By kind invitation of Tobias Ellwood MP, the Henry Jackson Society is pleased to launch its major new report: ‘Succeeding in Afghanistan’. Colonel Richard Kemp, Former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan offered his remarks on the campaign’s evolution and realities, followed by George Grant, HJS Governance, Strategy and Terrorism Section Director and author of the report who discussed the report’s conclusions. Thereafter, Major General Gordon Messenger, Ministry of Defence Strategic Communications Officer & Commander of British Forces in Helmand, 2008-09 joined the other speakers for an extended Q&A about the conflict in Afghanistan. The report is the result of several months of extensive research and consultations, and argues strongly that success in Afghanistan is a strategic imperative for the United Kingdom and its allies, and that the counterinsurgency strategy currently in place is the surest way to generate a positive outcome. It also seeks to put the current strategy in its context, analysing the course of operations between 2001-2009 and why they did not succeed. Additionally, the report examines a number of the most pressing and contentious issues facing NATO forces and the Afghan government, including, negotiations with the Taliban, exploiting divisions within the insurgency, and the imperative of good governance.
Colonel Richard Kemp
How often do we hear our political leaders or even our military commanders in the British forces talking about succeeding in Afghanistan, I would argue we don’t hear very much at all about victory or success. Politicians in the last government and perhaps to a lesser extend in this one seem to me to be very reluctant to concede that even successes possible in Afghanistan. It is in stark contrast to the events which took place in this city and parliament in 1940 when the whole of the British nation was stirred and led to victory by Winston Churchill with an implacable belief that we could defeat the Germans, even though on this very day in 1940 a yellow alert was issued in the UK to say an invasion of the Germans into Britain was expected within the next 3 days It was a desperate situation.
Afghanistan is of course not the Second World War, but is one theatre of a Global conflict, the nature of war today is very different from World War Two and we also have an enemy which shares the same unyielding, violent and fascist desire to conquer and subjugate people through violence. In the face of a highly complex war which is fought at a much lower intensity, not against a recognisable opposing army but by irregular forces, getting across the message we need to transmit to the people in this country is much more difficult than the challenges faced by Winston Churchill even in the direst hours of World War Two. It is just as important that the message gets across today, in the UK, in Afghanistan, in the closely linked theatre of Pakistan and across the whole world.
There is no doubt that winning this war has been hammered by past failures in the leadership of this country, not just failure to provide resources to the forces but a failure to keep the people of this country in support of the war. We have had a government which to me seemed to refuse to even admit that we are at war and undermined its own cause by seeking to justify an increasingly serious situation no with a single overarching objective for the fight but with many reasons such as counter narcotics, development, education, equal rights for women, we didn’t hear very often that we were fighting a war we need to win. The failure when leading British forces into the Helmand province is encapsulated by the Defence Secretary of the times utterly unrealistic claims that we would end the deployment without a single shot being fired. It was a hope that had no basis in reality. I also note it was not just his words but reflected much wider thinking at the time. It was exactly the same thinking as transmitted to our Forces at the Some in World War One when they were told to walk across to enemy lines.
On the ground now in Afghanistan the situation seems to be changing. We are putting into place the right tools and the right techniques, there is a significant increase in the number of troops in Afghanistan now, brought in of course by the previous government which is of course accompanied by a much larger increase in US troops. We have a strategy too which rightly focuses on protecting civilians and striking the Taliban to divide them. As the paper I am here to discuss explains, we can succeed in this conflict, but we do need to talk the language of success, the consequence of not talking the language of success is that the support of the British people for this conflict is ebbing away; we must maintain this support in order to win. And despite very considerable efforts, led by General Messenger, the man on the streets does still only see a seemingly endless stream of British Casualties coming back through Wooton Basset. We occasionally hear about irrigation systems implemented, schools built and hospitals caring for the sick, but we have no idea about the damage being done to our enemy in that theatre. It’s like going to a football match in Germany where our team are playing the Germans, and we hear a score line, that Germany has scored 3 goals, but we don’t hear our score. We just hear that hot dog takings have been at a record high and afterwards the WAGs went downtown and boosted the German Economy. The reality is that international Special Forces are operating on an industrial scale, they are operating against the Taliban together with ISAF conventional forces and an increasingly capable Afghan Army, and they are causing enormous damage to the Taliban. We have seen recent intelligence reports of fighters refusing to step up into positions after wave after wave of leaders have been killed, fearing that they will be next. It is surprising that in the last 90 days ISAF and Afghan forces have killed or captured over 365 insurgence leaders and over 2386 fighters in counter terrorist operations. This is obviously an estimate but is provided by reliable ISAF sources.
