Saturday, November 28, 2009

Afghanistan: Neither surges nor body counts determine the course of a campaign

By B Raman See also:

President Barack Obama is expected to announce on December 1,2009, a mid-course correction in his strategy to win the campaign against the Taliban in the Af-Pak region. One has been promised a comprehensive strategy which would focus equally on the military and non-military components of the fight with the objective of winning it in a foreseeable time-frame.

2. The campaign, launched in October,2001, by the previous Administration of George Bush under the code-name Operation Enduring Freedom, has already lasted eight years. No end is in sight. In the meanwhile, there are indications of a growing fatigue in public opinion over a campaign that seems to be leading nowhere.

3. Battle fatigue of the NATO forces is what the Taliban and Al Qaeda want. There are signs in plenty of such fatigue. The fatigue is presently confined to sections of the civil society. If it spreads to the security forces, the campaign will be unwinnable.

4. While Obama has promised a comprehensive strategy and is taking his time to formulate it without being hustled by critics and detractors, much of the discussion and speculation in the US is focussed on one aspect---- the likely surge in the troop strength.

5. If a surge alone can win the campaign, a decision ought to be easy.Unfortunately, neither surges nor body counts determine the course of a campaign and its ultimate outcome. Without better tactics and better understanding of the adversary's tactics, no war or military campaign can be won whatever be the number of troops at one's disposal.

6. The question of the appropriateness of the tactics currently followed by the US troops in the Af-Pak region has hardly figured in the various reports submitted by the US military commanders on the ground to the Pentagon and in the discussions preceding a decision by the President.

7. While the Taliban in Afghanistan has been following a variable modus operandi in respect of its terrorist attacks through suicide bombers, its MO in relation to its insurgent attacks has shown hardly any variation. The MO of its insurgent attacks can be described as follows: avoid a frontal confrontation with a superior enemy on the offensive, withdraw, bide your time, regroup and attack by surprise. Territorial control is an objective of only variable importance. Where territorial control could mean large casualties and a large commitment of insurgent forces to safeguard territorial control, there is no hesitation in abandoning it.

8. This a much tried and often successful MO of many insurgent organisations from the days of the Vietcong in Vietnam and the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet troops. The US troops have been countering this MO in the same way as they did in Vietnam and the Soviet troops did in Afghanistan.

9. Is there an unconventional response to the conventional insurgent tactics of the Taliban in Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan? How to create battle fatigue in the Taliban and Al Qaeda? How to deny them sanctuaries and opportunities for re-grouping? What will be more effective---a large number of troops with advantages of numbers and better equipment centrally commanded and controlled or a large number of small groups of special forces such as the Green Berets operating autonomously of each other and enjoying operational flexibility? How to modify the current centralised command and control to suit such operational autonomy and flexibility?

10. To win the campaign against the Taliban in its territory where the US forces are strangers, the surprise element is important. The frequent Drone strikes from the air provide one such surprise element which has been effective time and again, but there is hardly any surprise element on the ground because of the continuing emphasis on large forces fighting set-piece battles.

11. The Af-Pak region is not the place for set-piece, predictable battle tactics. What is required is battle tactics of growing unpredictability to the Taliban that will confuse it, impose on it a high rate of attrition and ultimately lead to battle fatigue in its ranks.

12. One cannot expect Obama and his advisers to discuss battle tactics in public, but greater attention needs to be paid to it than seems to be the case till now. (27-11-09)

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.

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