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Disarray in Kabul

There was an interesting but infuriating article in The Times by Simon Jenkins today where he describes the current state of affairs in Afghanistan. The shorter Jenkins is that things are not going very well. The crux of the problem is that Nato’s force in Kabul is in shambles with the United States and the United Kingdom in disagreement over their basic strategy, the Canadians having had enough, and the Continental Europeans contributing more trouble then they are worth.

But what really struck my nerve with this article was the praise that Jenkins heaps on the Taleban adversaries. He describes them as the ‘toughest fighters’ on earth. I am admittedly not qualified to pass judgement on that score, but I would have to question the real fighting skill of men who are barely literate, fed or able to maintain basic hygiene. Given the disarray that NATO forces are in, and the difficulties that they are inflicting on themselves, it is no wonder that a numerically larger, motivated and home based insurgency is able to maintain a serious military challenge.

If the challenge posed by the Taleban is to be met by NATO or the government of Afghanistan, then NATO have to take this crisis seriously. The chances of this happening are approximately zero, of course, so the rational thing to do is to look forward to the day when the Taleban regain power in Afghanistan. Given the total bankruptcy of NATO’s military strategy and the weakness of the United States, it is likely that terrorists will regain their safe haven in Central Asia in the medium term.

Such an outcome would be to the total discredit of Western political leadership. Had they committed a serious military effort to Afghanistan, and united behind a common strategy, Afghanistan would have settled down under corrupt but peaceful leadership years ago. But there is no evidence of any politician in the West taking Afghanistan seriously.

40 comments to Disarray in Kabul

  • James

    We should leave, and if the Taliban take control and start letting bin Laden and Co get up to their old hijinks we should bomb them. That way we maximise “our” (or American) strengths, while avoiding the pit falls of nation building.

  • guy herbert

    “I would have to question the real fighting skill of men who are barely literate, fed or able to maintain basic hygiene.”

    Except the game is not wholly about skill, much more about endurance. Which is why the Taleban remain a difficult enemy: coming in the first place from one of the most awful impoverished places on earth, having grown up with poor nutrition, zero medical care, and a very narrow conception of education, they really don’t care about those deficiencies. Though their ideology and tribal culture also blinds them to the alternatives to being part of the robber/warrior band, unlike most other guerilla armies, to them the long war is normality, not an extreme expediency.

  • Nick M

    Our ROE are cocked-up.

    I saw the show on Sky with Ross Kemp (?!). They were being fired on from a mosque. Can’t bomb it – it’s a mosque. The convey was being spied on as it traveled through a town. Did the top gunner engage? Nope. Remember those US Rangers who got in trouble for burning Taliban bodies (against Islamic practise) and calling their comrades “ladyboys”.

    It’s well past time we got medieval on their asses. Away from Kabul the media won’t even pick it up.

    As far as “nation building” is concerned we’ve built an Islamic Republic where this sort of thing happens. I think Bismarck once said a certain cause was not worth the “bones of a single Pommeranian Grenadier… I’m beginning to see where ol’ Otto was coming from.

  • WalterBoswell

    This is madness. There are plenty of Afghan and Uzbek warlords up north who could for the right fee be bribed to work together and with the right amount of weapons and advice could flatten the Taliban. This isn’t the late 70’s any more. Neither the KSA nor Pakistan will give the backing they once did to the Taliban. Put a dictator in power. Arm the bugger to the teeth. Supply air power where necessary. Get Unocal on the phone. Lay down the pipeline. Two fingers to the Russians and a kick to the teeth for Iran. Simon Jenkins can find himself a new noble savage. Happy Days?

  • Eric

    Guy has the sense of it. Sneaking around steep mountains and dark caves whilst setting up ambushes in mountain passes is just the way life is for these people. And it will be much easier for them to endure – they live there.

    Michael Yon has been afraid Afghanistan is going pear-shaped for months. Between the incompetence of the NATO forces and the idiocy of the drug warriors, we’re in real trouble.