This matters as, like all societies, until you strip away the veneer of civilization, British people remain tribal in instinct and nowadays amongst most western nations our wars are fought much more commonly on the football field than the battle field and the tribal instinct which provokes such enormous emotions whenever England wins or looses at football, these same tribal instincts apply to the War in Afghanistan. By playing down our success and the prospects of victory, we work against the instincts of our people and demoralise them. I am not going to explain my view of what victory looks like in Afghanistan as it is identical to that set out in the report which i am sure the author will explain later.
If our leaders do not vigorously support our forces in battle, and persuade us that victory is not only possible but that we are going to achieve it our people will loose heart. They will decide we are not going to win, and their fears can quickly become a reality as they did for the Americans in Vietnam even though the US military was not being defeated in battle. Of course we don’t want to trample on the graves of our enemy and glory in their deaths. We should look at what’s happening, the damage being done and be mindful of the significant Muslim population here in the UK.
When it was recently announced that we will be withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2014 or would like to do so, Muslim youths in East London started to celebrate a victory for the Taliban over British forces. I was told this by local community youth leaders and the local police. This is the attitude we unfortunately can provoke with injudicious announcements of this sort. However, we must accept that timelines are a reality, the pace at which Afghan forces become ready to take over will vary throughout the nation. One of the first things we would like to transfer is the ground holding role, the infantry on the ground which is currently delivered by a partnership between ISAF and Afghan forces, this partnership (as in all areas) is important to the transition.
Clearly it is not just at home that the message is important but abroad, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan and in the world. We need to hear that Victory is possible, we are going to succeed and we are damaging the enemy. The people in Afghanistan and Pakistan need to understand that we are there until the job is done.
We have seen Al-Qaeda springing up in other areas like Yemen and Somalia, action is taking place, there and British and American forces and intelligence services working very hard, along with their respective governments of these countries to try to help them to deal with these problems. This is by far the most preferable way to deal with Al-Qaeda and other extremists wherever they spring up; by helping to enable the local forces to deal with it. But if this fails to work there may be a need for action of the type like we have seen in Afghanistan.
The coalition government has a fresh opportunity to provide stronger support to the war in Afghanistan. We have seen an element of this; we need now to be much more convinced by it in my opinion. We also need to se much ore strength of influence into this strategy that is being conducted in Afghanistan by NATO as a whole.
Garnering support both here and throughout the world through a strong message of victory is incredibly important. This report, which I have read with enormous interest, is a very important contribution to persuade not only the Government, but also the people that success in Afghanistan is achievable and must be achieved. Something I have often heard said in these hallowed halls and I would like to say today is that I commend this report to the house.
Tobias Ellwood MP
I was in Afghanistan 3 weeks ago myself, been visiting about every 6 months since 2005. The measures of success are very interesting, if you go to Wooton Basset or watch the media you would think we are loosing. There are casualties and losses, but I was able to visit Lashkar Gah on a recent trip, I came across an ice factory which you may think is insignificant but the fact it is now working means that all the farmers and producers up and down the valley are able to keep that produce cooler and make it last longer, travelling further distances. This is just one example of how society is moving forward there. There was employment; there was an airport and bus depot so trade was taking place with all over Afghanistan. It is very different to the footage you see in media reports. If you send a war correspondent to Afghanistan where do they want to go? They want to go to the front line, they want to see the bullets flying, and that’s their remit. So the image we get of Helmand province is distorted, we don’t see the success stories. You can see places that were the front line last year now being connected by tarmac roads so that economic trade can take place, the front line has moved on. There are obviously incidents, but the general perception in the UK does not understand this progress, they just see the war continuing.
Thank you for coming along today to listen to what we have to say on what I believe is without question the most important foreign policy issue confronting the United Kingdom at present.
