x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Afghan battle exposes US vulnerabilities

As Washington deliberates on a new Afghan war strategy, a major Taliban assault on a remote US outpost close to the Pakistani border has resulted in the highest death toll of American soldiers in a single incident for over a year. The US military commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, is pressing for the implementation of a strategy aimed at avoiding precisely the kind of attacks that took place on Saturday.

As the US president Barack Obama deliberates on a new Afghan war strategy, a major Taliban assault on a remote US outpost close to the Pakistani border has resulted in the highest death toll of American soldiers in a single incident for over a year. "US commanders had been planning since late last year to abandon the small combat outpost in mountainous eastern Afghanistan where eight US soldiers died Saturday in a fierce insurgent assault," The Washington Post reported. "The pullout, part of a strategy of withdrawing from sparsely populated areas where the United States lacks the troops to expel Taliban forces and to support the local Afghan government, has been repeatedly delayed by a shortage of cargo helicopters, Afghan politics and military bureaucracy, US military officials said. "The attack began in the early morning hours. Taliban-linked militiamen struck from the high ground using rifles, grenades and rockets against the outpost, a cluster of stone buildings set in a small Hindu Kush valley that has been manned by 140 US and Afghan forces. By the end of a day-long siege, eight Americans and two Afghan security officers were dead, marking the highest toll for US forces in over a year." The Los Angeles Times said: "The toll was the highest in a single incident for American forces in Afghanistan since nine US soldiers died in a strikingly similar insurgent assault 15 months ago on an outpost in the same northeastern province, Nuristan. "Military officials describe the attack on the jointly run US-Afghan outposts in the Kamdesh district as a tightly coordinated onslaught by hundreds of insurgents. "The assault was ultimately repulsed, but only after the outnumbered Americans hammered the militants with airstrikes by warplanes and attack helicopters. "An unspecified number of US soldiers were injured in the attack, and police and provincial officials said up to a dozen Afghan troops were missing and feared captured." The US military commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, is pressing for the implementation of a strategy aimed at avoiding precisely the kind of attacks that took place on Saturday. As The Christian Science Monitor reported: "Beyond the request for more resources that has engrossed America, McChrystal's battlefield assessment proposes deploying American troops in a profoundly different way. "Rather than sending them to the farthest-flung corners of a far-flung nation to hunt down scores of militants hiding in remote mountain caves, it intends to protect the Afghan population first, giving the most Afghans the greatest opportunity of establishing something approaching a safe and normal life. "Fourth of McChrystal's 'four fundamental pillars' for a new strategy is: 'prioritise available resources to those critical areas where the population is most threatened.' " The New York Times reported: "Defense Secretary Robert M Gates appeared to subtly rebuke America's top commander in Afghanistan on Monday for publicly speaking out against calls for scaling back the war effort there. " 'I believe the decisions that the president will make for the next stage of the Afghanistan campaign will be among the most important of his presidency, so it is important that we take our time to do all we can to get this right,' Mr Gates said at a gathering here. " 'And in this process,' Mr Gates went on, 'it is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations - civilians and military alike - provide our best advice to the president candidly but privately.' " 'And speaking for the department of defense," Mr Gates said, 'once the commander in chief makes his decisions, we will salute and execute those decisions faithfully and to the best of our ability.' "The secretary's remarks seemed to be fallout from Gen Stanley A McChrystal's speech last week in London, in which the general rejected suggestions for limiting the campaign against the Taliban and focusing more on hunting down al Qa'eda members." In The Guardian, Akbar Ahmed, a former High Commissioner from Pakistan to the UK, wrote: "McChrystal has inherited a war with confused objectives and therefore a confused strategy. The Afghan war, we are told, is about defeating the Taliban and al Qa'eda, about rebuilding the nation so that it can provide no base or haven for militant groups hostile to the west. In truth, however, al Qa'eda are marginal if nonexistent in Afghanistan; the Taliban are from the Pashtun tribes and will not be defeated on their home territory. Not all Pashtun are Taliban, but virtually all Taliban are Pashtun. The stated military objectives are therefore doomed. "So, too, are the efforts at nation-building. To date this has put emphasis on pumping millions of dollars into building an Afghan army and police. Because of the highly tribal nature of Afghan society, however, the domination of these institutions by non-Pashtuns leads to inevitable accusations of bias. Moreover, security forces are only trained to react to immediate security threats, rather than providing the foundations of law and justice to all that is essential to a strong society. For decades the Afghan people have been routinely confronted by men with guns - be they Soviet, western or Taliban. They want nothing more desperately than peace, stability and security in their lives. "What then should the objective be for this war? The aim needs to be to build an administrative and judicial infrastructure that will deliver security and stability to the population and, as a result, marginalise the Taliban. Simultaneously, it can create the foundations for a modern nation. "The task is difficult, but not impossible. Excellent training complexes and facilities exist in Lahore in neighbouring Pakistan. Until the Afghans have their own structures in place, their future administrators and judges can be trained quickly and proficiently in Pakistan. "Finally, free and fair elections must be held. On this there can be no compromise. The recent shambolic elections that have reconfirmed Hamid Karzai as president have also convinced Afghans that democracy is a flawed system, that perhaps their own tribal ways may be better after all. The sacking of UN envoy Peter Galbraith had all the hallmarks of an international cover-up. "The US and its Nato partners should take McChrystal very seriously and give him the troops he seeks. However, there is little point in doing so unless they also give him a new direction: victory will be unachievable without a change in objectives and strategy. Otherwise, in the near future, the US effort in Afghanistan may find itself in the graveyard of history alongside the British and the Soviets." In The New York Times, James Traub noted: "Over the next few weeks, Barack Obama must make the most difficult decision of his presidency to date: whether or not to send up to 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan, as his commanding general there, Gen Stanley A McChrystal, has reportedly proposed. "This summer, Mr Obama described the effort in Afghanistan as 'a war of necessity'. In such a war, you do whatever you need to do to win. But now, as criticism mounts from those who argue that the war in Afghanistan cannot, in fact, be won with more troops and a better strategy, the president is having second thoughts. "A war of necessity is presumably one that is 'fundamental to the defense of our people,' as Mr Obama has said about Afghanistan. But if such a war is unwinnable, then perhaps you must reconsider your sense of its necessity and choose a more modest policy instead. "The conservative pundit George Will suggested as much in a recent column in which he argued for a reduced, rather than enhanced, American presence in Afghanistan. Mr Will cited the testimony of George Kennan, the diplomat and scholar, to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Vietnam in 1966: 'Our country should not be asked, and should not ask of itself, to shoulder the main burden of determining the political realities in any other country. ... This is not only not our business, but I don't think we can do it successfully.' "Mr Kennan's astringent counsel has become piercingly relevant today, as Americans discover, time and again, their inability to shape the world as they would wish."

pwoodward@thenational.ae