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

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"Ze teatime war" a.k.a. The Great Blame Game

At Kings of War recently the Danish troops deployed to Afghanistan got some critical remarks, that professor Theo Farrell has taken back after a while, having collected evidence that made him reconsider. It reminded me a bit of how I approached the issue of the Dutch role in Uruzgan province back in the spring, focusing on how some of Uruzgan's areas functioned as an insurgent sanctuary, producing negative spill-over effects to other provinces, only to then change my mind as I became aware of a large number of constraining factors affecting the Dutch mission (not the least important of which is the extremely rugged terrain of Uruzgan, which doesn't allow for securing much more territory than what is under firm ISAF control currently, with the current troop numbers).
But the issue is a little bit that of striking a difficult balance. Easy criticism might do more harm than good, but certainly there are countries that don't lift the same weight as others, no matter what sort of proportionality we build into calculations regarding that.
Via UPI I heard that The London Times ran a story with the title For us ze war is over by tea time, ja. Referring to Germans of course. An excerpt:

" One Norwegian cavalry officer, who was engaged in a day-long fight with more than 40 Taliban near Jari Siya in Badghis, said: “It’s hopeless. We were attacking the bad guys, then [at] three or four o’clock, the helicopters are leaving.

“We had to go back to base. We should have had Norwegian helicopters. At least they can fly at night.”

Abandoned by their western allies, the 600 men from the Afghan army’s 209 Corps were forced to retreat until a convoy of American Humvees arrived the next day to reinforce them. "

Before somebody thinks that these were some combat helicopters blasting insurgents from left, right and above, nope, these were just helicopters in a support role, for moving troops or evacuating wounded. So the Times seems to be playing this up a little, and it's just as strange as another report from the BBC recently that mentioned a similar caveat for Dutch helicopters in Uruzgan, that surprised at least one usually quite well-informed reader of this blog. Germans, nevertheless, are sitting ducks for criticism anyway. Their soldiers do spend a lot of time in their bases for sure, with instructions to do so, and those bases are up there in the safer north. (Some suicide bombings did of course play into their more cautious ways nowadays, but arguably it's German policy that made them so attractive targets in the first place.) Now, it's of course important to have enough of an ISAF presence even in the north - it's better to play it safe. But Germans definitely aren't looking to take much of a role in the south other than providing some special forces e.g. as OMLTs for the ANA. For a little fun, one could say that former German defence minister Peter Struck's remark that Germany might have security interests to defend at the Hindu Kush, often cited to show how there are endeavours to reform militarily traditionally passive German foreign and security policy, is just not good enough. The Hindu Kush looks like too good a place from Uruzgan.
But I'll be cautious with German-bashing like this that comes from the London Times, and for a little even-handedness I'll also point to some British problems in Afghanistan for a little change, before getting back to the Germans again.
Note that I said problems and not blunders. This is not intended to be a contribution to the blame game. (For those seriously interested in challenges facing German foreign and security policy, read WSI Brussels' first policy briefing, titled Conceptual Evolution and Domestic Confusion, by Rob Braithwaite Marco Overhaus.)
Now, those problems that the British face.
Here's an excerpt from the UK House of Commons' summer report on UK operations in Afghanistan (pp. 29-30.):
" The UK’s initial strategy in Helmand was to deploy a small force to government buildings in districts such as Musa Qaleh and Sangin with the aim of demonstrating the presence of UK Forces to the local population. This ‘Platoon House strategy’ led to some criticism in the press in the summer of 2006, following reports that soldiers from the Parachute Regiment had been pinned down by insurgent forces in Musa Qaleh for 52 days. When we asked the Secretary of State whether the Platoon House strategy had been a mistake he told us that the strategy had been conducted at the request of the Governor ofHelmand, Engineer Daoud, and that he remained confident that “in the fullness of timethey will turn out to be quite a significant contribution to the strategic success of our operation.”
General Richards who was ISAF commander at the time the strategy was adopted was less certain of the impact of platoon houses:
" ... clearly the immediate vicinities of the Platoon Houses became areas where the average civilian with any sense left and his home was destroyed, etc, so I am sure that they probably in most cases did have a negative influence on opinion. Whether or not they achieved some sort of ascendancy over the Taliban in a military sense is something that one might debate, but in terms of hearts and minds they probably are not very helpful." "
That's what happens when troops are overstretched. Ink blots dry up if the ink is only drizzled on the map - so much for metaphors about security presence-protected humanitarian/development zones. The British had much more troops in Helmand from the start than the Netherlands had in Uruzgan, but even with what they had available they didn't stand a chance to provide blanket coverage, either.
Which is what may lead us to...
That there is Musa Qala, of course. The link leads to a good recap of what's been going on there since the Taliban took the town in February. Positive changes may be coming perhaps (though deifinitely not as "the first time that the Kabul government and its Western allies have been able exploit tribal divisions that exist within the Taliban in southern Afghanistan," as The Daily Telegraph forecast). The town functions as an insurgent sanctuary (as well as a sucide bomber training camp if some reports are correct) and offers much fighting through narrow streets among booby-trapped compounds as a prospect for coalition forces looking to make a decisive move.
Which, I can't help it, still brings me back to the issue of the German role. That's the sort of fighting that they wouldn't take part in. Talking about "ze teatime war" is probably not the way to criticise Germany on the issue of Afghanistan (especially since it's mostly the German public that should be convinced of the need for change). What Germans need to consider more is that it's not nice to have the Taliban play capture the flag in places like Arghandab or Chora, and only more troops can prevent that.

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