I should say from the outset that it is my firm conviction that any attempt to appreciate the full significance of what is going on in Afghanistan at present will fail if viewed in isolation from the much broader, supra-regional phenomenon of which it is an intrinsic part.
In their publicly declared objective of overthrowing the existent government, expelling all Western influence from the country, and imposing their highly doctrinaire and retrograde interpretation of Sharia law upon the population, the Taliban are by no means unique. On the contrary, this is an objective that is shared by numerous like-mined organisations across Central and Southern Asia, Africa and the Middle East. All of these groups have in common a belief in Islam as not just a religion but as a comprehensive political ideology, and one that runs contrary to almost every basic human right that Western societies take for granted. The stoning of women, the execution of homosexuals and the amputation of limbs for even minor offences are all seen as legitimate and just by those who adhere to this philosophy.
Confronting and overcoming this threat is not just a humanitarian imperative, however, it is also strategic a one. Before the ousting of the Taliban from Kabul in October 2001, Afghanistan was the supreme manifestation of the lethal inter-relationship between an oppressive Islamist government whose principal focus was the subjugation of its people, and the fermenting of a broader terrorist threat with both the intent, and crucially the capability, to strike the West itself. As we all know, the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was a reaction to the realisation of this threat in the form of 9/11, and we remain in Afghanistan today to deny those who would attempt such an attack again the possibility of doing so.
It must be understood that what is taking place in Afghanistan at present is as much a psychological battle as a military one. Though there can be no doubting the strength of the insurgency in Afghanistan, the operational capabilities of al-Qaeda itself have been largely shattered. Al-Qaeda’s greatest strength is not so much as a force with any geo-political strength of its own but as an idea with the power to inspire others who do have the capability to do us harm. Osama bin-Laden’s central objective when attacking the United States on 11th September 2001 was not so much to strike a blow against America as an end in itself, but to demonstrate its vulnerability to Muslims around the world, and by extension the vulnerability of the supposedly client regimes that the United States supported across the Middle East and beyond. Bin-Laden’s central contention when he undertook this operation was that the great powers, though physically strong, are mentally weak, and that they can be both taken on and overcome by violent means, if resisted for long enough.
It is precisely this contention that gives the Taliban so much of its strength: the oft-quoted maxim of Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s spiritual leader that “you, the West, have the watches, but we have the time”. This belief, which is in very real danger of being proven correct, that the Western political class is pusillanimous, and that if sufficient numbers of casualties are inflicted, and resistance is carried on for long enough, then the public clamour for capitulation and withdrawal will inevitably be acceded to. Those who argue that the real threat to the United Kingdom and its allies is no longer in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen or elsewhere miss the fundamental point. The message cannot and must not be conveyed, either to Islamist extremists, or to others with a desire to challenge the West and its values, that violence is not only a desirable, but an effectual way to attain this objective.
Nonetheless, even the most ideologically committed organisation cannot attain its objectives through conviction alone: it is how to translate this conviction into reality that truly matters. The fact is, that neither the Taliban nor its allies can hope to attain their objectives in Afghanistan without the support, or at least the acquiescence, of the Afghan people. It is my firm contention that in every country or region in which they operate, extremist organisations constitute just a fraction of the population, and one that draws sustenance from an environment of insecurity and the disillusionment and anger of the population at large. To redress these grievances is to deprive organisations such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda of the oxygen they need to survive.
This is the central contention of my report. The people are the prize. Without their support neither the insurgency in Afghanistan, nor the government side, has any hope of victory.
Nine years on from the invasion of Afghanistan, it is clear that any strategy that seeks to eliminate the insurgency by military means alone will fail. In and of itself, the Taliban presents an insignificant military threat, and certainly not one that Western forces would have any difficulty eliminating quickly. Precise numbers are difficult to come by, but it is currently estimated that the Taliban has between 30-40,000 men under arms, in a country of just over 28 million people. Facing them are some 150,000 soldiers from some of the most advanced militaries on earth, supported by around 120,000 soldiers of the Afghan National Army. This provides a counterinsurgent to insurgent force ratio of 7:1 even before the vast disparities in weaponry and training are taken into account. And yet the Taliban have not been defeated, and stability has not been brought to Afghanistan.
