While greater numbers of helicopters and armoured vehicles are needed in Afghanistan, what British soldiers at the front want most are reinforcements to make operational success more certain and the political benefits more long-lasting.
By Professor Michael Clarke, Director, RUSI
The loss of more troops in Afghanistan shocks the nation but not the soldiers. They are on the offensive and they know that such operations are a dangerous business. They have pushed out from their bases, UK troops in the north and US marines a few miles to the south, to establish better control in the Sanguin and Helmand River valleys. This is designed to keep Taliban forces on the run and to create in the minds of the Afghan people a sense, ahead of the August elections, that the Kabul government and NATO troops are a firm presence in Helmand.
The military equation does not bother NATO troops too much. They can always chase Taliban forces out of an area once they shift into gear. Taliban commanders have made Helmand their key objective since last summer and new recruits to their units flow in from Pakistan readily enough. But they are not well trained or well led. Key commanders are absent from the heart of the action and the Taliban have had real difficulties in launching the offensives they planned. Unless they get very lucky, Taliban forces cannot overwhelm any unit of NATO troops who are so much better equipped and backed up by air power. Hence the resort to improvised explosive devices, which cause most of the coalition’s casualties. IEDs can be devastatingly effective even against the most heavily armoured vehicles, but they are the technique of the terrorist; not decisive and not the weapon that will win a campaign.
Nor do the troops doing the fighting in Afghanistan criticise their equipment. What they have got is close to state of the art for infantrymen and it works pretty well. Equipment problems lie more in the availability of essential back-up. Helicopters for the UK’s forces are still far too few and heavily over-worked. At the start of the British operation two weeks ago American helicopters dropped Black Watch troops into their assault around Babaji. Meanwhile, the mixed fleet of UK armoured vehicles is at full stretch most of the time. The most appropriate vehicles are not always where they need to be in a fast-moving operation. And the ‘airbridge’ that ferries supplies to and from the battlefront is groaning and might easily collapse.
Rationalising a worthwhile cause
What the soldiers on the ground would most like to see are more of their comrades brought in to join the campaign. For what they fear most – in fact what troops in war generally fear most beyond their personal safety – is that they will have to do it all again. Soldiers can rationalise the loss of their comrades when their units are achieving their objectives. But it becomes very hard for infantrymen to fight and die for territory that is relinquished to the enemy. They will continue to fight for each other, but they lose the sense that they are fighting for a worthwhile cause.
The key test in the present offensive is not chasing Taliban forces out of the most populated areas of Helmand, or tolerating the sad and inevitable military deaths that ensue. The military are confident on both these scores. But they need to be reassured that the Kabul government can get some grip on the administration of Helmand thereafter, that some worthwhile development will flow through it into the local economy, and that there is a coherent international strategy for dealing with narcotics production which is more pervasive in Helmand than anywhere else in Afghanistan.
This offensive has already created internal refugees and more will follow. Local people in Helmand are cowed by insecurity and the war that flows around them. Ultimately, the whole campaign is about them and their inclination to stop fearing the Taliban and start trusting the government. This military offensive can create some of the conditions for that, but it cannot make it happen.
A shorter version of this commentary was published in The Sunday Times on 12 July 2009.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.
Professor Michael Clarke