Operation Moshtarak: Going Nowhere

By Chris McCarthy

In Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’, a revered treatise on military strategy written in the 6th century BC, there is a proverb which still resonates today: ‘If you know both yourself and your enemy, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss’.

With Allied forces recently launching a major offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Operation Moshtarak, do we have reason to be positive that this mission will be more successful than its previous incarnations; have we finally understood the ‘enemy’?

Since Operation Enduring Freedom began in October 2001 the language of success and failure has monopolised the market for discussion of the war. The Sunday Times recently remarked that if all goes well the latest offensive could ‘mark the beginning of the end of the insurgency’.

This paradigm of winning or losing fundamentally misunderstands the Afghan conflict and what we can hope to accomplish. There will be no grandstand finale, no declaration of total surrender or cordial signing of treaties to end the fighting. Media reporting to the contrary offers false hope and a path to disillusionment.

General Sir David Richards, Chief of the General Staff, commented in an interview in August last year that Britain’s mission in Afghanistan could last up to 40 years. His remarks were hijacked by some to support arguments for immediate or sharp withdrawal. Liam Fox, the Shadow Defence Secretary, retorted at the time that such a commitment was unaffordable. This response misunderstands the General’s comments.

Sir Richards was making the case for a significantly reduced force – much like that which remains in Cyprus today 30 years after the Turkish invasion of the island – to support the political process, infrastructure projects, the provision of aid, and so forth. As unpalatable as the General’s prognosis might be, it is one of the most sensible things to have been said about the Afghan conflict by anyone involved.

There is a much clearer thread of logic behind the purpose of Operation Moshtarak than what we have seen in the preceding eight years. We have moved on from just ‘killing terrorists’, as Michael Williams recently described it in The Guardian. The endgame is now visible on the distant horizon. We have what banks lending capital to new enterprises refer to as an ‘exit plan’. That it has finally come, so despairingly late, is little comfort to the families of dead Allied soldiers and Afghans alike.

Furthermore, it is a reflection on the haphazard planning of the Afghan mission since its inception that our primary goal is now the responsible withdrawal of our troops in the short to medium term. The invasion of Afghanistan was a rushed response to the atrocities of 9/11. It was poorly planned and predicated on the paramount importance of capturing Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts.

Since then we have endured a litany of supposed reasons to justify our continued presence. The latest – and thus far most enduring – posits that by removing the Taliban and providing security for the nascent Afghan political institutions to take root we are denying a training ground to potential terrorists. We are being proactive in the security of our citizens, the Government dutifully chants.

The July 7 bombings were carried out by four individuals of Pakistani and Jamaican descent raised and educated in Leeds and the surrounding area. And those convicted of the attempted bomb attacks on July 25 2005 were of Eritrean, Somalian, and Ghanaian heritage. The July 7 bombers explicitly cited the British Government’s involvement in the Iraq War as justification for their actions.

The fight for our security is not to be had in the dusty dunes of Marjah. Those who choose to travel to Afghanistan to receive training have already been radicalised elsewhere. Far from being a preventative force our continued presence is a source of resentment to Afghans and the Middle East as a whole.

Winston Churchill was a war reporter for the Daily Telegraph in Afghanistan in 1897. His final correspondence proved alarmingly prescient: “Never return to fight again in Afghanistan or the whole Muslim world will turn against the British.”

It’s not a case of the war being unaffordable or obscenely expensive, but of a misallocation of resources. Why and where are young Muslims being radicalised? How can we identify them sooner and effectively tackle their potentially malign intentions? These are the questions to which we should be devoting our efforts towards understanding and answering.

Conventional warfare is a dated concept held by those desperately longing for a return to the days when the bad guys wore one colour of uniform and the good guys another. We need to refocus our efforts where they can be most effective in preventing the cancerous growth of radicalism. Operation Moshtarak can only bring success of a limited nature because ultimately it is looking in the wrong place.


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