This is because, as I argue in my report, until recently, too much attention has been given to the mere elimination of insurgents in this campaign, with not enough attention paid to the elimination of the conditions that give rise to, and sustain such insurgents in the first place. Does this contention then, lend itself to an argument that we need fewer troops in Afghanistan? Sadly not. On the contrary; it is precisely because we have – until recently – had too few troops in Afghanistan that we are left with the problems we face today. So how do we square this circle? First, we need to ask ourselves what is required to deprive the insurgency in Afghanistan of the support of the people, and then to ask what is required to bring this about.
There are, I believe, three fundamental conditions that the Afghan government and its coalition partners must put in place if they are to ever win the support of the people in Afghanistan. First, they need to persuade the people that they can win. There aren’t many backers for a losing side, particularly not in a country such as Afghanistan, when the opponents are the Taliban. Second, the Afghan people must be confident that the government side can put in place the requisite security framework to protect them from Taliban reprisals if they do decide to support the government in the interim. Third, the government and its international partners must be capable of providing tangible improvements to quality of life. Central to this is that the government itself adheres to the rule of law.
In no country on earth are the majority of people wedded to brutal and extremist solutions come what may. Indeed, the evidence from Afghanistan is that the Taliban enjoy the genuine support of barely five per cent of the people. The reason that this has not in turn translated into a full rejection of the Taliban is because the government side has hitherto proved itself largely incapable of providing the Afghan people with the security they need to be confident of supporting the government, or of providing the requisite economic and infrastructure improvements to persuade the people that the government and its regional authorities are in a position to offer something better
The other serious problem, of course, is that the Afghan people are anything but certain that the international coalition upon which the Afghan government depends at present is committed to seeing this process through. It must be understood that in a counterinsurgency such as we have in Afghanistan, perception is everything. This is why talk of withdrawal from Afghanistan, irrespective of conditions on the ground, are so enormously dangerous. Statements such as those made by David Cameron recently that “we can’t be in Afghanistan for another five years, having been there for nine already” may be primarily intended to placate sceptical domestic audiences, and may indeed be borne of genuine conviction, but they have the added consequence of conveying the message loud and clear to the Afghan people that we are not committed to seeing this process through. This, ironically, makes the counterinsurgent’s job much harder than it otherwise may have been. The lesson of counterinsurgency conflicts from Malaya to Iraq has been that where governments seek easy victories and a swift withdrawal they will get neither. Far better to commit to the long haul, the result of which may be better progress and a swifter withdrawal than was anticipated. The Afghan people hear the talk of withdrawal and they won’t support us now if we are telling them loud and clear we are just going to abandon them later.
Having ascertained what is required to succeed, we can then assess what is required to bring this success about. The undeniable fact is that counterinsurgency conflict is undeniably resource intensive, at least in the short term. In the long-term, however, it is actually more resource efficient, since it offers the possibility of success, as opposed to the pervious strategy, which was pouring too few resources into a conflict without achieving tangible progress.
The reason that counterinsurgency is so resource intensive is because it makes securing population centres, as opposed to merely targeted limited enemy forces, its primary objective. This distinguishes it from more conventional warfare, where the enemy is targeted in an area, seemingly eliminated, and allowing operations to move swiftly on to another area. Here the emphasis is on ensuring that the enemy doesn’t come back. That is, sufficient numbers of military forces must be deployed into an area such that the insurgents are denied access to the population in that area, in turn allowing vital reconstruction and development work to take place. Commonly known as ‘Clear, Hold, Build’ this forms the basis of counterinsurgency strategy, and this is precisely what is now being attempted by ISAF and Afghan forces in Afghanistan at present. This distinguishes it fundamentally from the course of operations between 2001-2009, where the combination of a strategy – particularly in the early phase of the conflict -that concerned itself primarily with seeking out and destroying the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and insufficient resources to protect the population when the strategy did finally evolve in this direction, made winning the support of the population a near impossibility.
