What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Uruzgan Series

The MStFB Uruzgan Series - Review and Update
In one of his posts, the author of the Safrang blog quotes a beautiful thought from a certain Mahmoud Dervish with whose works I’m unfortunately not familiar with. In essence it says that in our search for truth we should be ready to flutter around like a leaf in the wind, allowing ourselves to drift this way or that, wherever we are blown. It might resemble the motto I read somewhere, `be afraid of no fact or finding`, in which one may discover a similarity that makes it easier to see that here we are talking about the basic ethics of the analyst, the prime imperative for anyone involved in analysis.
I have been blogging a lot recently about the Dutch ink blot strategy in Uruzgan Province, in Afghanistan. Mostly I have been rather critical about it, but I have also done a bit of fluttering around, it wasn`t just criticism all the way. Since in the process of fluttering around a whole series of posts came together, I decided that it would make sense to make them all available via a common link. You may now find that link on the top of my blog, among the rest of the content links, on any page on my blog that you may end up surfing (or fluttering) to.
It also occurred to me that I should write something like an overview of these past posts. What follows here is going to be a bit like that, but it will also include a new aspect of the question I haven`t yet considered in much detail.
On April 9, I first came across the `oil spot approach` term. That was the expression used in the New York Times in reference to what is more commonly known as the ink blot approach. It`s a counterinsurgency strategy that focuses on creating prosperous islands of development in a sea of insurgency to slowly win away the local population and deprive insurgents of their support base. I have instinctively said that that sort of approach in the south of Afghanistan, where ISAF and OEF forces are now aggressively making the move to regain control of lands in the hands of the Taliban, can be detrimental to the whole of the effort of these coalition forces. That`s because this approach effectively tolerates the existence of insurgency islands – ones that before April were even allowed to expand in Uruzgan a little. Overall between 300 and 400 Talib fighters may have enjoyed an unperturbed safe haven in Uruzgan Province. (Though beside the pull factor arguably created by the Dutch approach, the push factor of the on-going military operations in neighbouring provinces should also be taken into account when thinking about that.)
And so I pointed to the fact that this in fact can be interpreted as a negative spill-over effect (an NSE). NSEs are crucial to my conceptualisation of state failure (of which you may read on the right flank of my blog). I usually focus on NSEs between states, but here I decided that it may be sensible to divide up Afghanistan to different units of analysis, given what the Dutch leadership itself tended to emphasise, that Task Force Uruzgan had a strategy distinct from that of the rest of the ISAF and OEF countries, in its sector.
In my criticism I also pointed to the Malaya analogy (the claim by some sources that the ink blot approach in Uruzgan is closely matching the British counterinsurgency strategy in Malaya) as essentially false. The Malaya strategy is something that went together with mass population transfers, so the Dutch would probably not look at it as an ideal way of pleasing the local population. In a twist of my criticism, and coming up on the Dutch mission from another angle, I also said that to reduce NSEs the Dutch would need to carry out more operations to harass insurgents. To move around a little bit, so that insurgents shall not be entirely sure about which ones are safe areas to go.
Meanwhile I wanted to make it clear that I didn`t mean to say that Dutch soldiers themselves are fight-averse but that the strategy that they had to follow was fight-averse. To say something nice about the Dutch leadership, too, I also pointed out that they at least were ready to go to the south of Afghanistan and take over a province there, unlike many other European countries that don`t seem to be too sacrifice-ready to do something about the main source of heroin entering their domestic markets. And I also wrote about the much more significant spill-over effects coming from Pakistan`s tribal areas in comparison to which NSEs from Uruzgan are clearly of less importance.
Then just as I was busy writing my posts on the subject, Australia sent extra special troops to Uruzgan exactly for the kind of operations that I said could be necessary to optimise the ink blot strategy. One could argue that already at that point the debate about the original Dutch version of the ink blot strategy actually could have been considered over, by losing any practicality once it was over on the ground. Then shortly after that even the Dutch announced changes to their strategy and claimed they would be operating according to the so-called amoeba model, carrying out patrols along surprise routes in order to `harass insurgents`. They also said military operations by the Dutch Battle Group in Uruzgan could now be carried out independently from the PRT.
