“It was the English,” Kaspar cried,
“Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for
I could not well make out.”
‘The Battle of Blenheim’ – Robert Southey (1774 -1843)
A searching question was posted on this website 18th July, asking what was the point of Afghanistan and what we are hoping to achieve. Before attempting to answer this question, it is necessary to understand how our forces ended up there in the first place .
Following the attack on the World Trade Centre, 11th September 2001, the U.S went on the offensive against Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda as a whole, and their terrorist training camps inside Afghanistan; this operation was known as Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). The Taliban government which ruled Afghanistan in 2001 was complicit in the setting up of these training camps and in allowing Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden freedom of movement. The U.S then requested that the Taliban surrender Osama Bin Laden and a number of other suspects; the U.S also threatened to topple the Taliban regime if it did not comply. Unsurprisingly the Taliban failed to heed the threat by the United States and their regime was subsequently ousted, with U.S forces invading the country in support of the Northern Alliance and anti-Taliban elements. This was followed up by the limited deployment of the Allied forces, including the UK to provide support for the new Afghan government and consolidate the victory. So, the aim of the conflict in Afghanistan was to destroy the Al Qaeda terrorist training camps and capture Osama Bin Laden. The training camps may have been destroyed but new ones have sprung up on the other side of the border in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Western Pakistan.
So, in essence one of the main aims, the closing the terrorist training camps has been achieved, although only temporarily and the main suspects are still at large. The aims of the original mission, Operation Enduring Freedom, could therefore be deemed as a failure, or at least just a partial success.
As with any victorious outcome in battle, the victory needs to be consolidated. Sufficient troops need to be put on the ground to deny the enemy from regaining a foothold. With Afghanistan the existing government had been toppled, the ‘new’ government came from the opposition parties that were in exile. The forces which swept aside the Taliban was the Northern Alliance, this was a hotch-potch of warlords and Mujahedeen commanders left over following the departure of the Soviets and the inevitable civil war, the civil war which saw the rise of the Taliban. It should be noted at this point that it was the Northern Alliance, allegedly under the auspices of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, which invited Osama Bin Laden to Afghanistan in the first place, not the Taliban.
As the Northern Alliance gained power, they lacked sufficient physical and political strength to maintain immediate effective control over the whole country, hence the need for an external force to provide military support. This needed to be done until the newly formed government forces were available in sufficient numbers and of sufficient quality to provide security with minimal assistance.
So, in 2001, following the Bonn conference, the United Nations Security Council authorised the formation of an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to assist the new Afghan Government, “in the maintenance of security in Kabul and its surrounding areas, so that the Afghan Interim Authority as well as the personnel of the United Nations can operate in a secure environment.”
NATO officially took control of ISAF on 11th August 2003, and in October of that year ISAF was given a mandate to extend its responsibility from Kabul and the immediate surrounding area, to encompass the whole of the country.
The physical extension of this authority was phased with Stage 1 covering the Northern regions, this being the transfer of control of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) under the control of OEF to ISAF, and the establishment of additional PRT’s.
Stage 2 was announced 10 February 2005 and covered the expansion into the west of Afghanistan; the operation was launched 31 May 2006. Stage 3, covering the South, was launched 26 January 2006 and Stage 4, launched 5 October 2006, took control of the east, thus fulfilling ISAF’s UN mandate to cover the whole country.
In attempting to fill a potential power vacuum it is necessary to assemble a sufficient military force and move swiftly, so back in 2003 when NATO officially took control of ISAF, what the United States and the Allies did was to assemble an absolutely massive military force and………..invade Iraq.
Afghanistan at this point suddenly dropped down the list of the Allies priorities, the invasion of Iraq diverted huge amounts of military resources and re-focussed political agenda’s; this action fundamentally weakened the NATO mission. As the leader of ISAF, NATO should have provided a large and well supplied fighting force; this would have sent a strong and confident signal to the other NATO countries supplying troops. This sidelining of the Afghan mission fundamentally reduced the organisations’ powerbase and weakened it both militarily and politically, rendering it in many observers eyes as obsolete. This lack of confidence in the mission explains the reluctance of many of the NATO member states to accept a positive role. This meant that the U.S, as the major player in Afghanistan, failed to properly consolidate the victory and allowed the Taliban to maintain a foothold in the provinces to the south of the country, namely Helmand and Kandahar. The southern provinces have always been somewhat rebellious and difficult to control from Kabul. When the Taliban were in power they managed to achieve control of them because they, being Pashtu’s, were on home ground and severely punished anyone who defied them, unlike the Allies. They also imposed Shariah Law, which was favoured by the conservative peoples of the South. Previous governments which had tried to introduce liberal policies such as equal rights for women, had always met with stiff opposition from the outlying provinces far from Kabul.
