Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
Where applicable, parallels will be drawn between the new movement and the Vietnam era movement which was the focus of the film Sir! No Sir!
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This article, by Michael Evans, was published in The Times (London), Augiust 28, 2009.
Just 150 Afghan voters dared to go to the ballot box in the area of Helmand province where British soldiers sacrificed their lives to secure a safe election day, it was revealed yesterday.
The figures were released as the British Ambassador to Kabul admitted that troops could be engaged in combat in Afghanistan for five more years.
The Electoral Commission in Kabul said that early estimates of voting in the former Taleban stronghold of Babaji, north of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, indicated that few exercised their right to vote last Thursday. Several thousand people could have voted.
Four of the ten troops who died in Operation Panther’s Claw, the five-week offensive to drive the Taleban out of central Helmand before the presidential election, were killed in or around Babaji.
The ambassador, Mark Sedwill, did not deny the low vote count in Babaji, although he said that it was too early to be sure. He said: “Panther’s Claw, although timed to try to improve security for people to move around for the election, was not specifically itself about the election.”
However, the publicly stated aim of Panther’s Claw before it was launched on June 19 was to make the highly populated area between Lashkar Gah, Babaji and Gereshk safe for 80,000 Afghans to go to the polls without being intimidated by the Taleban.
Defence officials said that, if confirmed, the voting figures for Babaji would be “very disappointing”.
Mr Sedwill said that there was some anecdotal evidence that people from outlying areas travelled into more secure areas such as Lashkar Gah to vote “because they felt more confident in doing so”.
Speaking via video link from Kabul to a briefing at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, he said that turnout was expected to be lower than the last presidential election and that he accepted that Taleban intimidation had an impact.
Air Vice-Marshal Andy Pulford, Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff (Operations), insisted that whether the voter turnout was low or not British troops had made dramatic progress in Panther’s Claw. “British Forces know exactly what they fought for,” he said. “They have seen with their own eyes the improved quality of life that security now enjoyed by thousands of Afghans in Babaji has delivered.”
Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, said: “If it’s as pathetically small as that [150 in Babaji] then one of the stated objectives [of Panther’s Claw] has not been met.”
Mr Sedwill’s prediction that the campaign could last another five years appeared to clash with the views of Bob Ainsworth, the Defence Secretary, who said ten days ago that the troops could begin to step back from the front line within “a year or so”, to be replaced by Afghan units.
The ambassador indicated that it would be between three and five years before Afghan soldiers were trained and ready to take over the security role in Helmand.
In the three years that British troops have been fighting the Taleban in Helmand, 202 members of the Armed Forces have died and about 800 have been injured in battle, 235 of them “very seriously” or “seriously”.
This article, the author whose name has been withheld by the paper, was published by The Independent, August 10, 2009
My motivation is simple. Writing this helps vent off some of the frustration at what is happening out here in Afghanistan to those serving in the British Army, where death and serious injury are sickeningly common occurrences.
Before coming here, I had done two tours in Iraq which saw fierce fighting against the enemy. But, sometimes out here I feel I might as well be on my first tour, as a novice second lieutenant instead of a so-called senior captain with over eight years experience in the Army, due to a shocking rate of attrition that I have never encountered before.
Commentators keep citing previous figures for casualty rates in the Falkland's conflict, as well as the years in Northern Ireland, suggesting that, spread over the time we have been in Afghanistan, the figures here are not that bad.
How reassuring. For a moment I thought the rates might be quite bad; but thank goodness I have been shown that what we are experiencing is in fact a tolerable "medium" number of casualties.
Can we really only analyse the death and injury rate, or view it as a cause for concern, once we get past a certain benchmark or once the average number outstrips a previous average? I had hoped that human progression was a bit more advanced than that, and that there might be more to the situation than a comparison of statistics.
Then there are the injuries. I am talking about limbs removed, double or even triple amputations, on a scale that we've never seen before.
When you read about a "very seriously injured" casualty, that person's life is never going to be the same, nor is it for the rest of their family, who will be sucked in and forever affected by the aftermath.
So what effect does this have on us all out in Afghanistan? My experience of this is from the 1st Battalion Welsh Guard's Battle Group, who have endured a significant number of fatalities and seriously injured personnel, including the death of their commanding officer.
With each death I think each of us experiences a feeling of total shock, powerlessness and impotence. Within your mind you feel you have to do something, especially if you knew the individual. Back at home that might be to jump in the car and drive to some secluded spot where you can get out and scream at the top of your lungs to let out all the anguish. But here nothing of the sort is possible. You are all enclosed within your camp or patrol base; there is no refuge, no private corner to go to, to deal with your grief.
Around you everything else has to continue, and cannot stop. The radios still have to be manned and answered, the patrols still have to be planned, the convoys have to be organised. It is not as if you can take a day off to deal with the grief, to come to terms with it. And even if you could, what good would that do?
