Small Wars Journal

This Week at War, No. 25

Here is the latest edition of my column at Foreign Policy.

Why the Taliban are watching the polls in Britain

July has been a bloody month for British forces in Afghanistan and policymakers in London are now feeling the consequences. Fifteen British soldiers died this month, including eight within one 24-hour period. British deaths in Afghanistan, 184 since 2001, now exceed their toll from Iraq. According to the Washington Post, the departure of soldier's coffins from an air base near London previously went unnoticed. Now hundreds, sometimes thousands line the streets in the small town of Wootton Bassett to observe the processions.

Although 4,000 U.S. Marines entered the Taliban's heartland in southern Helmand province at the beginning of this month, the Taliban seem to be largely bypassing the Americans to focus on the British contingent in the center and north of the province. This should not be a surprise. Public dissatisfaction with the war is growing in Britain and prime Minister Gordon Brown's unpopular Labour government is facing a general election by June 2010. Taliban strategists likely believe they have a chance to drive the British from the field.

If media hits in the British press concerning the situation in Afghanistan is a "metric of success" for Taliban strategists, they should feel pleased that the battle is going their way. On July12th, Small Wars Journal rounded up 18 news, video, or opinion pieces on Afghanistan, all published in the British press within a two-day period.

The issue for the Labour Party is whether it is going to defend a manpower-intensive counterinsurgency and stabilization campaign in Afghanistan during the general election campaign. The opposition Conservative Party's tactic is to harshly criticize the government's competency and its "too lofty" mission objectives. Labour will have to either argue for the status quo or agree to downgrade the mission in Afghanistan and cut back the British army's actions against the Taliban.

The Taliban likely are likely thinking about Canada's experience in Kandahar province. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservative Party, inherited the Afghan war from the previous Liberal Party government. As the war grew more unpopular and the 2008 general election loomed, Harper was un—to argue for an open-ended military commitment. The Liberals were similarly un—to defend their decision to commit Canada to the war in 2001. Prior to the October 2008 general election, the two parties agreed on a common policy to end Canada's military mission in Afghanistan by 2011. This decision succeeded in eliminating the war as a campaign issue, but it also supported the Taliban's war objectives.

Will Gordon Brown and his Conservative opponent David Cameron, be similarly tempted by the "Canada Option"? Should Taliban pressure on British soldiers remain, Brown would surely want the Afghan problem to go away. Cameron may also have no interest in defending the war in a general election and may feel he enjoys a sufficient advantage on other issues.

I am not questioning the bravery or skill of Britain's and Canada's soldiers. For almost eight years they have sustained grievous casualties and still go out on patrol. Nor is this a criticism of politicians or voters who in the end will respond to the circumstances they face.

Rather it is a description of the difficulties modern democracies face in fighting painful irregular wars. It is also an illustration of why these democracies need some new doctrines for irregular warfare -- the Taliban are showing how to blow up the current ones.

Adaptation means learning how to learn

In the latest edition of Armed Forces Journal, Frank Hoffman, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, discusses four schools of thought for organizing U.S. military ground forces. Pentagon planners will have to make decisions about weapons purchases, basing, training programs, and doctrine based on the kind of world they anticipate. Implied is the assumption that it would require a long time and much expense for ground forces to adapt to a situation planners did not anticipate. But is this assumption correct?

Hoffman describes the four schools of thought:

Counterinsurgents, who emphasize the high likelihood and rising salience of irregular adversaries.

Traditionalists, who place their focus on states presenting conventional threats.

Utility Infielders, who balance risk by striving to create forces agile enough to cover the full spectrum of conflict.

Division of Labor, who balance risk differently by specializing forces to cover different missions to enhance readiness.

Pentagon planners will likely focus on the third and fourth options as the two alternatives that most minimize risk. But the two options attempt to cover the full range of threats in two different ways. The Utility Infielder option takes a "jack of all trades, master of none" approach, the risk being that partially-prepared U.S. ground forces might fare badly against a competent adversary. The Division of Labor option creates a few military units specialized for each point on the spectrum of conflict, but risks having those few specialists overwhelmed and abandoned by colleagues thoroughly trained for unneeded tasks.

