Tilting at Afghan Windmills

Don Quixote, the main character in a novel by the Spanish writer Cervantes in 1605, spent a lot of time on horseback, armed with a lance, attacking windmills which he thought were menacing giants.

“Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills  . . .  And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, “Fortune is guiding our affairs . . .  Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich,  for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless.”

“What giants?” asked Sancho Panza.”

President Eisenhower inherited the Korean war from his predecessor and then negotiated a cease-fire.  President Lyndon Johnson took over Vietnam from his predecessor and committed his country to eventual humiliating defeat. And almost fifty years later President Barack Obama has been gifted the Afghan debacle by a moron who spent most of his catastrophic eight years tilting at windmills in “righteous wars.”

The First, Second and Third Afghan Wars were waged by the British between 1839 and 1919 in three disastrous campaigns totaling nine years.  The Fourth resulted in the degrading defeat of Russia in 1989 when its troops had to leave after a decade. And now the Fifth Afghan War is being conducted by America and some allies from 2001 to . . . Well, when?  It’s seven years, and counting.

What happens now that Mr Obama is in command?

Last month the US General Petraeus said that a surge like the one he ordered in Iraq would not work in Afghanistan, and that it is essential that Afghans not view foreign forces as conquerors. “You do need to tenaciously pursue the enemy and the extremists . . . But you also need to be building, and to develop, and . . .  help and to partner.”

Does anyone believe that President Karzai is an equal partner of the so-called “coalition” forces in his country?  Does anyone imagine there is deference by foreign forces to the government of Afghanistan? (If President Karzai flies in an Mi-17 helicopter it is piloted by an Afghan. But if there is an American on board the pilot must be American and it must be a machine that is serviced by US technicians. Does nobody realize how much this sort of arrogant colonial condescension is resented?)

Karzai has protested  about the bungled cowboy airstrikes that have killed hundreds of his people but the only effect his complaints have had is to make Afghans despise him for being feeble and to have Washington even more determined to have him replaced.

Petraeus is right, in that development is essential. But the foreigners running Afghanistan do not have enough troops to control the country and the Afghan army is nowhere near ready to do so. So there can’t be much development carried out (although billions of dollars have vanished), simply because there is a lack of  stability.

There is no point in building something if the nasties can promptly destroy it.

A long time ago I served in the Australian Task Force in Vietnam. We were supposed to “win hearts and minds” but, alas, lost them completely. We went round the villages building little windmills. Splendid contraptions that pumped up water for fishponds and so forth.  And on the vanes of the propellers we stenciled little yellow kangaroos, announcing that Australia supported windmill democracy (or something).  And a couple of days after we erected one of them, imagining ingenuously that we were winning the hearts and minds of the local people, along would come the Viet Cong and blow it up.

Then after a while the Viet Cong became a bit more savvy. They left the windmills alone – and told the villagers that the first person to make use of one would be killed.  This had the effect of leaving stark standing monuments to the total impotence of the foreign soldiers.

It was very effective psychological warfare.  Even the half million foreign soldiers in South Vietnam, a country (66,000 square miles) a quarter the size of Afghanistan (250,000 square miles; 80,000 foreign troops; 17,000 more US troops to come this year), together with a Vietnamese army of 410,000 could not guarantee the existence of a few windmills.

We used to have a military principle that remains relevant : Take and Hold Ground.  It comes down to this :  If you can’t hold the ground you’ve taken, then what is the point in taking that ground?   You can’t defend windmills if you leave the place in which you built them and then let the enemy come in to take control.  In that case, your soldiers have died for nothing.

In Vietnam these windmills twirled and hummed, insensible and useless in the rustling wind, as memorials for souls.

The “coalition forces” propaganda machine in Afghanistan would have us believe that things are going fairly well.  But this war is a disaster. Every other day we are told that dozens of ‘Taliban’ are killed.  And for every one who is killed (and many are ordinary tribesmen who hate foreign invaders and resist them energetically, as they have done for centuries),  another ten? – fifty? – hundred? – are motivated to join the resistance to the foreign intruders.  Just as they did, with energetic support from Washington, when Russians occupied their territory.

It is all very well having lots of foreign troops roaming round Afghanistan killing people (of whom many are civilians – over 700 last year), but as in Vietnam it is hearts and minds that matter. President Obama has some hard decisions to make, because the US and its allies went in to Afghanistan without doing the basic arithmetic of the number of troops required to perform the tasks the foreign politicians gave them.  Unless there are enough soldiers to take and hold ground to ensure that aid projects work, there is no point in staying there.

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A proposal for “civil defense forces (CDF)” in Afghanistan has been endorsed by two clever academics, Messrs Matthew P Dearing and Matthew C DuPee of the US Naval Postgraduate School.  Such forces, they write,  “will provide a significant measure of needed security and authority in areas of Afghanistan previously unprotected by ANSF [Afghanistan’s National Security Forces]. They will allow community leaders from a variety of tribes and clans to work together in delivering sufficient levels of security . . . ” And so on.

The  US Department of the Army Field Manual 31-22 of the Vietnam years   “envisions all members of a village being organized for their own mutual support into a village complex. This mutual support not only includes defense but also will include other activities, such as . . .  extensions of democratic principles and procedures through such things as the formation of village and hamlet committees.”  Oh how starry-eyed we were.

It has all been tried before.  It didn’t work in Vietnam and it won’t work in Afghanistan. The notion that tribal militias (or even “civil defense forces”) will allow “community leaders from a variety of tribes and clans to work together in delivering sufficient levels of security” is naive.

Tribes in Afghanistan can’t agree on the time of day. They hate each other.  And the only thing that is drawing them together in temporary alliance is hatred of foreign soldiers and profits from corruption, heroin production and smuggling. The hearts and minds of the tribes are otherwise engaged.

Will Mr Obama construct a new strategy?  Or will he tilt at windmills?

BRIAN CLOUGHLEY’s book about the Pakistan army, War, Coups and Terror, is to be published in the US by Skyhorse next month. His website is www.beecluff.com.


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