Britain’s theatrical war against the Taliban

British troops are not fighting the ‘good fight’ in Afghanistan; they are hiding behind US airpower and taking towns from weak forces.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

UK prime minister Gordon Brown’s recent flying visits to British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated the limits of external military intervention as a tool for strengthening the legitimacy of government rule in Baghdad and Kabul. In Iraq, British troops were scaling down and leaving Basra to the local Shi’ite militia, recognising that only a political compromise with local actors could lead to stability; while in Afghanistan, British troops were taking part in a show of military force in taking Musa Qala, a town the Taliban had previously taken over without firing a shot.

In Iraq, Brown gave the message that British military control will end in two weeks with local Iraqi forces taking over in Basra province. The 4,500-strong British force will be reduced early next year to just 2,500, with an open question over whether they might be completely withdrawn in March or confined to merely technical operations (1). On the face of it, it might appear that an entirely different course of action is being taken in Afghanistan, where over 7,500 British troops are currently serving. The British government is leading the call for more NATO troops to be sent to the country and it seems possible that Lord Paddy Ashdown may become the joint NATO and UN ‘super envoy’ coordinating international intervention (2).

The security situation has improved in Basra since September when the British troops withdrew from central Basra to an airbase outside the city. That is largely because attacks on British troops have fallen dramatically since they left the town. According to the British commander, Major-General Graham Binns: ‘From May to July the brigade we had in Basra was standing toe-to-toe with the militias in the city of Basra and fighting some of the most intense tactical battles that we have had to fight in the four years since we have been here. If 90 per cent of the violence was directed against us, what would happen if we actually stepped back, and would that improve the situation for the average Basrawi?’ (3)

Basra has been a success story because the withdrawal of British troops has not only led to fewer British casualties, but also there has been no rise in violence between rival militias because of the dominance in Basra of the Mahdi Army militia of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which agreed a ceasefire with the Iraqi government in August (4).

In Afghanistan, there appears to be an opposite approach. Musa Qala, at the mountainous north of Helmland province, was ‘captured’ by the Taliban in February of this year. They achieved this ‘capture’ with the support of the local government and without a shot being fired. In effect, no different to the Mahdi Army’s newly won position of authority in Basra. The British had previously withdrawn to leave control in local hands, with the council of elders; the Taliban then brokered an agreement with the local tribal elders to keep the peace (5).

The battle for Musa Qala has been presented as a major success in routing an important Taliban stronghold. In truth, it had little to do with military prowess: once the decision was taken to mount an assault on Musa Qala, victory could never have been in doubt considering the imbalance in firepower. The Taliban forces withdrew before the British, American and Afghan forces entered the city. Yet the battle for Musa Qala was promoted as a victory of global importance in Gordon Brown’s speech to the troops: ‘This is one of the most challenging of environments, one of the most difficult of tasks, the most testing of times, and one of the most important of missions, because to win here, and defeat the Taliban, and make sure we can give strength to the new democracy in Afghanistan, is important for defeating terrorism around the world.’ (6)

In effect, this battle made no more sense than keeping the troops in Basra fighting the Mahdi Army. Musa Qala may be a very visible focus for a battle with the Taliban but taking hold of the town will make very little difference to either the Taliban or to the Afghan government, ostensibly being supported by these actions. As Jean MacKenzie, Afghanistan country director for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, notes, understanding Afghanistan in terms of decisive battles against the Taliban makes little sense. While it is easy for NATO forces to take towns, the problem is that they do not have the resources to occupy them militarily in order to prevent the Taliban’s return. MacKenzie states: ‘They could not hold it before so I do not see why they will be able to hold it this time.’ (7)

If improving the lives of the ‘average Basrawis’ justified the British troops moving out of the town of Basra, and eventually moving out of the region all together, then it is strange that the lives of the ordinary people of Musa Qala needed to be exposed to the US aerial bombardment that preceded the moving of ground forces into the town. It makes little sense to stage a large-scale battle to retake a town, which was happily given up 10 months ago and will in all likelihood be peacefully retaken later. It also does not make much sense to fight a war against the Taliban, who enjoy an element of popular support in the area around Musa Qala, at the same time as retreating from the rocket attacks of the Shi’ite militias in Iraq.

There is no doubt that the British government is equally aware that the war against the Taliban can no more be won by outside military action than a war against the numerous local Iraqi militias. In fact, there is an increasingly common mantra within Whitehall that ‘military effort alone does not provide solutions’ (8). The taking of Musa Qala, in fact, provides a good example of the extension of the policy of withdrawal to Afghanistan, rather than an example of extending military commitment.

