Over and Over Again: As at Gallipoli so in Afghanistan

Critics may charge that following this course would meet the definition of insanity—which, as that old adage has it, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

So write Kosh Sadat and retired US Army General Stan McChrystal about America’s persisting strategy of train & assist and limited engagement in Afghanistan. For them, there are no better alternatives.

America’s longest war drags on

Perhaps this almost inevitable status quo – unchanged by the small additional deployment of troops authorised by President Trump – is why Afghanistan fails to ignite passions in the same way as it used to amongst Western publics?

Indeed the same could almost be said of the civil war in Syria, which no longer dominates the headlines as in years past. When President Bashar al-Assad seemed on the verge of defeat, or when he turned the tables and subjected his countrymen to savage military reprisals, or when the Islamic State overran vast swathes of the battered nation…then you couldn’t pick up a newspaper without seeing the word ‘Syria’ on the front page.

Now, with Assad pretty much back in control, the rebels subdued if not eradicated, and IS on the run from a motley coalition of Syrian, Iranian and Russian troops – perversely backed by American air power – the same air of inevitability as with Afghanistan has set in. Whereas America’s longest war looks set to continue in perpetuity, Syria almost certainly looks set to be rebuilt in Assad’s image, whatever Western leaders may desire.

The Assad regime’s destruction of Aleppo drew worldwide attention only a couple of years ago. Now the city is firmly back in his grasp

This selective war fatigue, for lack of a better term, is not unique. Citizens, and the journalists who thrive off their reaction, need to be shocked to allow events to remain at the forefronts of their minds. Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency has therefore contributed to ‘bigger issues’ being increasingly overlooked.

Car bombings in Baghdad or drone strikes in Syria just doesn’t register with people in the same way that a mass shooting or a lorry ramming into civilians on home soil does.

Even global war cannot alter this fickle public temperament, the extremities of the time forming unfathomable perceptions about what constitutes a noteworthy event.

Take the First World War and, as an example, the comparison between British public reaction to happenings on the Western Front and during the Dardanelles Campaign.

On the charge during the Battle of Verdun

For the British, the Turks were not the real enemy; that dishonour belonged to the Germans and the tragedy of the Western Front consumed everyone back at home.

Even General Charles Monro, who had replaced Ian Hamilton has commander of the Allied forces at Gallipoli in October 1915, had no time for this Levantine Front. He wanted to kill Germans in France and Belgium and he wanted his soldiers to have the opportunity to do likewise.

Similar parallels can be drawn with today, with the likes of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda now viewed as little more than a distant menace rather than the fear-inspiring terrorists of post-9/11. IS and the ‘lone wolf’ or ‘deranged gunman’ have taken their place in the public consciousness.

Al-Qaeda was seared into the public consciousness by inspiring images such as this

Like Sadat and McChrystal’s assessment of the ongoing war in Afghanistan, Allied tactics during WWI involved doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. This was as true of the Dardanelles Campaign as it was of the Western Front, with trench warfare, and the incessant shelling that accompanied it, favoured over more adventurous strategies.

There were calls for Naval action in Turkey and, of course, this was how the campaign had begun, with the Royal Navy very narrowly failing to force through the Ottoman defences and minefields to gain a run on Constantinople. Pleas for a repeat performance were rejected by Monro; he wanted to kill Germans and he wanted the peninsula evacuated. End of.

An Allied shanty town at Gallipoli: the endless waiting, the lack of progress and the public detachment have erased the campaign from many memories

Whereas the Dardanelles received relatively little press coverage or public attention back in Britain, however, the Western Front was a never-ending topic for conversation and commiseration. Equally monotonous as Gallipoli may the tactics have been, yet the casualties and the carnage were simply monstrous. What’s more, they were visible.

Soldiers returning wounded or on leave from the French and Belgian battlefields told their stories with an uncompromising forthrightness. Those injured fighting the Turks were usually evacuated to the Greek islands under British military control. Nobody back home saw them.

Soldiers wounded on the Western Front engage in a spot of croquet

Today the number of American casualties in Afghanistan is minimal, whilst the British have as good as left. As with Gallipoli in the Winter of 1915/16 they left defeated, whatever spin the Government tried to put on the 2014 withdrawal.

Helmand province, a territory that claimed scores of British lives at the height of public awareness in the late 2000s, is now back under Taliban control. Death and humiliation; perhaps that is why memories fade so fast.

