Sunday, July 19, 2009

The British Way of War

The Economist apparently has a good reporter with the troops in Afghanistan. Following the detailled report I linked to the other day, here's another one, this time much of it from the Helmand valley and the field of battle itself.

War is hell. It's also complicated, and eight years after arriving in Afghanistan, the Western Allies still haven't figured out the corect way of waging this one.
Subsequent British contingents were similarly stretched out. One aim was to clear the road to the Kajaki dam to allow the refurbishment of a hydroelectric plant. Another was to retake the town of Musa Qala, abandoned by the British in 2006 despite American protests. British tactics changed with each six-month rotation of troops. One especially damaging practice was “mowing the lawn”—raiding areas repeatedly to clear out insurgents without holding the ground, exposing anyone friendly to the British to grisly retribution. Whereas the American army and marines drew up a new manual on counter-insurgency in 2006, the British have yet to revise their doctrine. They rely heavily on American thinking, without American resources.
The really significant part of the report, however, tells about efforts not to kill Afghani civilians:
The American overall commander, General Stanley McChrystal, has urged his troops to minimise civilian deaths, even at risk to themselves. It is easier said than done, as Major Giles Harris, a company commander, explained. “When we meet the bad guys, we win,” he said. But protecting civilians was “a continual challenge”. “It is the discipline required not to take the gloves off. You are asking my guardsman not to empty the magazine of his weapon into the compound wall from which he is being shot at.”

Factual. Matter of fact. Even more serious, the article repeatedly makes the point that the more British casualties, the lesser the public support at home without which the war cannot be fought. Which means, even if the soldiers do manage to let more of them get killed so that fewer Afghanis will be hurt, this may only expedite the loss of public support and - potentially catastropically - an Islamist victory.

Fiendishly complicated, and then some.

Now try to imagine what would happen if an IDF unit was facing similar conditions. This is not a hypothetical question. On January 18th earlier this year I linked to an article that had just appeared in the Economist in which the editors asked themselves if Israel was committing war crimes in Gaza. The grudging answer was that maybe, but then again maybe not, it would depend on the specifics. And at the time I added:
Of course you might ask if the Economist regularly poses this question whenever anyone else (the UK included) goes to war, and the answer is probably no.
Actually, the answer, it appears, is a resounding No. The Economist doesn't dream of talking about its own soldiers, or their American or Nato allies, as they do about Israel. And the Economist, I remind you, isn't the Guardian.


Anonymous said...

this article about Afghanistan is the best (even though it is from the LRB) I have read in a long long time and though it does not deal with the performance of soldiers directly it fisks Obama's rhetoric so nicely (no Israeli premier would get away with it) and so accurately that in a broader scope it fits this post

I just have one complaint, it is nice praising a wise British administrator in 1868 without mentioning the defeat the British had suffered in 1842


Anonymous said...

Here is my comment from July 3 regarding the US, Afghanistan and civilian casualties. WaPo carried a story on 6/13.

If you don't have enough to do, I am hoping you will comment on the US offensive against the Taliban in Helmand province in Afghanistan. Because of you, I have become far more conscious of how civilian casualties (formerly know as "collateral damage" - I am so glad that term seems to have gone out of use!)from US offensives are discussed here in the states.

Robert Burns in WaPo on 13 June reports on Gen. McChrystal taking charge in Afghanistan and the need to reduce civilian casualites caused by air strikes on Taliban targets engaging from civilian areas.

"Gates emphasized the imperative of avoiding civilian casualties, calling the deaths "one of our greatest strategic vulnerabilities." "

A "strategic vulnerability" not a "moral dilemma."

This radio program (The Takeaway on NPR broadcast 3 July) has a report on the Helmand offensive.

About 9 min. you can hear ABC correspondent Gretchen Peters refer to the civilian deaths to air strikes as "a public relations disaster."


Anonymous said...

The British in Afghanistan appear to be doing what the Israelis did in the Second Lebanon War. Raid, kill enemy, then withdraw without being replaced by fresh troops.

This withdraw requires the ground to be retaken which inevitably will incur both military and civilian lives