It is also right that the current strategy is placing a strong emphasis on close interaction with the population and cooperation with the Afghan Security Forces, though this strategy has proved unpopular with some media commentators, since it seemingly increases the likelihood of incurring casualties. However, I believe this approach to be the correct one for a number of reasons, the two principal ones being that first, it is imperative that the Afghan people come to know and trust Coalition forces not just as agents that bring violence and destruction with them every time they appear, but as a human force that brings stability, and which ordinary people can come to know and trust. The second main reason why this is important is because no campaign of this nature can hope to succeed without good intelligence. Without it, distinguishing between civilians and insurgents is almost impossible before the moment the latter open fire.
I am conscious of time here – not unlike the British government in Afghanistan it has to be said – so I will offer just a couple of points on the imperative of good governance. Without it, persuading the people that the government will operate in their best interests becomes immeasurably more difficult. Corrupt government is unrepresentative, inefficient, often abusive and precisely the last thing that is needed if the support of the Afghan people is ever to be won. Power-politics may serve President Karzai well in the short-term, but in the long term this is no way to build a functioning government, and the international community must do all in its power to ensure that the mechanisms are put in place in Afghanistan to ensure that the Afghan government and its regional authorities operate within the rule of law.
It is imperative that we have good governance, if the government doesn’t act within the rule of law it is incredibly difficult to get the people to either. The Afghan people are by nature no more corrupt than anyone else in the world. One of the things we are doing now is to resource the reconstruction programme properly. We had a situation where part of police training was to be given a gun and stuck on a checkpoint with no pay. We then wondered why it was they then extort money from everyone else, just to earn a living. These are real tangible things we can do. Unless we deal with corruption we will have a really difficulty to succeed here
I would like to conclude on a positive note regarding the composition and motivations of the insurgency itself in Afghanistan. Though it is undoubtedly the case that a small, and what I would argue to be pretty well irreconcilable hardcore of extremists exists within the insurgency – who form the backbone of the threats of which I have been talking – the fact is that as a whole, the insurgency in Afghanistan is very far from being the homogenous entity it is often portrayed as being, either motivationally or operationally. Indeed, it is not just the civilian population whose support can be won or lost according to Afghanistan’s security and economic environment. Within the insurgency itself, there exists a very large contingent for whom economic and security considerations are just as important as ideological ones as reasons for fighting. When the Taliban leadership proclaims that its insurgents fight not out of any desire to “accumulate wealth or other mundane goals… [rather] the objective of the Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate is more lofty and exalted than that the rulers of the White House could imagine” they are presenting to the world only the insurgency’s public cause, but not what lies behind it. The reality is that anywhere between 80-90 per cent of insurgents presently fighting in Afghanistan are doing so because of grievances over poverty, unemployment, lack of educational opportunities and resentment at the corruption and failings of extant authorities. The Afghan government and its Coalition partners cannot bring the kind of seventh century Islamist tyranny to Afghanistan that Mullah Omar wants put in place, but it can bring the kind of development and security necessary to convince these insurgents that fighting the government is not the only satisfactory way to earn a living and bring about change. This is precisely what is being attempted in Afghanistan at present; I believe it can work; I believe it must work, and this is why I would urge that this campaign is given all the support it needs.
Tobias Ellwood MP
It is great to hear about potential success in Afghanistan on a day when there is an all-parliamentary group being set up called something like “get the troops out of Afghanistan” In other words to turn our back and give up on it. There is a changing command in Helmand and Kandahar, there is a “Clear-hold-build” mantra which is used, we move in there, bring security; do something positive to win over the hearts and minds. Allowing the locals to then take control of their own destiny and we can go home. This actually happened in World War Two, as the battle lines moved forward, as villages, hamlets and towns were liberated we would drop off an English police man who would go and find the local mayor or whoever was the most senior person around and work with them to get the place going. The Line would then move forward. It was the policeman and mayor who would then have to get the bread shop open, get the employment back, get the school we painted to teach children. It happened 24-48 hours after the front line pushed through. My worry is that the question posed to General Gordon Messenger is that we have taken too long to appreciate the skill sets that we had and that perhaps the international community are being slow to make the changes that are important to win over the hearts and minds before the enemy is able to re-group.
