If America decides to take on the Afghans, this is how to do it

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NOTE: John Keegan is one of the world's finest living military historians today.

If America decides to take on the Afghans, this is how to do it By John Keegan

THE newspapers are full of portentous warnings of the dangers that lie in store for any western power foolish enough to cross Afghan frontiers. Columnists recall the 1842 massacre of the East India Company's army or the Soviet army's humiliation at the end of its occupation of the country between 1979 and 1988.

The story is not one of unrelieved failure. Some interventions have been successful, while there are usually easily discernible explanations for why others failed. Efforts to occupy and rule usually ended in disaster. But straightforward punitive expeditions, for limited objectives or to bring about a change in Afghan government policy, were successful on more than one occasion.

The key to successful Frontier campaigning was, and is, to hold the high ground. Any advance at one of Afghanistan's innumerable valleys was always accompanied by posting a string of pickets along the heights. It was easy enough to get a picket - a handful of armed troops - on to the ridges. The trick was to get them down unscathed. Many techniques were devised. Below the crest of a narrow ridge, the enemy waiting to attack the retreating picket were necessarily few in number. So soldiers were trained not only to run headlong down 45-degree slopes but to reverse course in mid-stride and take by surprise those intending to achieve surprise themselves.

Tactics, however, do not win wars. The success achieved by Indian and British troops in the last days of the Raj depended on avoidance of general war and of policies designed to change society or government in Afghanistan. The Raj accepted that Afghanistan was unstable, fractious and ultimately ungovernable and thought merely to check its mountain warriors' irrepressible love of raiding and fighting.

Russia, in 1979, made the mistake the East India Company had in 1839. It tried to impose a government in Kabul. Putting its own man in place was easy enough. Keeping him there proved the difficulty. Rebellion broke out and many towns in which Soviet troops had been stationed came under siege from freedom fighters. The Soviet army defined four aims for itself: lift the sieges; drive the freedom fighters out of the fertile valleys into the mountains; hold a zone around the Khyber Pass through which the freedom fighters were supplied from Pakistan; and eliminate the freedom fighters in the mountains.

Over 100,000 Soviet troops were deployed, in static garrisons and mobile forces. The mobile troops moved in helicopters, supported by gunships. They were quickly successful in lifting the sieges. When, however, they took the war to the enemy, both in the Khyber Pass zone and the mountains, the inherent superiority of the freedom fighters as mountain warriors told. There were constant, costly ambushes. By 1984, most territory outside the towns had passed from Soviet control and Russian casualties had mounted to 15,000.

The Russians persisted, but a Vietnam-style war weariness set in among the conscripts, who were terrified of falling into Afghan hands, and after 1986 Russian air superiority was eroded by the supply of surface-to-air missiles to the freedom fighters by the United States. By 1988, the Russians had decided to leave and soon did so, on negotiated terms. The terms did not hold and the country fell into the hands of the freedom fighters' leaders. Their brutal behaviour laid the basis for the conquest by the Taliban, supported by the Pakistan army.

The pattern to Afghanistan's foreign and domestic wars seems to go as follows. Foreign interventions aimed at dominance founder on the belligerence of the population, who abandon internecine conflict to combine against invaders, and on the country's severe terrain. In the absence of foreign interference, however, Afghans fall easily into fighting each other, often seeking outside help, which provokes intervention, thus restarting the cycle. Limited campaigns of penetration, aimed simply at inflicting punishment, can succeed, as long as the punitive forces remain mobile, keep control of the high ground and are skilful at tactical disengagement.

Is this analysis any help to the Americans? It certainly warns against any plan to station large ground forces inside the country, even supposing they could gain access - the crucial factor. Even though Pakistan has declared itself a supporter of America's war, there are strong arguments against using Pakistani territory as a base. It is densely populated by 150 million people, practically all of them Muslim. The government depends on the army, which is around 30 per cent Islamic. Pakistan's help is welcome, indeed essential, but its territory is unwelcoming.

More promising as a base area is ex-Soviet central Asia, much of it subject to Moscow's authority. The populations are small and the leaders anti-Islamic. Several states have large military facilities, constructed by the old Soviet Union for its Afghan war. As America may, and should, plan to mount only punitive attacks, central Asia promises to be the best basing area available.

What the product of punitive attacks might be defies prediction. As one of President Bush's closest advisers is reported to have asked recently: "What can we do to Afghanistan that Afghanistan hasn't already done to itself?" Always poor and backward, it has been reduced by civil and foreign war to a wasteland. The best that can be hoped of military action is to regenerate division between its many tribes and factions, which may yield terrorist hostages to American wrath, and to frighten the Taliban leaders. There is no tradition of Islamic extremism in the country of the sort endemic in the Arab lands. Afghans, though doughty warriors, are also pragmatists. They like fighting but are prepared to live to fight another day if the odds are stacked against them. The trick America must achieve is to stack the odds in its favour.


-- Rich Marsh (marshr@airmail.net), September 24, 2001


I believe counter terrorist tactics are in order. What are these people most afraid of? Dying "unclean" which would prevent them from going staight to heaven with 50 virgins. They believe if they die unclean they will go straight to the pits of hell.

We need to let them know and carry it out, that our bullets and our missiles will be dipped in pig's blood.

-- Laura (LadybugWrangler@hotmail.com), September 25, 2001.

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