On not winning in Afghanistan

Understanding the cost and reasons for it helps, writes Paul Wells, but by itself it doesn’t fix anything

090304_afganistan51The release of the federal government’s third quarterly report on “Canada’s Engagement in Afghanistan” was, as Colleague Wherry and Colleague Geddes will tell you, the occasion for yet another news conference in which government ministers insisted on progress while the numbers suggested that security in Kandahar continues to decline. A state of affairs that brings to mind Prime Minister Harper’s remarks broadcast over the weekend:

“We’re not going to win this war just by staying,” he told interviewer Fareed Zakaria.

“Quite frankly, we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency. Afghanistan has probably had – my reading of Afghanistan history (is) it’s probably had an insurgency forever of some kind.”

“What has to happen in Afghanistan is we have to have an Afghan government that is capable of managing that insurgency.”

We’re not shy in this corner about telling you when I think the PM is saying nothing honest or intelligible. But here I think he is trying to say something important but difficult to define. That’s the nature of modern counterinsurgency, and I’ve seen no better extended discussion of that set of issues than in Rupert Smith’s book The Utility of Force.

General Smith retired from the British army in 2002 after a 40-year career during which he commanded the UK Armoured Division in the 1990-91 Gulf War, the UN forces in Bosnia, British forces in Northern Ireland from 1996-99, and then as NATO’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander for Europe. His book is a treatise on what he calls “war amongst the people,” which is to say, modern counterinsurgency, in which the battlespace contains large numbers of civilians and the attitudes of those civilians are crucial to determining success or failure. He starts big: “War as cognitively known to most non-combatants, war as battle in a field between men and machinery, war as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs: such war no longer exists.”

What’s taken its place? A less apocalyptic but subtler and more intractable kind of conflict: Smith’s “war amongst the people.” It has its own rules. Here are a few of those he outlines:

• “We fight amongst the people, a fact amplified literally and figuratively by the central role of the media: we fight in every living room in the world as well as on the streets and fields of a conflict zone.”

• “Our conflicts tend to be timeless, since we are seeking a condition, which then must be maintained until an agreement on a definitive outcome, which may take years or decades.”

• “We fight so as not to lose the force, rather than fighting by using the force at any cost to achieve the aim.”

• “The sides are mostly non-state” because, to paraphrase Smith, one side is usually a multi-national coalition and the other a highly mobile non-state actor like the Taliban and other Af-Pak insurgents.

All of this helps explain the cognitive dissonance that comes from watching conflicts like Afghanistan. “There are planes dropping precision bombs, missiles fired from hi-tech guns, soldiers in helmets and flak jackets driving round in tanks, political leaders gravely committing men to battle and underlining the importance of the venture and promising success. In short, recent conflicts have all the trappings and iconic images of industrial war, but it seems these wars are never won.” (emphasis added)

So why not? To me, Smith isn’t as good at explaining this as he is on other topics, but broadly, he’s saying that the objective of war has changed from the days of Napoleon and World War II, from smashing and holding forever a defined territory to something subtler, “establishing conditions in which [a political] outcome may be decided… by other means and in other ways.”

So armies go into chaotic situations, or create chaotic situations, and then hold the territory — not forever, to subjugate it — but until politics and a measure of order can set in, and sometimes that feels like forever. Smith points out that tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers have been stationed in South Korea for more than half a century; Cyprus has held foreign troops for nearly as long; Indochina/Vietnam lasted 30 years; “operations in Iraq have been ongoing since 1990, whilst the international community first intervened in the Balkans in 1992 and there is no end in sight.”

There are a lot of reasons that weird post-conflict purgatory can last a long time, but one of the big ones is that when it involves an insurgency or guerilla force, that force will avoid the kind of neat decisive battlefield engagement that Napoleon and Lincoln used to seek. Instead it’s harass-and-retreat, and meanwhile there are more innocents around than enemies, and the innocents’ opinion is the decisive variable. “What would in any event be a slow process is made even more so when one has to consider the people amongst whom the fight is taking place…. Rushing to achieve a quick victory against an opponent who refuses to cooperate in having the fight on your terms, particularly when operating amongst the people, is likely to alienate the people rather than win them over.”

Another reason modern war doesn’t look like the big wars of old is the modern Western aversion to taking massive losses. This is Smith’s point that “we fight to preserve the force,” and to him it has to do with a lot more than mere squeamishness. But it’s a striking difference: Napoleon, Lincoln, Stalin — they would grimly but willingly have sacrificed every soldier in their armies but one, if it would have broken the enemy and bring victory on their terms. The wars they fought were slaughterhouses. A weird nostalgia for that sort of thing is reflected in the musings of today’s armchair generals who complain that Canadians are softies if they complain about 35 or so Canadian deaths a year in Afghanistan.

But again, this is a different kind of conflict. Neither Western armies nor Afghan insurgents can depend on mass conscript armies; we need volunteers, they can only recruit or coerce so many fighters at a time. So on our side, armies are much better paid and more superbly trained than their ancestors, and their equipment is too expensive to destroy and discard. And today’s wars aren’t total war in the classic definition: the entire society isn’t bent to the war-fighting task, factories aren’t converted to arms production, food isn’t rationed — precisely so the society can go about its business, more or less unimpeded, while also supporting a limited conflict of indefinite duration. The difference between a sprint and a marathon.

Which brings me to what I think would be Gen. Smith’s main point of disagreement with Harper. Harper is right that victory can’t be only military. Which is why it’s important to continue development work, even in a security environment that’s worse than discouraging — and I want to be clear here that no kind of “victory” will be possible if the downward spiral of violence described in each of the Canadian government’s three reports continues.

Where Harper is off base is where he complains that Canada, and Western forces generally, have already been in Afghanistan for longer than World War II lasted. It’s possible, indeed likely, that the Canadian Forces have been working past their burn rate and, just because of the physics of wear and tear, need a substantial breather so they can recover. But World War II, as a point of comparison, has very little to do with anything. As U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates has pointed out, a better comparison is the Cold War, another case of holding a situation until politics could do its work. And Canada had thousands of soldiers stationed at Lahr for decades.

The hell of it, of course, is that Afghanistan is a betwixt-and-between case. It is a war amongst the people, so quick victory, as everyone has long since learned, is impossible. But neither is it a genteel peacekeeping assignment. The cost of participating is constant and disheartening. Understanding the cost and the reasons for it helps, but by itself it doesn’t fix anything.