Why Another Blog?

I've decided to set up another blog, (my other one is called Writer's Musings), because there are some topics just too weighty for that blog.

So here it is. In this space I'll explore more serious issues in more detail. I do not expect visitors to agree with me in all cases.
In this forum feel free to take off the gloves, grab a handful of mud and fight for what you believe in.

Simple rules, rather like cage-fighting in the blogosphere:
No direct name calling. No excessive profanity. No whining when smacked in the face with mud.
Sling inuendo. Feel free to ask leading questions even if in a snide tone.

Friday, August 15, 2008

We Are Not Losing In Afghanistan

In his July 30, 2008 New York Times Op-ed piece titled, “Drilling in Afghanistan,” Thomas Friedman makes an astounding statement. “The main reason we are losing in Afghanistan is not because there are too few American soldiers, but because there are not enough Afghans ready to fight and die for the kind of government we want.” Of course he offers no evidence or proof of either clause in this sentence. About the only thread of reality in the sentence is that it is not a lack of American troops that is the “problem” in Afghanistan.

The piece overall has a good deal of truth, but the defeatist tone is disturbing. We are not losing in Afghanistan. Then again, this is the same Thomas Friedman who declared that we were losing in Iraq and that the surge would not work. He’s since changed his position on Iraq, but like all good liberals who can’t rest unless finding fault with the United States, he’s redirected his defeatism to Afghanistan.

Of course most of the pundits making such sweeping declarations are: a). not on the ground observing first-hand, b). not military professionals with any insight into what constitutes winning or losing, c). relying on armchair “experts” who fall into either category "a" or "b" or both, d). simply left-leaning anti-US media in the first place who have no intention of telling the truth.

If you will recall, when the Afghan affair started, pundits like Friedman uttered such absurdities as “no one has ever conquered Afghanistan” and “the Brits and the Soviets met disaster there.” These “truisms” have been trotted again now that Afghanistan has reentered public awareness. But are these truisms true? Are they relevant for the current operations?

No one has ever conquered Afghanistan. Well, if you mean the country Afghanistan, then that may be true since Afghanistan has only existed as such since 1747. But long before that, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan succeeded in conquering Afghanistan. In fact the real story of Afghanistan is not one of being immune to conquest, but of successive waves of conquest throughout its history. A large part of that is due to its strategic position astride major trade routes.

The people who have lived in this land have indeed been fighting for centuries, but the people who live here now are a blend of all those peoples who have held sway here at one time or another. For example, the Hazara are thought to be descended from the Mongols who conquered “Afghanistan” in 1219. Many Nuristani have European features like red or blond hair and green or blue eyes and a lighter complexion. Some say this is a legacy of Alexander’s conquest, but it may actually be far older. So it isn’t correct to say that “the Afghans” have always successfully repelled the invader.

The Brits and Soviets met disaster here. That may be true, but it is also irrelevant to the current situation. The British tried to conquer and rule Afghanistan in the 19th century, part of the “Great Game” between Russia and Britain. However, the qualitative differences between the British Army in the 19th century and the “Russian aided” Afghans were not that significant. One could even argue that the British generals were not as competent as the Afghan generals. The British were defeated in stand-up army-to-army battles. While Pashtun tribes also employed guerrilla tactics against the British, it was defeat in main battles that spelled doom for the British.

The Soviet experience looks like it might be relevant since it is only twenty years in the past, but this view is also misleading. Again, the Soviets intended to conquer and rule. Their political goals significantly affected how they fought and the methodologies they employed. Pundits like to say that the Afghans humbled a mighty “modern” army, but this is only partly accurate.

As hindsight has shown us, the Soviet war-machine was already in serious technological decline when they invaded Afghanistan, but it was not their decaying military apparatus that doomed the Soviet experience to failure. Nor did Stinger missiles, the indomitable spirit of the mujahedeen, foreign fighters, foreign money, and sanctuaries in Pakistan win the war for the Afghans. They all played key roles, but the ingredient that made the war unwinnable for the Soviets was brought into the country within their own army. The inflexible Soviet system, that same system that doomed them in economic competition with the West, doomed their efforts in Afghanistan.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 began just like their successful invasions of East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Everything went with surgical precision and minimal casualties. For all intents and purposes, to outside observers it was another display of irresistible Soviet might. Western powers feared that the Soviets would extend the push through southern Pakistan to the Gulf, thereby effectively threatening the flow of oil from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. But in less than three months, the war took on a different complexion and the Soviets started experiencing military defeat at the hands of the mujahedeen.