  • nostalgic

    I really wonder what on earth we are doing in Afghanistan at all. We Brits should have learned or history lessons from the 19thC. Remember the Retreat from Kabul? The Afghans have been continuously fighting throughout their history. When they are not fighting foreign invaders they are fighting amongst themselves. And when you consider the desperate conditions in which they live death isnt a bad option, especially if the chance of Paradise is on offer.

  • neonoctafish

    Scott, you may ‘have to question the real fighting skill of men who are barely literate, fed or able to maintain basic hygiene’ but, as they managed to see off the Russians who certainly did take the gloves off followed by the ‘might’ of NATO, I don’t. The Taliban offered to hand over Bin Laden after 9/11 but the US wanted war. Sometimes you reap what you sow.

  • permanentexpat

    Spot on. Nobody, especially those we have elected to be responsible for The Septic isle, reads or has read any history of the area…the graveyard of empires including Alexander’s &, with its overwhelming military numbers, Bresznev’s.
    What in hell, literally, we are doing there I have no idea.
    As for the NATO ‘allies’………
    Get out…before any more of our blood & treasure (hah!) is uselessly wasted. Tell the Afghanis to keep to themselves & continue killing each other in their time-honoured custom…or suffer occasional vitrification.
    A little more time should be given to considering our own, & now almost complete, decline.

  • Nxc

    I recently attended a Cato institute forum, where Stanley Kober made his case that Afghanistan could be the dissolution of Nato. Turkey’s forces won’t leave Kabul, and Germany and Italy decline to do any of the heavier fighting. As long as the Mujahid in Afghanistan are supplied and reinforced from Pakistan, the allied forces will have a hard time doing anything conclusive in Afghanistan.

    NATO may not be able to fulfill its pledge to rally around attacked member states, in part, as Kober suggested, because some member states are too burdened by the costs of the welfare state to spend the 2-3% of GDP required to support overseas troops for extensive periods.

  • Alice

    Let’s see. 87 dead Brits, in something over 5 years. Hell, the Brits have seen more dead after a football match.

    The bigger problem is the irresponsibility of the European political/chattering classes. They will the ends, but not the means. They complain when the US goes ahead and does something, and then whine when the US stands back & gives them the lead.

    The world is full of unanticipated consequences. If the current course continues, it will not be long before some US politician starts beating the drum for the US to get out of NATO, out of Europe. And the oh-so-superior Brits & French & Germans will suddenly realize that they stand alone, heavily dependent on Russian gas & oil — and paying ever more dearly for the re-militarization of Russia. Take that one to the UN, and see what happens!

    Time for people to wake up. Mao’s truth still stands, power comes out the barrel of a gun — no matter how sophisticated & post-modern people may like to think they are.

  • nostalgic

    Alice –
    87 dead Brits in a pointless and unwinnable war. Will the USA still be there after its election?

  • alexis

    Alice, 4:05. Spot on.

    Post modern sophistication is no substitute for an efficient fighting force. It is, rather, the product of having lived a life of absolute secuity.
    Absolute security enables absolute fantacy.

  • Vinegar Joe

    nostalgic……..not everyone is as incompetent as your 19th century Brits. The US has been having to clean up the mess left by European colonial adventures for the past 60+ years.
    And things would be much better had the US killed off the Eurofarce known as NATO back in 1989.

  • kevin barry

    what nonsense. the taliban is a remarkably weak, tribal, and grossly ill-equipped criminal group. the idea that they could “take over” any country is ludicrous. this is not the taliban of five years ago.
    the only thing that would allow them to seize afghanistan is if the usa walked away. it’s not military might that will tell the tale here, it’s political will.

  • Bain Capital

    Hopefully this will be the end of NATO, and the end of the US spending lives and treasure to protect feckless Eurocrats!