Major General Gordon Messenger
We now have a strategy and operational concept on the ground which is working and has been proved to work. It is a strategy which sees the military operating with the spread of afghan governance and the spread of economic opportunities. Where we find ourselves now is perhaps a different place to where we were early on in our engagement in this sense. I would accept that we find ourselves here as we have learnt lessons from mistakes.
We have a structure which sees hot on the heels of military operations the arrival of an Afghan Government representative within an area within 48 hours of that area being cleared by the security forces, both Afghan and international. Having that competent Afghan official in that area, appointed by the Afghan government, not put in place as a puppet by us, initially as a bit of a signal to provide an essential willingness to engage with the community once the security forces have moved on. Very quickly built on to this individual is a representative community council whereby all those villages, various ethnicities and groups within that community appoint someone who acts on their behalf. They form a representative council and again it is through this that the area is governed, not through a puppet or an artificial construct by the west, and only when this is in place do we start to channel development and aid into an area and it is through this representative council that we do it. I accept that in the past perhaps we have been too ready to try and give the Afghans what we thought they want, rather than dealing with a representative group and providing them with what they want. I think we have learnt lessons from that. So this sequential model works. It works over time. I’m not saying that you need perfect security before w put in perfect governance and before you start channelling money in. What I am saying is that before you start providing economic development opportunities you must have basic afghan governance through which to do it and give credit to that authority so that the community feel that they are gaining advantage through having a legitimate afghan government. Before you try to provide that afghan government you must give them a chance to actually feel they can go about their job. This is a model which is now widely applied and has been now for some 18 months. Where this has been applied we can see some real progress and some real green shoots of not just good security but also the economic development which flows from good security. Lashkar Gah is a good example and there are many others in Helmand. Let’s not forget that Hellmand is one of the more troubled areas of Afghanistan and there are other areas where you see this more advanced.
We have not succeeded in Afghanistan as Al-Qaeda who we went there to destroy have not been eliminated, they have simply dispersed, and we must create an environment which they can’t come back in to. Al-Qaeda has not been dismantled, they were thrown out of Afghanistan, many went to Pakistan and Iran. They have been hit in Pakistan recently but they are still there. There are also franchises of Al-Qaeda around the globe. They have an intention to get back in to Afghanistan, if we allow the Taliban to get back in control of Afghanistan then Al-Qaeda will be back there with them. If you cross the border in to Pakistan there is a Taliban ran authority which rules over millions of people which hosts what remains of Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, they are just waiting to get back into the fertile operating centre which is Afghanistan.
Narcotics are a major revenue stream for insurgents, especially in areas where poppy growth is very high. As an ISAF force we are not thee to irradiate the growth of poppies. This is something the Afghan forces should do; the government has had success with falling growth and cultivation of poppies. But it is still a major revenue stream for Tour enemies. We can and we do target drug producers and traffickers when there is evidential proof that the profits from the trade are going to the insurgency. We work v closely with the afghan authorities and specifically the increasingly able afghan counter narcotics agency to capture the larger players in this trade. It has led to two convictions in the afghan court.
What I am not saying is that it is all optimism and it’s a free run from here, but that the model we have employed has been proved to work, with the surge that has come in principally from American forces, we now have the resources to provide security required and what now we need is the time as these things do not happen over night. If you are looking at tackling the allegiances of occupation, countering the gravitational pull of the Taliban within communities, these things are not going to happen overnight. The communities need to be assured that you are there to stay and that you are not going to cut and run. This is a principal I certainly commend.
Tobias Ellwood MP
On the question of what success in Afghanistan is and the date of 2015, The mention of 2015 and 2011 by the US is not that everyone will be packing up their bags on that date, but that a review must take place. If troops still have to be there after 2015 then there are obviously some serious questions to be asked. It is dependent on the Afghan capability to manage their own affairs far more than what the international community can do. Personally I believe we are getting to a tipping point, the people on the ground who I talk to are less concerned about the Taliban now, but more so about the competency of the Afghan forces to whom we hand over. The Afghans need to up their own game and the set date should make them do this.
To make it clear we won’t be disappearing out of Afghanistan, just like the Americans haven’t disappeared out of Iraq. There will be a support mechanism, probably special forces, with training still taking place and the ability to nurture a country which is very much still on its knees.