So, the reason why British forces are in Afghanistan is because we were part of the coalition forces for Operation Enduring Freedom, hence our involvement in 2001, and we are there as part of the NATO force which took over control of ISAF in 2003. Our OEF mission was amalgamated into the ISAF mission in January 2006. Our ISAF missions are as follows:
1. Security – assist the Afghan government in the establishment of a secure and stable environment by
- Conducting security and stability operations
- Supporting the Afghan National Army (ANA)
- Supporting the Afghan National Police (ANP)
- Disarming Illegally Armed Groups (DIAG)
- Facilitating ammunition depots management
- Providing post operation assistance
2. Reconstruction and development:
- Providing security to permit reconstruction
- Humanitarian assistance
3. Governance – through the PRT’s, ISAF supports the Afghan government institutions
4. Counter narcotics
The British mission to the south, Stage 3, was announced by the Secretary of State for Defence John Reid, 26 January 2006. However, the decision to go into the southern provinces wasn’t made by him, the plan was endorsed by the NATO allied foreign ministers in Brussels, 8th December 2005.
This operation was led by the Royal Engineers and Royal Marines who constructed Camp Bastion, and was followed by the deployment of 16 Air Assault Brigade, centred around 3 Para. It was also announced at this point that the deployment to Helmand would last three years and cost £1billion over five years; both of these predetermined limits have now been exceeded.
Because UK forces were also committed to Iraq at the time, this ensured that any troops and resources they required were diluted; it therefore came as no surprise that the forces sent into Helmand were too few and over-stretched. What also arose at this time was the realisation that UK forces were woefully equipped with the necessary equipment to fight a vicious and protracted counter insurgency campaign.
Given the toppling of the Taliban in 2001, there has been a significant delay in the establishment of sufficiently sized force to counter an insurgency campaign. This has allowed the insurgent forces, which are a mixture of Taliban, Al Qaeda and any miscreant with a Kalashnikov, to achieve a significant revival. In addition to this, opium production, which was almost eradicated under Taliban rule, has increased dramatically which undoubtedly helps fund the insurgency along with a number of highly effective extortion rackets. The current conflict at the moment is in support of the U.S and the ISAF mission, and we are fighting a war of attrition with the Taliban to see which side breaks first; unfortunately no-one seems to be in the mood to back down.
Although we may now understand why UK forces are in Afghanistan, the above doesn’t actually fully explain the point of it all. President Obama and Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s assurances that we’re there to prevent terrorist attacks at home, have little credibility as the terrorist training camps have merely moved, such is the nature of terrorism. The terrorist attacks in the UK have been purported by those born here, albeit with some support and direction from Pakistan, and that is where are biggest threat lies, not from the Taliban; in this sense Afghanistan is not our war. The point of our troops being there is merely to support the ISAF and the U.S mission as part of NATO, not to directly protect the UK.
The irony of the situation is that the U.S and the U.K supported the Mujahedeen when they were fighting the Soviets, support which was quickly withdrawn once Soviet forces left Afghanistan. Having left the nation to its own devices, and letting it suffer greatly in the process, the situation we are now deeply involved in could have been avoided had we taken the time and given the funding to help rebuild the nation; the current conflict was therefore created indirectly by our own hand. So, in fighting global terrorism, perhaps it is also time to take a long and sober look at our foreign policy and its global impact rather than just fighting terrorism per se.
As a country we have supported the U.S in both Iraq and Afghanistan, more than any other nation. Whatever assurances the then Prime Minister Tony Blair gave the U.S following 9/11, after eight years of conflict we have more than fulfilled our obligation. Because we are fighting in Afghanistan, not for ourselves, but as part of NATO, it is time to question the viability of having NATO in command of ISAF and whether Stage 3 of the UN mandate to control the south of the country is actually an achievable goal. Unless there are significant signs that we can achieve a victory in southern Afghanistan in the short term, then it is time to seriously consider pulling out and focus our attention, our troops and our resources on fighting the real enemy, the global terrorist networks, not the Taliban.