NATO’s offensive: a model of how not to win a war?

The bizarre notion of giving your enemy advanced warning of an assault reveals much about the West’s self-defeating adventure in Afghanistan.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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The high-profile NATO assault in southern Afghanistan must be a contender for the strangest military offensive of modern times. It appears to break almost all of the conventions of successful warfare. But then, the Western alliance’s purposeless, self-defeating Afghan campaign has never been a ‘normal’ war.

It has long been acknowledged in military circles that key factors in launching successful offensives include deceiving the enemy as to your true intentions, maintaining the element of surprise by striking when and where they least expect it, and going for the jugular to overwhelm the other side and win as swiftly as possible.

As the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu puts it in his classic treatise The Art of War: ‘All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive’; ‘In making tactical dispositions, the highest pitch you can attain is to conceal them’; ‘In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.’

These strategic and tactical ideas of warfare have influenced many leaders in modern as well as ancient times, from Napoleon and Mao to Tony Soprano. In the Second World War, the arts of deception and surprise were practised not only by Hitler’s Germany in its Blitzkrieg offensive but also by the Allies when launching the D-Day invasion.

Today’s Western leaders, however, seem almost oblivious to the history and strategy of successful military offensives. After the first two days of the new southern Afghan offensive, one enthusiastic British tabloid newspaper announced that the Taliban had been ‘Blitzed’. But it is hard to imagine a campaign further removed from the German idea of Blitzkrieg – ‘lightning war’. From a distance this looks more like rather-cloudy-with-steady-drizzle war.

As the 15,000 US, UK, Afghan and allied forces prepared to launch their latest offensive in the south, there was no attempt at deception or surprise or lightning strikes. Instead the NATO authorities went out of their way to announce detailed plans for their operation to the media long in advance – and then stuck to them. The explicitly stated aim was to encourage the hardcore Taliban to pull out of the area for the duration, so that NATO forces could conduct their mass offensive without actually fighting anybody, temporarily displacing the enemy rather than defeating them.

The novel military tactic of warning the enemy of your battle plans as loudly as possible might seem bizarre, yet it does seem consistent with the overall strategy of risk-averse warfare that has largely characterised the West’s campaign in Afghanistan, and indeed the occupation of Iraq (see Afghanistan: the dangers of a risk-averse war, by Frank Furedi).

After early celebrations of how NATO forces had ‘Blitzed’ the Taliban without actually engaging in anything resembling a battle, it was reported that the mass advance of US troops had been slowed down to an even more sub-lightning pace by the apparently surprise discovery that the enemy had left some home-made bombs behind. The Taliban, who whatever their shortcomings seem to understand the principles of guerrilla warfare and Sun Tzu’s advice better than some, had pulled back before the big NATO forces arrived, but not before mining some roads and settlements with IEDs – improvised explosive devices. These ragtag devices were paraded before the camera as if they were captured weapons of mass destruction.

And the strange mixture of risk-aversion and reckless lashing out that seems to characterise Western military strategy today quickly undermined the doomed attempt to win over ‘hearts and minds’ in southern Afghanistan. One minute on the Sunday evening news we were treated to the spectacle of a British military commander explaining that, despite the appearance that the allies were invading and occupying villages, ‘we come in peace’. The next minute it was reported that 12 Afghan civilians had accidentally been killed by a NATO rocket. Faced with some rare small-scale resistance from within a compound, the NATO forces had apparently reached for the sledgehammer and fired off a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System; one missile missed its target by all of 300 metres and killed the dozen civilians. This cock-up threw the NATO command into a far bigger panic than previous mistakes that had killed many times more Afghan civilians. Why? Because it threatened the all-important PR image of their high-profile, well-publicised offensive.

Indeed this is a military operation launched largely in the cause of fighting a propaganda war. What seems to matter most to the American and British governments here is winning the battle for public opinion by getting the correct message across about their peace-making mission, complete with plenty of images of friendly troops mixing with Afghan civilians. That is why some observers were quick to hail the mission as a ‘success in media’, as if that was the same thing as winning a real war. Much emphasis has been placed on the supposedly ‘Afghan-led’ nature of the operation, with local politicians and commanders taking the lead at press conferences, in the hope that this might pave the way for a NATO withdrawal. In the real world outside the media centres, meanwhile, it is clear that the American military continues to call the shots – and that the Taliban may well return once they go.

From the first, the West’s latest adventure in Afghanistan has been a war without a clear casus belli, launched after 9/11 and sustained without a central strategic purpose – Anti-terrorism? Democracy? Women’s rights? Anti-drugs? – against enemy or enemies uncertain (see Afghanistan: the war for New Labour’s soul, by Brendan O’Neill). It has long looked like a war fought as an end in itself, the only real aim of which is to reassert the authority of America and its allies and provide them with an ersatz sense of mission. Inevitably, it has done the opposite, exposing the absence of any coherent worldview or clue as to what they are doing in Washington or Whitehall.

Now the self-defeating mission-free military occupation of Afghanistan is reaching new depths of absurdity. First US president Obama announced a fresh ‘surge’ of American forces into the battle-zone – at the same time as floating plans for a withdrawal from 2011. Hence NATO simultaneously appeared to declare war and admit defeat (see A bizarre declaration of war-and-withdrawal, by Sean Collins). Now NATO has fanfared its largest Afghan offensive since 2001 – a campaign, according to reports, ‘to impose government control on rebel areas before US forces start to withdraw by [President Obama’s] self-imposed 2011 deadline’. So, it’s total war! Until, er, next year, then we’re off. In the meantime we have given the rebels fair warning we were coming, and a timetable to go away and think about….

Who needs the Taliban anyway when the West is evidently so capable of outwitting and defeating itself? We are left, not for the first time, facing the worst of all worlds – an occupation without purpose, a dangerous military offensive without goals, a war without causes but plenty of casualties. Yet the only argument being conducted today is over the precise timing of a Western withdrawal rather than the principle of interfering in the first place. The bigger point needs to be finally taken to heart, that such interventions do not work and are inherently anti-democratic.

As the NATO forces prepared to launch their latest doomed offensive to defeat an invisible enemy while winning over hostile hearts and minds, a British lieutenant colonel was quoted as saying, somewhat tactlessly, ‘We are going into the heart of darkness’. It was unclear whether he was referring to the terrain of southern Afghanistan, or the state of mind of the Western military elite. But it reminded me again of Joseph Conrad’s brilliant 1899 novel, Heart of Darkness, where he conjures up a timeless metaphor for imperialism’s destructive and self-defeating incursions, at the moment when the narrator’s boat comes across a French warship just off the African coast, ‘shelling the bush’.

‘In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen.’

Just because NATO commanders refuse to learn from the past is no reason for us to ignore the lessons of history.

Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume argued that the West has defeated itself and looked at what’s behind the sudden outburst of questions around Afghanistan. Frank Furedi discussed the dangers of a risk-averse war. Brendan O’Neill stated that answers as to why British troops are in Afghanistan can be found at home rather than over there. David Chandler blamed the invading powers of the West for the weakening of the Afghan state. He also talked about the theatrical nature of war. Or read more at spiked issue Afghanistan.

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