  • The Taliban’s major military advantage is their refusal to abide by the rules of war. If they stopped targeting civilians, we could go months without noticing them. If they put on uniforms, they would be gone by the next afternoon. A few condign and exemplary hangings, after an open trial and reams of horrifying testimony, would bring this into sharp focus.

  • Cynic

    it will not be long before some US politician starts beating the drum for the US to get out of NATO, out of Europe.

    Please. The American political elite, liberal and conservative, find such notions to be wickedly ‘isolationist’ and un-American.

    Anyway, I don’t think Nato will win in Afghanistan simply because they are practically being held hostage by events in Pakistan that Nato governments have little influence over. British troops can beat back the Taliban year in year out, but they just go and get new men and arms from Pakistan and come back again. Our government is hawkish but unwilling to pay the costs of such a policy, so our army slowly degrades due to underfunding and shortages of equipment.

    One thing I don’t understand though is if Robert Gates believes European troops to be not fit to fight counterinsurgency, why does he want Europe to send more troops to Afghanistan? It seems pointless if they aren’t capable of fighting counter-insurgency.

  • James

    Vinegar Joe, I reckon the current British and American governments could give anyone a run for their money in the incompetency stakes.

  • A Lale

    I’m pretty sure most of your commenters are neither soldiers, nor readers of military blogs like Strategypage. Running around like hysterical ninnies shrieking that the sky is falling in is neither dignified nor warranted by the situation in Afghanistan. Yes, NATO is a very poorly organised alliance with many members unwilling to pull their weight. But to call America weak, and the situation in Afghanistan dire is ludicrous. The US has always had the most troops in Afghanistan, and recently moved a brigade of Marines there from Iraq. The US, UK, Canada and Australia have done most of the fighting, with a sterling contribution by French special forces. That will probably continue. They have killed huge numbers of the enemy, whilst keeping civ casualties to tiny numbers (much to the annoyance of the MSM). We are in no danger of losing militarily.
    And nation building in Afghanistan was always going to be tougher than Iraq, because it is starting from a much lower point. Its still absolutely worth doing, as I’m sure most soldiers in Afghanistan could tell you, and any politician who had the balls and the interest to find out what the real facts are.

  • Young Otto

    “I think Bismarck once said a certain cause was not worth the “bones of a single Pommeranian Grenadier… I’m beginning to see where ol’ Otto was coming from. “

    Nick M, I have a feeling that the cause was Poland and the speaker was Frederick the Great of Prussia.

  • Cynic

    I thought it was Bismarck who said the Balkans weren’t worth a single grenadier.

  • guy herbert: “Which is why the Taleban remain a difficult enemy: coming in the first place from one of the most awful impoverished places on earth, having grown up with poor nutrition, zero medical care, and a very narrow conception of education, they really don’t care about those deficiencies.”

    Indeed, living in the dark ages gives then the advantage of being inured to hardship.

    Vinegar Joe: “not everyone is as incompetent as your 19th century Brits”

    They were competent enough to build the largest empire that’s ever existed, so they must have been doing some things right.

    Cynic: “I thought it was Bismarck who said the Balkans weren’t worth a single grenadier.”

    I believe you are right.

    I wonder whether Britain should be in Afghanistan at all, given the sort of people we are backing.

  • Paul Marks

    Many soldiers from various European nations are quite capable of fighting in Afghanistan (both in terms of courage and organization and training). They are just not allowed to by some governments – such as the German government.

    It is a “rules of engagement” thing.

    On Afghanistan generally:

    Many people have writen about the problems there. Whether it was worth going in is not really an issue – as had President Bush not ordered going in back in 2001 he would have been dragged from the White House and hung from a tree.

    I remember Dr Sean Gabb telling me just after 9/11 that now noninterventionism would have its day – he failed to see that (for all the flaws of interventionism) 9/11 had killed noninterventionism. Although I wish Bush had not turned from a foe of “nation building” into the fanatic for it that he now is.

