There is a fascinating article in the German magazine Der Spiegel that explains much of what is going wrong in Afghanistan.
As part of the NATO contribution the German army sent a contingent of troops to northern Afghanistan. Ever since the British and Americans have criticised the Germans for their “passive” behaviour, their reluctance to close with the enemy, their point blank refusal to undertake “search and destroy” missions to “root out” the Taliban in the villages in their area and their general policy of live and let live. This criticism has been accompanied by a series of mocking articles in the British and American press ridiculing the German troops for being cowardly, pampered, overfed and overweight. In reality the German policy, the diametric opposite of the aggressive tactics pursued by the British in Helmand, has meant that their area of Afghanistan has been largely peaceful. Relations with the locals have been relaxed and German casualties have been very low.
All that has now changed following the deployment of US Special Forces in the area. Without the knowledge or consent of the Germans these Forces have engaged in a policy of “kill or capture” targeted at local people identified as Taliban leaders. In practise as the article in Der Spiegel makes clear, there is a great deal of “kill” and almost no “capture”. Scores of people have been murdered in this way, some of them doubtless Taliban sympathisers and some possibly not.
The totally predictable consequence of this murderous policy has been to inflame the local people and to turn them against NATO. The totally predictable consequence of that is that they are now joining the Taliban in large numbers and are turning their guns against NATO. Since the US Special Forces that carry out these murders rarely stay in the area for very long the target of their attacks are the German troops. The result is a sudden rise in attacks on the Germans with a sharp increase in the number of Germans who are getting killed. Meanwhile a formerly peaceful area of the country is descending into chaos and violence and filling up with insurgents. The article in Der Spiegel was full of alarm at the spread of “hate” and the seemingly “unending flow of insurgents” in an area where there had been little of either.
Some years ago at an earlier stage in this conflict I watched a television documentary that followed a British army unit as it advanced into an “enemy” village. I was immensely impressed by the calm display of courage by the officer and by the discipline and professionalism of the men under his command. I was however completely unable to understand the point of the whole exercise. What did possession of one village more or less matter against the larger aims of the war, whatever those are? What was the point of putting the lives of the British soldiers at risk and of bringing death and destruction to the village when it was obvious that it would have to be abandoned anyway soon after it was captured?. There will never be enough troops to occupy every village and hamlet in Afghanistan so the temporary capture of one village was totally without significance.
There was some attempt to rationalise the policy on the basis that by driving the Taliban out of the village an opportunity would be given to the local people to defend it from the Taliban. The trouble was that it was absolutely clear to me that the “Taliban” who the British soldiers were fighting in the village were the local people of the village who were defending the village and their homes and families from soldiers they obviously saw as invaders. Whether they had been “Taliban” in any political or ideological sense before the British attacked their village was a moot point but there was no doubt that following the attack that was what they had become.
In other words the capture of the village did not represent its “liberation” from the Taliban. Rather it represented a further stage in the extension of the war. Not surprisingly given these tactics Helmand, which had been a largely peaceful province before the British came, is now a centre of the insurgency.
Judging from the article in Der Spiegel it seems that the politics of the so called Surge are to extend this mistaken policy to every corner of Afghanistan and to do so moreover in an even more violent and aggressive way. The article in Der Spiegel shows how this sows the dragon’s teeth. In pursuit of our elusive victory we take death and destruction to places where before our coming there was none of either. When the situation becomes critical we will withdraw and it will be the local people who as always will pay the price.