Who wants to go and sit in their tent, sweating in temperatures in the high 40s, brooding on the possibilities: what were they thinking in those last few moments, did they know what had happened, did they know they were dying, how terrified and alone did they feel?
The only option available is to embrace the alternative: keep joking with your friends, maintain the banter levels, swapping smutty jokes and stories – literally forcing yourself to keep smiling.
I do not say that as a praiseworthy example of that renowned, age-old, plucky, English stiff upper lip. Far from it – it may be our worst enemy.
After death, life obviously has to go on, but I have always felt that life should go on having learnt a lesson from that death, improving your life as a testament to that life robbed – not merely moving on with a smile, whilst showing "fortitude".
I am just speaking for those of us who deal with the deaths and injuries in Afghanistan indirectly, as an explosion in the distance, followed by a report on the radio, then a helicopter coming in to pick up the casualty.
As for those who deal directly with the deaths and injuries, who have to go into the Viking vehicles after the explosion to pull out the casualties, who have to tourniquet the remaining stumps after both the legs of a person have been blown off, those who have to pick up the leftover pulpy fragments of a disintegrated body and put them into a bag, I am not sure how they react.
I would imagine in a similar way to the rest of us: you put it aside as soon as you can, as there is nothing to be achieved in thinking about it. All you will do is think yourself into a corner, where you are faced with the absurdity and horrid waste of it all. And if you let that take a hold, how are you meant to perform, drag yourself out of your tent at 4am after just three hours sleep, to go on another foot patrol, another 18-hour convoy, another 12-hour shift in the operations room? It does not work.
There is so much that still needs to be done, there are still weeks to get through, more patrols and convoys that need to be completed. So the event of each death is placed away, zipped up in a mental body bag, back in the recesses of your mind.
However, unlike a real body bag, which fortunately disappears, that mental body bag remains in the morgue of your sub-conscious, quite possibly to come out and be re-opened, once you return home and have the chance to think about each death, each injury, each friend gone.
Then there are the equipment shortages. Due to the pitiful numbers of support helicopters and Apaches needed to escort them, every day troops on the ground are forced to expend an enormous amount of hours and manpower just standing still. They sacrifice their reserves of energy, motivation and willpower securing and picketing routes for the never-ending vehicle convoys that have to keep happening in order to resupply the patchy spread of patrol bases with water, ammo and rations; as well as recovering the vehicles that invariably go into ditches and securing helicopter landing-sites for the evacuation of casualties from improvised explosive device strikes.
I think if Sisyphus (the Greek mythological character cursed to roll a huge boulder repeatedly up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again, throughout eternity) could see us now, he would offer his sincere condolences and offer a friendly arm around the shoulder, saying that he knew what it felt like.
If someone provided one of those garishly coloured (army) pie charts depicting the percentage of time and effort sucked up into the black hole of orchestrating these road moves, it would provide a statistic that would be both shocking and embarrassing. It might also partly explain why the military is struggling to gain an advantage over the Taliban and cannot hold a significant amount of ground. Its energy, time and focus is bound up with those road moves, and our most vital asset, our troops, are either sweating on the sides of the roads, securing them, or sweating inside the vehicles of those often doomed convoys. I am not criticising the military on the ground, who have to deal with this dilemma. Everyone seems to already agree on this issue of the equipment, in particular the lack of support helicopters – which rather begs the question of how on earth is nothing done about it? And how does the fact that nothing gets done about it seem to be the status quo and keeps occurring year after year, budgetary policy after budgetary policy, operational tour after operational tour? If a magic genie were to appear in front of my eyes, who in keeping with the spirit of the present credit crunch cutbacks, could afford to grant me just one wish, I think I would simply choose a massive increase in helicopters and pilots – a wish that would have such a crucial influence on what is happening to the British Army out here.
We are dealing here with a tenacious and stubborn enemy. Despite our dropping bombs on compounds that the enemy is using as firing-points, the very next day, new enemy fighters are back.
On the one hand, perhaps the enemy command is so feared, authoritative and manipulative that they force unwilling fighters into those compounds as pure cannon fodder. On the other, perhaps, the fighters willingly go back, despite their comrades having been killed there, so strong is their faith in an afterlife, or so strong is their belief in the jihad they are fighting.
Whatever the reason, they come back undaunted to the same firing-points, despite our overwhelming fire power. Their numbers seem to stay constant, as opposed to decreasing – all of which gives a strong indication that we will not be able to reduce their numbers to a level where they are tactically defeated.
It seems increasingly true that a stable Afghanistan will only be possible with some sort of agreement, involvement or power-sharing deal with the Taliban.