The Soviets came into Afghanistan with a strategy better suited to European combat and with an organizational structure and doctrine so rigid, it never fully adapted to the requirements of fighting a guerrilla war against a determined opponent in inhospitable terrain. Guerrilla warfare requires decentralized decision-making and freedom of action for units down to squad size. It requires a coherent national strategy that places proper emphasis on aspects of soft power to win the “heart and minds” of the people and an understanding of this need on the parts of the soldiers who must carry the fight to the enemy. The Soviets were incapable, by the very essence of their system, of carrying this off.

This was not intended to be a major discussion of how the Soviets failed, but an illustration of how the Soviet experience is irrelevant to the discussion of our experience in Afghanistan. Before moving on, however, some key numbers should be considered. Soviet strength varied between 90,000 and 104,000 troops each of the ten years they occupied Afghanistan. 642,000 Soviet soldiers served in Afghanistan. Approximately 15, 000 were killed or missing. Far more telling was that the Soviets suffered 469,685 wounded in action and non-battle casualties due to illness, or 73 percent of the total force. 415,932 were disease non-battle casualties of which 115,308 were infectious hepatitis and 31,080 were from typhoid. (Statistics from: The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan, Lester W. Grau, Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, KS 10th Edition, 2005)

In other words, the Soviets suffered almost as many typhoid casualties as the United States has troops in Afghanistan right now. These kinds of non-battle casualties are unheard of in modern armies and they speak volumes on the hygiene and conditions under which the average Soviet soldier lived while in Afghanistan. The Soviets averaged 1,500 killed and missing, 5375 wounded and 41,593 disease non-battle casualties per year. This means they averaged about 50 percent total casualties per year.

Fast-forward to August 2008 and the US and NATO campaign in Afghanistan. To date about 921 coalition troops have been killed in Afghanistan (includes battle and non-battle fatalities). US, British and Canadian forces are doing most of the fighting and have suffered most of these casualties. In seven years, we are averaging about 132 killed (battle and non-battle fatalities) per year. We have had about 7,900 wounded and non-battle casualties, which translates to 1129 wounded and non-battle casualties per year. The Soviets exceeded our seven-year total in their first year in Afghanistan. Note that these casualties include all the NATO/ISAF countries. This is a different fight.

Lest someone say that Afghan casualties are not included in these numbers, keep in mind that during the Soviet occupation, 1.5 million Afghans died (150,000 per year) and a further 5 million were refugees in Iran and Pakistan. To date, fewer than 30,000 Afghans have died in this war (including combatants from both sides and civilians or 4286 per year). Almost 70 percent of the Afghan civilian fatalities, which are less than 30 percent of the total Afghan fatalities, have been caused by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Somehow pundits like Friedman look at Afghanistan today, draw a quick connection to other nations’ experiences here and claim that we are losing. But there is no connection except that the war is being fought in the same place and some of the players are the same. We are not losing Afghanistan. As the numbers show, our experience is nothing like the Soviet experience and any attempt to make that correlation is a real stretch by an order of magnitude.

Is the fight simple? Is there any way it can be finished quickly? The answer to both questions is, no. The fight is complex and involves a great deal of soft power applied in un-sexy ways that the media does not deem fit for the evening news. A suicide bomber is far sexier than a news story about providing alternatives to poppy production or a new school. The insurgency can and will be defeated, but it will take time. Let’s just hope the media doesn’t succeed in sabotaging this mission like they almost succeeded in sabotaging the operation in Iraq.

As stated in an earlier post, war is won in the will. The numbers do not matter as much as the will to keep fighting. The Western media is working overtime to break the West’s will to win this fight and to hand the enemy a cheap victory.

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