Shambles in Afghanistan

There can be few things more shameful or degrading for a head of state to have to admit than “I wish I could intercept the [US] planes that are going to bomb Afghan villages, but that’s not in my hands.” But Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai was forced to say this last week. In 2008, so far, at least 190 Afghan civilians have been killed by air strikes; about the same number as died in the atrocious slaughter in Mumbai. But there haven’t been any protests about the killing of civilians in Afghanistan, except by Afghans, of course. But who listens to Afghans?

No, it’s not in Karzai’s hands to rule his country, as he was elected to do. It is in the hands — or fists — of the occupying powers, who, through a pathetic combination of arrogance, ignorance and incompetence, are, in Karzai’s words, “still…not able to defeat the Taliban”.

The Taliban (or whatever one might call them — crazy criminal barbarians, many of them) thrive and kill because there was no viable political plan to administer Afghanistan after the invasion, and the country was thus doomed to chaos. First to arrive at the end of 2001 were American B-52 bombers, laying waste the land until their Strangelove-like controllers ran out of targets.

Then the brutal northern warlords surfaced, bought with millions of US dollars, and wreaked unspeakable atrocities upon their tribal and personal enemies whom they dubbed ‘Taliban’ while laughing at their paymasters’ ingenuousness at believing their vicious deceptions.

Last came a combination of international agencies, bless their well-meaning hearts, and American troops who have caused so much disruption, alienation and hatred. In the middle are the Brits, the Canadians, the Dutch, the Australians and a few other nations whose soldiers are being killed.

For what, exactly?

As I write this, there is news that two British Marines and an Australian officer have been killed in Afghanistan. They were in 42 Royal Marine Commando and 4th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment, with both of which I was an artillery forward observer in Borneo when we were defending Malaysia against the Indonesian army in the mid-1960s. As anyone who has worn uniform knows, every soldier has lasting loyalty to his regiment and to other units with which he has had served. And I grieve for those who died almost as much as do their immediate comrades.

But I ask: Why did they die? For what reason do their comrades and families mourn their loss? For what cause did they give up their lives?

Did they die for democracy? Hardly. Because Afghanistan will never — ever — be a democracy in Western terms. This is an unattainable and therefore stupid objective.

Did they die for honesty in government? Hardly. Because the British and Australian governments joined the illegal invasion of Iraq, and lied at the time and forever after about the reasons they did so. (The real reason they helped invade Iraq was that they didn’t want to offend Bush and his cabal of demented warniks.)

It goes deeper than this in military terms. The British defence minister, a clever political animal called David Miliband (I met him once, when he was a junior education minister, and never have I witnessed such an unintentionally side-splitting parody of the main character in the BBC’s wonderful “Yes, Minister”), last week announced that “If there are requests [by the US for more British troops in Afghanistan], we’ll look at them hard… We have never been in blanket refusal.”

No, you poor fellow, you’ve been wrapped in a blanket of ignorance. Because numbers of troops in a campaign do not — must not — depend on political machinations. What happens (or should happen) is this:

A government decides that there should be military action of some sort. The defence minister then calls for his military chief and tells him the precise objective of the proposed campaign. The chief goes away and has his staff do the calculations. He goes back to the minister and says we need X thousand troops to do this, and we must have such-and-such equipment.

And if the politicians won’t give him that number of troops and the equipment he asks for, he resigns. Well, no, he doesn’t, of course, because he’s looking forward to retirement directorships and so forth. What he does is defer to the ignorant politicians, whereupon he commits his soldiers to a war for which they are ill equipped and appallingly under-strength.

Soldiers die in wars. That’s taken for granted. We all took our chances. But soldiers are dying in Afghanistan because politicians were silly enough to get their countries involved without proper planning, and because of the spinelessness of their military leaders. This is no way to fight a war. Not only is it being fought with too few troops, but every national contingent has different rules of engagement. Some can’t fight at night; some aren’t permitted to fight at all; some are reluctant to cooperate with other foreign forces. The two US contingents operate entirely separately, and US Special Forces are tasked from their HQ in the States. There is no unified joint and combined command that has a single clear military mission. It’s a martial shambles.

As I’ve written before: If a young officer at any staff college in the world was presented with the Afghanistan problem and came up with a military solution such as in now in place, he would be sent packing.

Either foreign forces in Afghanistan are given proper military direction and provided with the troop numbers and equipment they need, or the whole dismal campaign should be abandoned. It is extremely stupid — indeed it is monstrously wicked — to place soldiers in danger without the basic necessities to carry out their duties. There should be very many guilty consciences among western politicians and senior officers. But if they had consciences, they wouldn’t have got into this mess in the first place.

BRIAN CLOUGHLEY’s book about the Pakistan army, War, Coups and Terror, has just been published by Pen & Sword Books (UK). His email is





Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.