However, as the British Army units here are increasingly sucked into the turmoil of the latest "fighting season" there seems little evidence that anything is happening on the political and diplomatic stage. In the meantime, tour follows tour, during which the most intense fighting appears to achieve not much more than extremely effectively inflicting casualties on both sides, whilst Afghanistan remains the sick man of Central Asia.
I think of a scene near the end of Pat Barker's novel The Ghost Road, set at the end of the First World War, in which a seriously injured soldier lies in hospital, gradually dying. The soldier regains consciousness but due to his injuries can only slur a sentence together, which he keeps repeating. His family agonisingly try to decipher what he might be saying, which sounds like "shotvarfet, shotvarfet". His doctor realises what he is trying to say and translates: "He's saying, 'It's not worth it' ."
The man's father, a retired Army major, in grief blurts out: "Oh, it is worth it, it is."
This incredibly powerful passage goes some way to articulating our response to this conflict. We seem to know and say that it is not worth it, whilst instinctively reacting and saying that it is worth it – it has to be worth it. If I am honest, I do not know what I think about it all conclusively; my reasoning is lost in the storm of media, opinions, analysis that are at play here.
However, I know that no matter how hard I try to see through the clutter of opinions and utter something of my own in order to explain or justify what I'm involved in, I just cannot shake off that nagging, repetitive voice in my head that says "shotvarfet, shotvarfet".
This article, by Kimberly Kagan, was posted to the Af-Pak Channel, August 10, 2009
The war in Afghanistan has not been going well, and it is no surprise that Americans are frustrated. Many observers can rightly point to signs of progress: the functionality of specific Afghan government ministries and programs, the slow growth of the Afghan National Army, the building of major infrastructure such as roads and dams, and agricultural improvements. These accomplishments, however, have not created the conditions that the United States has aimed to achieve: an Afghan state with a competent government considered legitimate by its people and capable of defending them, such that Afghanistan can no longer function as a safe haven for Islamist terrorist groups. Indeed, as Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of coalition forces, recently suggested, the situation shows signs of deteriorating: Afghan enemy groups remain highly capable, have gained momentum, and have expanded their areas of operations. Violence against coalition forces is rising. So the question is: Why haven't we been winning in Afghanistan?
Although I served on McChrystal's assessment team, I do not know how he would answer this question, nor could I speculate about his recommendations for the strategy going forward. But after much research, as well as two visits to Afghanistan this year, I personally think that the military operations themselves are failing because there has been no coherent theaterwide counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Despite U.S. President Barack Obama's newly announced "Af-Pak" strategy, the U.S. and coalition campaign this summer is a continuation of the poorly designed operations from 2008. And the sheer inertia of military operations means that it will be hard to turn this supertanker around for the better part of this year. But turn it around we must, starting with correcting the following flaws in the strategy that McChrystal and his team inherited from their predecessors. 1. Fighting in the wrong places NATO forces are widely dispersed throughout Afghanistan, even in the Pashtun areas in the south and east, rather than concentrated on one or two priorities. A possible exception is Helmand, the only province in which two brigades are deployed -- the British force and the recently arrived U.S. Marine expeditionary brigade. In contrast, during the surge in Iraq, the United States concentrated about half of its forces in Baghdad and its suburbs. Baghdad was the center of gravity of the fight. If we controlled it, we'd win; if the enemy controlled it, we'd lose. So five brigade combat teams -- roughly 25,000 troops with their enablers -- protected the city of 8 million people. Four more teams protected Baghdad's southern approaches, and at least one, sometimes two, additional teams protected the city's northern suburbs.
There is no simple equivalent to Baghdad in Afghanistan. Instead, most of the population -- and the insurgency -- is dispersed in rural areas. Nevertheless, some areas, such as Kandahar city and the districts around it, are more important -- to the enemy, to the Afghan government, and to us -- than others. And yet, there are almost no counterinsurgents whatsoever in all but two of the districts around Kandahar, and none in the city itself, just a scant footprint from the Afghanistan national security forces. Worse still, the ratio of counterinsurgents to the population in those two districts is approximately 1 to 44, close to the minimum requirement. A good evaluation of our priorities in Afghanistan would yield a significantly different, and more effective, distribution of coalition forces. This is undoubtedly why McChrystal recently told reporters that he will be concentrating forces around Kandahar city. 2. Fighting in the wrong ways Another problem is that NATO forces have briefed counterinsurgency doctrine better than they have practiced it. Almost all NATO units in Pashtun areas claim that they are protecting the population by engaging in a sequence of military operations known as "shape-clear-hold-build." But these forces move through the sequence too rapidly. Based on recent experiences in Iraq, shaping an area requires 30 to 45 days, clearing it requires three to six months, and holding it takes longer than that. With very few exceptions, NATO forces in Afghanistan have never operated on such timelines. They condense shaping and clearing operations into a few weeks, and then they transition prematurely into what they perceive as a hold phase. As a result, NATO forces rarely gain permanent control over areas -- or if they do, those areas are so small as to have little effect on the insurgency or the population. The enemy simply dissipates and then returns.