Is there a way out of this dilemma? General Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, discussed the solution at Small Wars Journal. In his essay, "Training Full Spectrum -- Less is More", Chiarelli affirms that there is not enough time for a ground combat unit to fully prepare for every possible contingency. Since forecasts about the future operating environment will almost surely be wrong, U.S. ground forces will have to adapt.

Chiarelli observed during his career that adaptation is rapid for soldiers and units that have learned how to learn. The best way to do that, Chiarelli discovered, it to learn to do a few things to a very high standard, rather than many things to a mediocre standard. Chiarelli concludes that in the process of learning to do a few things very well, people and organizations acquire processes and habits that allow them to acquire new skills at a rapid rate.

Chiarelli's conclusion would point to the Division of Labor option. Yet the Army and Marine Corps have been reluctant to create truly specialized units within their general-purpose forces; this has been deemed operationally risky and bad for institutional culture. The default option remains the Utility Infielder approach.

Few question the need for rapidly adaptable forces. But what if the method for achieving adaptability overturns the services' long-standing cultures and traditions? That will be a test of the leadership's adaptability.



Sat, 07/18/2009 - 10:10am


The current public and political debate over the UK's role in Afghanistan reflects the longstanding opposition to the policy, not the soldiers. Yes, the losses have been the catalyst. So has the USMC operation just to the south of the UK campaigning - with apparently fewer casualties.

The UK role in Helmand has appalling explained by the government before now. What are we doing, is it worth it and what national interests are involved.

A few weeks ago the Whitehall-Westminster coalition were all gloomy about the potential impact on the cherished 'special relationship' and sometimes that is still mentioned in press articles. That is not the argument the public will accept now; for a variety of local reasons the 'relationship' is no longer highly regarded and is under strain.

Even this morning on BBC Radio 4 two politicians were asked why. One of them, Patrick Mercer, Tory ex-soldier, mentioned the importance of Pakistan to UK national security and the impact of a retreat from Helmand. Explaining the role of Pakistan in UK national security is not made loud enough here.

The press and politicians have focussed on the lack of helicopters, that is one of many equipment issues. Yes, it is a scandal that so few are in theatre for so many who need them.

Jack R (not verified)

Thu, 07/23/2009 - 1:10pm

Why are our boys fighting, dying, coming home crippled and suffering mental scars, which eventually can cause many, to commit suicide?

Firstly, we are told that they do and die to keep us safe, heroes one and all, but if we dont believe its quite that simple there is the likes of Patrick Mercer ready and willing to frighten the pants off the public with his ace in the hole: " Unless we can control this threat, there is a real possibility of Pakistan's collapse, with nuclear weapons falling into the hands of our enemies". Correct me if Im wrong but havent American agencies accuse Pakistan of working to stop Afghan reconstruction and doesnt most of the Taliban come from Pakistan and isnt it true that the Pakistani military has long-standing ties to the Taliban?

The Malakand District of Pakistan is to introduce Sharia law as state law and the Taliban have effectively taken a legal foothold in Pakistan regardless of the war in Afghanistan. Now what country are we wasting millions of taxpayers money and our youngsters are putting their lives on the line to help? Well, its The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Religiously, Afghans are largely Muslims so what kind of democracy will the Afghan Muslims tolerate?

After eight years in The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan we are told by Major Miller who serves in the Defence Intelligence Staff that the war in Afghanistan has been a "failure" and that the chief "effect" of the British presence in Helmand has been to transform Helmand into the opium centre of the world. With hundreds of millions of taxpayers money wasted.

With plans to borrow another £700 billion over the next five years Britain's national debt will reach £1.4 trillion and with hard times ahead we can ill afford to spend much needed taxpayers money on futile war largely for the good of an Islamic country and the American pipeline agenda that cannot be fulfilled until the Taliban have been defeated.

The enemy that we ought to be worried about is the enemy already within the UK, devout Muslims, also with 85 or more Islamic sharia courts operating in Britain Islam law apparently supersedes British law. England is becoming subservient to the Muslim way of life.

We live in a Christian country where a school removes the words Christmas and Easter from their calendar so as not to offend Muslims.
A country where a primary school cancels a Christmas nativity play because it interfered with an Islamic festival and where a teacher punishes two students for refusing to pray to Allah as part of their religious education class. A country whose capitol is called Londonistan to describe its Islamist swamp.

Bring our boys home, we are not "safe" or made any the safer by their presence in The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Its Vietnam all over again.