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At Arm’s Length: NATO’s Shift in Afghanistan

At Arm’s Length: NATO’s Shift in Afghanistan

by Binoy Kampmark
September 19, 2012

The deceptive ways a loss in war is described can be contagious. Retreats are often regarded as odious, but sometimes necessary. These can either have the genius of the British spirit of tactical withdrawal, or a more laughable concept of an honourable peace. When that power tends to be a Goliath, or even a Colossus, explanations for what ‘victory’ or ‘defeat’ constitutes assume the exotic, tinged with madness.

By whatever stretch of the imagination, NATO’s latest change of tack in its deployments, minimising contact between Afghan recruits and its own soldiers suggests a monumental victory for the Taliban forces. It is questionable whether a transition strategy can feasibly work where Afghan policemen and soldiers are kept out of the loop. The mantra from the foreign forces stationed in Afghanistan has been solidarity with local forces in the fight against the enemy. That, it would seem, is no more.

The curbing of joint combat operations for units less than 800 strong means that regional commanders will be given greater discretion to act in allowing operations with an Afghan presence.

The new policy, approved Sunday by the second most senior US commander in Afghanistan Lieutenant-General James Terry, has concerned various politicians of countries within the NATO ranks. Britain’s shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy paints a stark picture. “We’ll have British forces going out more regularly on patrols without Afghan partners. Now, you don’t have to be a military strategist to understand that could have impacts on the safety and security of our forces, it could also have an impact on the ability of Afghan forces to look after their own country when we leave, at the end of 2014” (BBC news, Sep 18).

The reaction by the British ministry of defence is that the decision of Isaf will have no impact on British forces per se. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen sees little reason to panic, considering the measures “prudent and temporary”. “The goal is unchanged, the strategy remains the same, and the timeline remains the same.” Rasmussen has also suggested that there would be little operational difference with the order, suggesting the farcical value of such commands. Now you see Afghans, now you don’t. That is all, at least for Rasmussen.

This is the classic spoof the war in Afghanistan, where mendacity is not merely natural but automatic – the paternalism in offering military assistance (we need to help these lawless Afghans) and covering the backs of those who crumble before a Taliban effort on the departure of foreign personnel. They need to be trained, but in so doing, they are killing us. To be more exact about Murphy’s remarks, his points cover only those Afghan forces NATO finds acceptable. Given that those forces are not merely running away but running at them, the proposition of a stable transition is increasingly untenable.

Keeping Afghan forces in the security loop has proven a distinctively risky proposition. This year alone, 51 international service members have paid with their lives at the hands of those wearing Afghan uniforms. In stark contrast, two were lost in 2008 to such “green on blue” attacks. The language used in describing them has varied. Those familiar orientalist tropes of treachery and deception have been popular. Blander descriptions focus on “insider” attacks, suggesting that these were infiltrating Afghans, not authentic ones keen to keep the ship of state floating. Evidently, Insaf forces are under a permanent misapprehension as to who the occupiers and the occupied are.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been very quick to quash suggestions that this order was a notable victory for the Taliban forces. “I think what it indicates is that they are resorting to efforts that try to strike at our forces, try to create chaos but do not in any way result in their regaining territory that has been lost.” Such talk is that of smoke and mirrors, obscured by the fact that NATO’s effort to cultivate relations with its Afghan minions has proven to be a vain effort.

Panetta, not content with merely denying that such attacks were actually having an effect, just as an order to combat those attacks was being implemented, had the gall to describe such tactics as indicative of a “last gasp”. The last gasp, however, doesn’t seem to have a particularly Taliban-like tone to it.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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