What's more, coalition and Afghan forces are excessively focused on securing supply lines and reducing the threat of improvised explosive devices through tactical efforts rather than by countering the insurgency. Consequently, many forces -- especially Afghan forces -- are distributed along the ring road, the main corridor that circles the country. Static positions such as these waste troops. Of course, our forces must be able to maneuver along strategic corridors, but the best way to do that is by securing populated areas and maneuvering off the ring road to defeat the enemy in its sanctuaries and support zones.
In other areas, combat forces are trying to do the right things but, again, in the wrong places. As the Iraq experience demonstrated, successful counterinsurgency often entails distributing forces from larger to smaller bases in order to live among the population. But in some remote areas of Afghanistan's eastern theater, such as Nuristan, where the enemy has little operational or strategic effect, combat forces have overextended themselves. They have moved off large forward operating bases, pushed into strategically insignificant areas, and established small combat outposts that can barely sustain themselves: The units there are too tiny to do anything but protect their outpost. A better approach is to concentrate forces for counterinsurgency operations and run greater risks in places of lesser importance. 3. Fighting with the wrong assumptions
What too often determines where coalition forces conduct their shape-clear-hold-build operations is the prospect for conducting development projects -- not population security. This tends to favor the important over the urgent, the possible over the necessary. For example, major combat operations in the British area of Helmand have been conducted in order to permit development. The Kajaki dam and the agricultural development zone near Lashkar Gah have driven the concentration of forces within the province and, indeed, within the southern region generally. In eastern Afghanistan, U.S. forces have conducted operations to build roads, such as the Khost-Gardez Pass road. These projects are important for long-term development, but they are only sometimes important for achieving our military objectives and should not be allowed to dictate the disposition of scarce military resources.
Moreover, military and civilian efforts in Afghanistan make the wrong assumptions about development. Too often they emphasize the value of a development project as a model -- as a demonstration of Afghan government competence and Western goodwill. Completing a specific dam, for example, shows the population that the Afghan government can provide services in general; clearing a specific village shows that the Afghan national security forces can secure the population in principle. But if the model is not replicated widely and rapidly, it's simply a demonstration of what might be accomplished. Demonstration effects will not defeat the insurgency. Either a venue is secure and has an operating government, or it does not. A good counterinsurgency plan succeeds by generating synergies among good, localized projects -- not by identifying a thousand points of light and hoping that they constitute an electrical grid. 4. Fighting successfully -- or failing? Metrics are important in any war, and based on recent reports, the Obama administration is preparing a new set of indicators to measure whether the fight in Afghanistan is succeeding. As important as identifying good metrics is rejecting bad ones. Violence against coalition forces, for example, is an unreliable indicator of success or failure. For one thing, as we saw in Iraq, violence against friendly forces can increase at the start of a counteroffensive to regain control of areas that the enemy holds. No violence, in turn, might mean that an area is completely controlled by the enemy. The metrics of success are not simply statistics, and they cannot be determined independently of a campaign plan, which sets out a hierarchy of tasks and objectives. 5. Can we win?
Some answer simply and sharply in the negative: They claim that Afghanistan has never been centrally ruled (which is wrong) and that it has been the "graveyard of empires" (which is true in only a specific handful of cases). Failure is not at all inevitable. The war in Afghanistan has suffered almost from the start from a lack of resources, especially the time and attention of senior policymakers. The United States prioritized the war in Iraq from 2007 until 2009, for strategically sound reasons. Some of this parsimony also comes from flawed theories of counterinsurgency: U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, for example, misreads the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, which has consistently led him to argue incorrectly against expanding the size of the force there, claiming that it increases the risks of failure.
We can win in Afghanistan, but only if we restructure the campaign and resource it properly. Adding more resources to the military effort as it has been conducted over the past few years, without fundamentally changing its conception, design, and execution, would achieve little. This was also the case in Iraq before the surge, and the change in strategy and campaign plan that followed was as important to success as the additional resources. This explains why McChrystal might adopt a different campaign design -- perhaps requiring additional military resources -- when he submits his formal assessment to the U.S. secretary of defense and NATO secretary-general sometime after the Afghan elections.
The fact that we have not been doing the right things for the past few years in Afghanistan is actually good news at this moment. A sound, properly resourced counterinsurgency has not failed in Afghanistan; it has never even been tried. So there is good reason to think that such a new strategy can succeed now. But we have to hurry, for as is often the case in these kinds of war, if you aren't winning, you're losing.