    As for getting out now and bombing the place from time to time.

    Gettting out now means LOOSING.

    Not just in Afghanistan – as it would have a knock on effect in other places (not “domino theory” – just that it would be proved that the West can not stand up to the warriors of God and the West is on the way to being under the thumb of radical Islam).

    Why on Earth are you reading Simon Jenkins, Scott?

    The man is a total waste of space.

    There are many better writers on the various errors and mess ups in Afghanistan.

  • It is nothing to do with being a just war, or even a war that we can win. (no nation has ever successfully invaded and kept Afghanistan).

    It is and always has been about keeping our military fully engaged, over stretched and out of the UK whilst the slow motion coup d’état is enacted across Europe with the signing and ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.

  • permanentexpat

    A Lale writes:

    We are in no danger of losing militarily.

    I don’t think we’re in much danger of winning either. Paul says that getting out now would be losing and, as usual, he’s right in that it would be ‘seen’ as such.
    It needs to be said that armies are for fighting. Infrastructure & nation building are for civilian agencies. Just what in the hell are non-combatant armies doing there? They should either pick up their guns & head south or demobilise back home. Small wonder when ‘small’ countries’ fighting contingents get extremely offgepissed with their soi disant allies & consider packing it in for lack of reasonable support.

    Vinegar Joe…or is it Errol Flynn…Read Philip Hunt @ 8.52pm again. Your reasoning suggests that Vietnam, Lebanon & Somalia mean that the US is incompetent.

  • permanentexpat

    Vinegar Joe:

    Now Grenada…..that was something really well done; nothing like the others. Pity you forgot to tell Maggie. ;-))

  • hovis

    Nostalgic said “I really wonder what on earth we are doing in Afghanistan at all. We Brits should have learned or history lessons from the 19thC”

    Well nostalgic the lesson of the retreat from Kabul is actually have a fighting force, not a column of mainly support staff and decent leadership and a set of objectives.

    Re the retreat from Kabul – The leader was an incompetant geriatric and of the column of thousands at most 500 were actually fighting troops.

    When Britain did intervene in Afghanistan properly it was very successful, there was no desire to pacify the country as it held little benefit, best to beat them when only when they were not playing the game as we liked.

    So the myth of Afghan invincibility is pure C19th poppycock, invented by the types back home who loved doomed heroism.

  • permanentexpat


    Let’s see. 87 dead Brits, in something over 5 years. Hell, the Brits have seen more dead after a football match.

    Yep….not to mention the many physically & psychologically maimed who are in further danger from mediaeval primitives in NHS hospitals & whose recompense from a grateful nation is less than that awarded a typist with a hurt wrist.
    Yep….some football match.

  • squawkbox

    Regardless of Jenkins’ nonsense about the “toughest fighting men on earth”, I share his pessimism. The taliban don’t need to beat NATO forces, they just need to outlast them, which they will easily do while they retain the following advantages.
    1. Safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
    2. New recruits as required from Pakistan’s madrassas (Jenkins doesn’t seem aware that the Taliban are more Pakistani than Afghan)
    3. (I suspect) effectively limitless quantities of laundered Saudi money to finance their efforts.
    4. Western governments not prepared to do anything about (1), (2), and (3). I concede that the obvious solutions might well make matters worse.

    Still, one bright spot. If Simon Jenkins says something will occur, you can usually make money betting on the opposite.

  • Plamus

    Mitch has it right. Some re-alignment of rules of engagement (and general behavior) is needed. Brings to mind the famous anecdote about a British general in colonial India who, when faced with the traditional Hindu practice of “suttee” – the burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands – told his Indian subjects:

    “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: When men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”

    Multi-culturalism can be a real bitch when applied right.

  • nick g.

    LEARNING from history? Is it true that the British public believes that Churchill was a myth, but that Sherlock Holmes was real? It seems like the British are going backwards!