The media have stated that 2,000 British troops were engaged in the battle, but in real terms it was US airpower that convinced the Taliban to leave the town. Brown praised the British troops, but most importantly he argued that the battle of Musa Qala demonstrated the capacity of the Afghan troops and the central government. He stressed that the Musa Qala battle was ‘led on the ground by the Afghan forces themselves’, arguing: ‘There is no doubt that succeeding in Musa Qala will make a huge difference both to how people see the weakness of the Taliban in the future and the ability of the government to build, not just militarily and politically, but with social and economic progress for the people of the area.’ (9)

The sideshow of Musa Qala was presented as an argument for drawing down UK troops, rather than a demonstration of the need for them, and is part of the drawdown strategy of stressing ‘Afghan solutions to Afghan problems’ (10). In fact, Brown has made it clear that he wishes to switch the emphasis to the limits of military solutions, recognising the fact that the central government’s remit has never spread much beyond the capital Kabul. The shift in emphasis will focus on international aid for economic development rather than on putting British troops in harm’s way (11). This approach, of shifting from attempting to impose central governing authority to local compromises, reflects the realisation that other NATO allies have no wish to put their troops at risk in attempting to impose a centralised state in Afghanistan. As UK defence secretary Des Browne made clear, Britain is feeling increasingly isolated:

‘There still is a need to meet the demands set by both the NATO and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commanders as to what the minimum amount of troops and support are. What is known as the “requirement” has not yet been met and that is something we continue to discuss with our allies and friends in the international community.’ (12)

The British government is appealing to other NATO countries to take more of the burden, but with few illusions that many new contributions will be forthcoming. At the same time, the minister for the armed forces, Bob Ainsworth, has stated that there will be no new British troop commitments (13). Even the proposed ‘super envoy’ Lord Ashdown would be merely there to manage a face-saving transition; Ashdown has already publicly stated that, in his opinion, NATO has ‘lost’ in Afghanistan (14).

The farcical policy shifts in British and international policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the theatrical use of military force, reveal that external armies cannot build someone else’s state. In the past, military force has been essential in overthrowing regimes and also been of proven use in peacekeeping between two opposing armies. It is only in the last few years that the use of military coercion has been increasingly seen to be central in the construction of post-conflict states (15).

Military occupation has, especially since the implosion of Iraq, been seen as a central component of successful state-building, with leading policymakers and academics calling for more troops to be made available for ‘winning the peace’ than were necessary for ‘winning the war’ (16). However, it seems clear from the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan that only the withdrawal of foreign military forces allows a process of political bargaining, which can begin to rebuild the structures necessary for securing a stable peace.

David Chandler is Professor of International Relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster and editor of the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Philip Cunliffe reviewed David Chandler’s book Empire in Denial, and looked at the atrophy of foreign policy today. David Chandler described how Kosovo’s ‘independence’ meant dependence on the UN. Frank Furedi said politics without sovereignty is not politics at all. Or read more at spiked issue War on Terror.

(1) Brown tells Iraq troops military role nearly over, Tania Branigan, Guardian, 10 December 2007.

(2) US backs Lord Ashdown for Afghanistan role, Tom Coghlan and David Blair, Daily Telegraph, 6 December 2007.

(3) Analysis: Britain’s Iraq war is ending. Who won? Peter Graff, Reuters, 9 December 2007.

(4) Analysis: Britain’s Iraq war is ending. Who won?, Peter Graff, Reuters, 9 December 2007.

(5) In Afghanistan, a Do-Over Battle, Tony Karon, Time, 9 December 2007; British soldiers prepare for final assault on Taliban stronghold, Guardian, 10 December 2007.

(6) Gordon Brown in surprise visit to Afghanistan, Sam Coates, The Times, 10 December 2007.

(7) British soldiers prepare for final assault on Taleban stronghold’, Jason Burke, Guardian, 10 December 2007.

(8) Analysis: British handover: Pressure escalates as time for change nears, Richard Norton-Taylor, Guardian, 10 December 2007.

(9) PM pledges further Afghan support, BBC News, 10 December 2007.

(10) Analysis: British handover: Pressure escalates as time for change nears, Richard Norton-Taylor, Guardian, 10 December 2007.

(11) Analysis: British handover: Pressure escalates as time for change nears, Richard Norton-Taylor, Guardian, 10 December 2007.

(12) Brown: Prime minister arrives in Afghanistan as battle rages’, The Herald, Michael Settle, 11 December 2007.

(13) No big rise in UK troops in Afghanistan, Herald Sun, 10 December 2007.

(14) Afghanistan is lost, says Lord Ashdown, Tom Coghlan, Daily Telegraph, 29 October 2007.

(15) Following on from the Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, chaired by Lakhdar Brahimi in 2000.

(16) For example, The Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building, James Dobbins et al, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2007); Swords and Ploughshares: Bringing Peace to the 21st Century, Lord Paddy Ashdown, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007).

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Topics Politics


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