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Where Art Thou Afghanistan?

By       Message Siddharth Ramana     Permalink
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On November 3rd, a Dutch soldier was killed in a bomb explosion in Afghanistan. This casualty was another addition to the increasing toll of the coalition members serving in the country. October marked the seven year anniversary for the initiation of hostilities against the Taliban regime. The current scenario in Afghanistan has been marred by a resurgent Taliban sponsored violence and the manifold growth of the opium output. This article argues that the limited troop deployment to the country, combined with poor tactical management have allowed for the Taliban’s resurgence, and the use of opium as a terror financier for Al-Qaeda. It recommends that immediate measures be adopted to supplement the troop levels and a review be undertaken of the alliance with frontline ally-Pakistan.


Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) was distinct from previous conflicts fought by the United States and its allies. Militarily it was different, in the form that a limited contingent of ground forces was used for the success of the operation, relying largely upon unchallenged air superiority and the use of local proxies to conduct ground operations. Diplomatically, the United States enjoyed unconditional sympathy and support worldwide for the military campaign against the Taliban, even enlisting the support of arch rivals such as Iran and supporters of the Taliban regime- Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.


Western concerns to avoid the “body-bag” syndrome (Also called the “Mogadishu syndrome” or the “Vietnam Syndrome”) played a significant role in characterizing the way the war was conducted.  It resulted in a war which was conducted mainly by Special Forces and Special Operation Forces, while discounting the use of main ground forces.


This affected a problem of qualitative troop deployment which would return to haunt the coalition. The Taliban seized the initiative, and made full use of their local contacts, and knowledge of the territory to harass and increasingly bog down allied troops in Afghanistan.


In fairness to the American planners, Afghanistan was a unique situation. Traditionally, U.S. defense planning has been threat-driven, and as a result, such plans require the establishment of forward bases and the pre-conflict deployment of equipment. Afghanistan for example, did not offer such advantages, and even frontline states like Pakistan were brought on board at the last minute. The absence of a ‘shelf plan’ for the country and increasing political and domestic pressures on the Pentagon to initiate military action, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, led to revolutionary thinking. Led by former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, it was a pioneering effort in successfully utilizing the Special Operations Forces to win a war.


However, it is one thing to win a war, and another to maintain your victory. Much of western military planning in Afghanistan are directed towards eradicating the Al-Qaeda and Taliban network in the country. The lack of ground forces and the aversion to place their own troops to risk situations led to the hire of local warlords. This was shockingly dangerous, for warlords are not driven by the same motivation to move against the enemy compared to regular forces. The warlords were concerned about capturing power, and once the Taliban was dislodged from Kabul, little else mattered. The warlords and their fighters were also driven in large measure by greed. Their loyalties and integrities were amply demonstrated when a number of “allied” Afghan warlords were being bribed for safe passage of Al-Qaeda members. One deputy commander, Mohammed Musa, offered a sympathetic reply to reports that one of his lieutenants had helped Al-Qaeda fighters escape from the Tora Bora region: “Our problem was that the Arabs had paid him more”.


The lack of manpower on the ground led to increasing reports of Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters escaping across the border; this was highly embarrassing to the coalition which had captured the capital in a month. Man power shortages have the added disadvantage that they cannot hold ground won for a long period of time. For example, allied forces, after having dislodged the Taliban from one stronghold, would hand over the territory to the ill equipped and trained Afghan army, and move on. The Taliban would then have no problem in regaining the lost ground. The problem is compounded by the fact that American forces have been stretched thin. And owing to deployments in Iraq, would not be in a position to strengthen their bases in Afghanistan.


The fear of suffering embarrassing military fiascos such as the black hawk down scenario, led a number of countries to limit combat troops to the coalition. To others, parliamentary resolutions limited the operations which their forces could conduct. NATO allies Italy, France and Germany for example refused to send their troops to violent Southern Afghanistan, in 2005. On another occasion, Canadian forces requested reinforcements for a major offensive, and this was declined on grounds of legal ramifications by at least four NATO allies.


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Siddharth Ramana is an MscEcon in Intelligence and Strategic Studies. A student of peace and conflict studies, he is presently pursuing an additional Masters in Counter Terrorism (Israel). He has worked as a research assistant for the Institute of (more...)

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