility in US eyes, the international community faces nothing but a continuing strategic hiatus.

It is not that strategic thinking is absent: if anything there is too much of it going on in too many different places. The real problem is the lack of suitable enabling machinery to give effect to it. There is some agreement on what the critical tipping points might be - successful Afghan elections in 2009 and 2010, the dominance of the wheat programme over narcotics production while prices move in a favourable direction, the ability of the Afghan National Army to act independently in a range of different areas, the belief among the Afghan public that the police force could serve some useful community purpose eventually, the reduction of the ‘foreigners’ footprint’ in all activities across the country – and so on. But these are not prioritised or sequenced within the enabling mechanisms that have proliferated in Afghanistan over the last six years.

Dealing with a vulnerable Pakistan

And then there is Pakistan. If that country falls into ungoverned chaos then the whole Coalition enterprise in Afghanistan will be undermined: politically spiked and militarily outflanked. It is a daunting prospect and one that British planners must regard as possible, even if not immediately probable. There is very little the UK can do directly to help Pakistan’s President Zadari cope with the worsening security situation inside his country.

The global financial crisis will certainly hit Pakistan as hard as any country and increase disaffection with its economic and political management. The ripples will spread outwards, and all the UK can realistically do is to add its weight to western attempts to press international financial institutions to recognise the special vulnerability of Pakistan and the unique danger of it becoming an Asian nuclear power in crisis.

Failing that, attempts to shore up the border between Afghanistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan – to insulate Afghanistan from destabilisation to the east – are doomed to failure without significantly more troops than the Coalition could ever muster. There has to be a big, international, political and economic initiative to prevent more destabilisation in Pakistan: the alternatives are too extreme for even a rejuvenated US leadership to handle.

So it will continue to be a hard pounding on British troops, come what may, in the next few months. After that it may ease somewhat. But a lessening of the immediate pressure – which is likely – will only count for something if the international community can give expression to a single strategic focus and find the means to give some effect to it. Britain can certainly contribute to this process, but can hardly command it.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI


Professor Michael Clarke
Distinguished Fellow

Professor Michael Clarke was Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) from 2007 to 2015 when he retired from... read more

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Support Rusi Research