As the number of American troops in Afghanistan has significantly declined, so have casualties and, simultaneously, public attention

The British and their Allies won the war against the Ottomans in the end and the Dardanelles Campaign almost single-handedly created an ANZAC identity. Yet how many British schoolchildren could tell you anything about Gallipoli? Of Suvla Bay? Of Winston Churchill’s pivotal role? Of Mustafa Kemal and the beginning of a Turkish legend?

Suvla Bay just before the evacuation of the Gallipoli peninsula

Probably too few…the Western Front, on the other hand, lives on, commemorated and venerated a century later in as forceful a manner as it was reported on at the time.

America’s involvement in its longest war will end, as Britain’s understated hand in Afghanistan already has. How it will be remembered remains to be seen, though one doubts it will trouble the annals in the same way as Vietnam, as Verdun and Ypres or Normandy, maybe even as Iraq.

It is a pity because for so many the commitment hasn’t died and never will. There is a cause to fight for, be it with drones, small arms or simply compromise. Stated in the most basic of terms, the war in Afghanistan can be won but the need for political capital and will is wanting. With a disinterested public, that will remain the case.

And so we drift, as at Gallipoli, waiting for a new Front to fight on, to capture the public’s attention, to spur the politicians into action, to do something new…before it all slowly fades away into dust.

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British Withdrawal from Afghanistan Puts Pressure on USA: can they really afford to scale back?

British combat operations in Afghanistan have ended after 13 years of struggle against the Taliban. With the US also in withdrawal mode, the onus is now firmly on the Afghan security forces to try and implement a degree of stability in this desperately troubled country. Unfortunately, in a nation which has constantly been subjected to foreign intervention and internal strife, recent history suggests that the prospects for enduring peace are slim.

Afghan-withdrawal-_3085659k

The last major withdrawal by an international power from Afghanistan was when the Soviet Union conceded a stalemate against the Mujahideen after a decade of conflict and departed in 1989. Of course, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is somewhat different from the US-led intervention in 2001, yet there are some undoubted similarities. A foreign state fought an indigenous movement for control of the country, with a plethora of warlords, ethnic militias and rival factions aligning and re-aligning themselves between the two main players.

Ultimately, the Soviet withdrawal paved the way for the Afghan Civil War and the eventual seizure of power by the Taliban in 1996. It is certain that the initial Soviet invasion created the conditions for the rise of Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and their presence in the country was anything but stabilizing. Their withdrawal then precipitated the rapid rise of these extremists, who sidelined the more moderate leaders of the Mujahideen and their supporters.

Many of the Mujahideen that fought the Soviets later joined the Taliban and other extremist groups
Many of the Mujahideen that fought the Soviets later joined the Taliban and other extremist groups

It did not take long for American and British forces to overthrow the Taliban government in 2001, yet eradicating this terror-loving group has proven to be a monumentally difficult task. Despite being ousted from large parts of the country, with much of its leadership eliminated, the Taliban continues to wage an insurgency. The Afghan security forces will find this increasingly hard to resist when American combat operations cease.

Despite some excellent achievements and phenomenal sacrifices, the international intervention in Afghanistan has fallen short of complete success. Unless a significant number of American troops are retained in the country for the long-term, then the Taliban will regain control of much of the country. This is partly as a result of their ability to exploit the ethnic and regional divisions of the Afghan people. Mainly, however, it is due to the fact that it has always been able to count on sanctuary in Pakistan.

Northwest Pakistan is a lawless wasteland beyond the reach of Islamabad. American drone strikes have claimed the lives of countless Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives and leaders in the region. Yet the support from the tribal elders who control much of the territory in places like North Waziristan has allowed Islamic extremists to launch cross-border raids against Afghanistan on a regular basis.

North Waziristan's rugged terrain has made it an ideal refuge for extremist groups intent on inflicting misery in Afghanistan
North Waziristan’s rugged terrain has made it an ideal refuge for extremist groups intent on inflicting misery in Afghanistan

With an ineffective Pakistani political class – which has long remained subject to the desires of the military and ISI, whose support for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda is barely disguised – the international coalition has been unable to deliver the death knell for the Taliban.

Put simply, it is not just Afghanistan itself but its geo-political environment that is irreparably compromised. It seems an almost impossible situation to solve and the best the Afghan people can hope for is for it to be managed effectively enough to deliver a semblance of peace.

Without British and American troops, and the sacrifices they have been willing to make, this will not be possible.

afgahn US withdrawal