It also turned out, meanwhile, that the Dutch military presence may likely be coming to an end in 2008. Dutch military ranks might have been the source of a leak from which it surfaced that a shortage of spare parts and personnel may make the Dutch mission in Uruzgan unsustainable. I agree with Peter Wagner that this might have been like a balloon, released to see if anyone 'up there' is willing to act on the leak, before the up-coming review of the Dutch military presence during the summer of 2007 (or by September the latest). However, given that I have already written of how Dutch minister for development cooperation Bert Koenders has hinted at the possibility of the Dutch military leaving, at the CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies) in Washington, I think that the political readiness to cover the extra costs may just not be there. Mr. Koenders said that the military element of the Dutch contribution to Afghanistan`s reconstruction may not last, but other elements of it certainly will. That`s definitely a hint there – one of course still has to wait and see what eventually happens. In fact the possibility is that the un-sustainability balloon may have been released with the backing of the Dutch leadership, who are now under some pressure to stay in Uruzgan beyond mid-2008 (see Hans de Vreij`s summary of the issue).
Anyway, it would be remarkable to see the Dutch force leave because of concerns over the sustainability of its expeditionary operations, given that it`s actually among the best prepared for those in the NATO club.
To finish off this review analysis with something new, here is another question to ponder. The Dutch still tend to claim to have a distinct strategy in Afghanistan. Now put aside considerations that together, in an interdependent context, with other countries, it may not be the best of things for the others. The question is also whether it really is possible to follow a strategy that`s entirely one`s own. The Dutch have to work together with the Afghan army (the ANA), and the Americans. Recently a Dutch officer complained of how he sees forced poppy eradication in Uruzgan as effectively the sabotaging of the Dutch strategy there. I think he is right about forced poppy eradication being a brutal tactic, hurting poor farmers. But more importantly he is right about the un-sustainability of one`s own strategy when others have so much influence over what eventually happens on the ground in the name of counterinsurgency. And in that case, when one can`t change something outside of oneself, one may need to change oneself. ISAF countries should be falling in line more (or perhaps I should say: flutter in line more).
I, of course, deliberately made my point about the negative aspects of forced poppy eradication (see more posts from me later on, on that very subject). I did that exactly in order not to exclude the possibility that the Americans may try to do just that (flutter in line), too.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Or, if you can't change the outside and you feel the outside isn't allowing you to do things they way you think they should be done, if you are a small country in the greater scheme of things, you could just say you'll keep your promise and ask politely some larger country to show some responsibility.

I seriously wonder whether the descision to send AU SF back to the province was new and not planned. As you point out correctly the ink blot strategy only works if the OMF are not allowed safe havens. This is why NL SF have been roaming outside the ink blot together in the past. I wouldn't be surprised if it was decided that the winter time would be an excellent time for the AU SF to take a breather.

Furthermore, I think it's a simple question of mathematics to come to the conclusion that some kind of ink blot strategy is maybe not the best, but the only feasible one. The relative number of troops on the ground is much lower than for instance during the Kosovo mission. And while there is no dependable police force, the 400 NL combat troops will not be able to garanty security in the whole of the province 24/7. And visiting a village once a month with promises of a better life will not convince any villager if he has to fear a nightly visit for the rest of the month from an enemy that resorts to persuasive tactics you will never be able to match.

I hope the dutch government will take a firm stand on this. I hope they'll say "Either you help us do it our way, as we help you with yours with our air component, or at least do work against us. Or, if you know best how it's done, you can do it." Because, and it's a just question if you send people in harms way, why should the Netherlands commit themselfs again this much?