Does Operation HERRICK, the British-led expansion of ISAF to southwestern Afghanistan stand a chance of success? What is “success” anyway? Just as importantly, does it stand a chance of disaster?

Well, the deployment is now well under way, as the 16AAB less two infantry battalions and plus assorted DFID and NGO civilian personnel establishes itself from Lashkar Ghar to Kandahar. And, as is being reported with slightly greater attention than during the last four years, the general enemy is responding with an intensified campaign of guerrilla activity against NATO forces and intimidation against government supporters. Fortunately, the Government has resisted the temptation to water down the force structure, but the aim remains unclear, although some things seem to be settled.

As discussed in the post I just linked to, there is a degree of ambiguity as to whether they are going there to “fight” or “peacekeep”, although (as I pointed out) there should be no distinction in the Afghan context, and a large part of the supposed difference is explained by the portrayal required to satisfy various countries’ internal politics. The notion that the mission is “counterterrorism” or “combat” is necessary to please the Americans, and the notion that it is somehow on a different planet to the PRTs up north or the rest of ISAF in Kabul is necessary to please certain continental European coalition partners, and John Reid apparently believed that claiming that it was nothing to do with “combat” would please the British media-political complex, but also occasionally boasted of sending (inevitably but accurately) Paras to destroy heroin supplies. This is all rubbish. Any successful peacekeeping/stabilisation policy in Afghanistan must involve at least the potential of fighting, and any successful attempt to “catch terrorists” there is dependent on peacekeeping, reconstruction and political stabilisation.

In one sense, ambiguity of aims is bad news. Clausewitz defined the identification and maintenance of the aim as the first principle of strategy, and the period 2001-2006 offers plenty of confirmation that getting involved in a war without intellectually robust aims is foolish. In another sense, though, there is such a thing as creative ambiguity. And we’ve got plenty of that. The man who will have to judge between using the latitude (as they say) of discretion and wandering in the swamp of ambiguity is General Sir David Richards, the commander of the NATO Allied Rapid Reaction Corps.

Richards’ reputation is based on the intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000, where he was in command of a mission that went from reconnaissance to the evacuation of foreign nationals, to security for such an evacuation, to acting as an advance guard to cover the arrival of more UN forces, to organising and supporting a localised counter-attack, then a broader counter-offensive, and eventually an enduring training and aid mission, in the space of a fortnight. That operation was eventually a success, despite very complicated political ramifications, largely because of a commitment to the minimal and highly political use of force.

It bears some important similarities to Afghanistan. There, as in Afghanistan, aims were fluid and were essentially to create or maintain a condition rather than to defeat an enemy (although that was at least part of the way there). Political/diplomatic action was as important as military action, and the impression of force was as valuable or even more than its reality. There were a variety of non-state and pseudo-state military actors, rooted in the worldwide black economy, and a weakly established government with very limited practical control. A large part of success would be to increase the government’s share of the market for violence, as Jamie Kenny would put it, or to reduce the amount of ungoverned space, as Thomas P.M. Barnett would put it.

Another burning issue was control over a strategic resource and the tax revenues from it – in SL it was diamonds, and Richards and his staff advised the Sierra Leonean government to reassert control over the diamond fields first rather than pushing the rebels further away from the so-called “ring road” 30 or so miles out of Freetown, on the principle that this would deny the enemy arms, money and (especially) patronage. Other events – like the Wassenaar agreement and the Kimberley scheme – helped in the longer term. It is now thought that UNAMSIL may be able to leave next year, so these campaigns can work.

Unfortunately, of course, such a strategy will be hard to pursue in Afghanistan because the strategic resource involved is opium and its refinement into heroin. Richards’ commission supposedly includes the elimination of opium-growing and refining, which is like ordering the British army in Basra to eliminate oil production. Apparently the perimeter of Lashkar Ghar camp is surrounded by poppy fields, which should concentrate the mind wonderfully on the stupidity of such a policy. It should be no wonder that the General seems to have ruled out – I can’t remember where – providing troops for their destruction. One-nil to the creative ambiguity.

So, how is it going in fabulous Helmand? It doesn’t sound too good, and I suspect that in essence this is because (as I think I said before) the Operation ENDURING FREEDOM big war raids down there have been completely irrelevant. Southern Afghanistan has been allowed to remain an ungoverned space after 2001, and now we are peeking under the lid… Operation HERRICK is essentially what the “coalition” ought to have done in 2002, but then, when your “aim” is an abstract noun these things happen.

Returning to the original question, the chances of success or disaster. If ARRC can do about three things, I think a degree of success is possible. Those are to a) avoid doing anything stupid – we are not “at our best when we are at our boldest” in this situation, b) discredit the Taliban pseudostate’s sovereignty by providing security, and c) deliver a material improvement in life, quickly. The third is hard, hard to quantify, and deeply dependent on the other two. As this bloke put it, “security is either 10% of the problem or 90% of the problem, but either way it’s the first 10% of the problem, and without security nothing we do will last”. B) is difficult, but easier to define. A), though, is incredibly difficult, as it incorporates much of the unknown.

The main chance of disaster, though, comes in Pakistan – if you read the Guardian article above, you’ll see that things are slipping. Slipping, to the point that a nuclear research centre was mortared last week. And the logistical road route for 16AAB is directly through Quetta down to Karachi. Now that could go wrong.

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