  • nostalgic

    nick g.
    Your comment had me scratching my head but I’ve just found a poll to which you must be referring. Frankly I’m very surprised that the interviewees had even heard of some of these characters – but we are getting way off topic here.

  • Otto

    My apologies, I was wrong. The quotation about not being worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier is from Bismark not Frederick the Great.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I love the way that Simon Jenkins builds up the Taliban into an invincible force; no doubt had Simon been writing in say, 1940, we’d get lots of learned, oh-so “realist” commentary about that warmongering Churchill and his failure to grasp the deep nuances of the continental balance of power, the fact that the Germans had long grievances, probably all our fault, our forces not up to the job, blah, fucking blah.

  • PaulT

    Jenkins is a good writer on domestic issues, but he absolutely zero grasp of foreign policy. He calls himself a libertarian, but actually he’s a Pat Buchanan style conservative.

    On another point, western military efforts are hampered by the leftie, guilt-ridden, self-loathing thinking which has spread like a cancer through the political, academic and media classes. Leftards believe anything the West does is evil, whereas anything that say, the Taliban does is good, or if not good, then excusable.

    This means that policies that would achieve our aims are thwarted, because military leaders must fight with at least one, usually both arms tied behind their backs.

  • Nick M

    Thanks Otto.

    I’m surprised you no longer remember your own dictums 🙂

  • Paul Marks

    The “safe” Pakistan is a thing of the past – was I the only one to notice the Preditors now kill people in Pakistan?

    In short the “you can not touch me I am not the Pakistani side of the border” time is over.

    Nor, of coure, is there any real distinction between the A.Q. and the Taliban.

    By the way many empires have had Afghanistan as a stable part of them.

    Although this is not the objective of the West.

    As, contrary to Simon Jenkins and co, there is no such thing as the “American Empire”.

  • dan

    This complaint has been current for at least two years now; I know because I’ve been watching briefings and appears by, for example, US General Jim Jones on C-SPAN. The fact is, as someone stated above, the Taliban is not even a cohesive fighting force; they are a media bracket involving warlords, charismatic mullahs, drug traffickers, opium farmers, smuggling routes, and Uzbek/Pashto/Dara tribes armed by Russia, among others. On the side of the Modern World, NATO is most hampered by the political realities of European countries where vast majorities reject anything remotely smacking of military imperialism, having been reared on Marxist-Leninism amid the cultural consequences of World War 2.

    The fact is, “abandoning” Afghanistan following the Soviet War was exactly the circumstance that resulted in a Central Asian base for interntational terrorism, and no strategic commander of responsible militaries is going to allow that to happen again. Yes, the problem is Pakistan – specifically the tribal areas (30+ million people) – who can give a man a rifle and a cause where there would only otherwise be boredom, subordination to a tribal chief or mullah, and shepherding. This is why Pakistan is the major target, and these tribals must finally be brought to heel. If they could be ignored, all the better, but 9/11, USS Cole, and related developments demonstrate with crystal clarity that they cannot be ignored.

    Yes, Bismarck was referring to the Balkans.

    “The Retreat from Kabul” was only one of about a dozen successful British attempts to manage these psychotic tribes in British efforts to prevent Russian inroads through Persia and the Khyber Pass into their Indian possessions. The Retreat from Kabul was a clear failure of logistics, and it was not repeated. Every military engagement of the British Empire there involved an astonishingly small number of Imperial – mostly Indian – troops against huge numbers of tribals, usually in tactically disadvantageous terrain.

    You people ever heard of Wikipedia? Try it for starters. Such threads show that, whatever Wiki’s failures, it provides an outline of truth of which most of you pansies are completely ignorant.

  • nick g.

    Sorry, Nostalgic. It made the internet news here, so I assumed that it was something widely known in Britain. I was really shocked to find that 42% of Britains don’t believe that Sherlock Holmes was real! What is education coming to?