CALCULATED KILLINGS

Never mind the ‘spring offensive,’ Afghanistan remains a battle of wills

SEAN M. MALONEY April 23 2007

CALCULATED KILLINGS

Never mind the ‘spring offensive,’ Afghanistan remains a battle of wills

SEAN M. MALONEY April 23 2007

CALCULATED KILLINGS

Never mind the ‘spring offensive,’ Afghanistan remains a battle of wills

SEAN M. MALONEY

The killing of six Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan on Sunday was seen in some quarters as the first shot in Taliban leader Mullah Dracula Akhund’s much-vaunted “spring offensive.” It was one of several attacks on Easter Sunday, which included a suicide attack against American troops in Nangarhar province, a drive-by shooting in Khost, and other attacks against allied forces in Kandahar and Zabul provinces. The violence was meant to provoke maximum outrage—it came on the same day Canada held commemorations of our 1917 assault on Vimy Ridge, our part in the battle of Arras fighting alongside our British allies, as we are doing once again in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. The Taliban’s tactics remain the same, and after more than five years of insurgency, the movement is no closer to gaining the allegiance of the Afghan people.

The media, helped along by the Taliban, has made much of the spring offensive, but that obscures the facts and the context of this attack.

Though Canadian troops have not been targeted with a significant IED attack since November 2006, the assumption that enemy operations are governed by the season is erroneous. The Taliban and their allies operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Like any insurgency, most of their activity is geared toward building political support among the target population. Violence on the scale of last weekend’s can, however, be selectively employed for strategic effect.

Like the suicide attack that killed four Can-

adians on the day Parliament started a new session in September 2006, this Easter Sunday attack is not a coincidence. Like the September attack, this one was timed so that it would have an impact on a specific date, despite the difference in time zones between Afghanistan and Canada: the first word in Canada of the bombing came in the midafternoon. The enemy is clever: they read our media and knew how important Easter Sunday was this year not only in the religious sense but as a moment in our national hist-

ory. It would be relatively easy for the Taliban leadership to instruct a particular IED cell to conduct a “spectacular” attack on a given day, especially in a high-traffic area. There is a remote possibility that this IED cell, which could be the one that targeted a convoy I was on last summer and killed nobody, merely tried harder this time—but the timing is just too convenient.

DEPLOYMENT OF CANADIANS ALONGSIDE THE BRITISH MAY MEAN IMPROVEMENT IN KANDAHAR

The attack was meant to have a shock effect, to convince Canadians and Canadian decision-makers to quit the fight in Afghan-

istan, not merely degrade our military capabilities on the ground in Kandahar by hurting our troops and their equipment. Attacks like this work. With the of

generally don’t work. With the exception of Spain, following the Madrid train bombings, trying to intimidate a population using these means has historically driven that population together, uniting them. It’s one reason we see such a hardening of factional positions in Iraq, precisely because of the high level of violence conducted on a sectarian basis. Attacking Canada on a day of national unity is likely to prove a foolish miscalculation. The enemy has advertised their vaunted spring offensive. They have distributed CDs

of Mullah Dadullah, the Taliban’s commander of military operations in the south, pumping up his gangs inside Pakistan. Dadullah has personally executed his opponents with a sword and the media has reported all of it. The problem with “spring offensives” is twofold. First, accepting the enemy’s public assertions at face value and over-preparing for an offensive generates a level of anticipation and protection that can be a distraction as the Taliban conducts nefarious activity against the population in the form of intimidation and propaganda. Second, if our forces dismiss or ignore enemy assertions of a spring offensive, and the Taliban does kill troops or launch a series of attacks, they’ll stand accused of negligence, and public confidence in our forces will decline. This is how this kind of war works, not by shelling Hill 145 with a thousand pieces of artillery and then going “over the top” like at Vimy.

The focus of ISAF military activity in Regional Command South is in Helmand province as British forces fight to recover from last year’s setbacks there. The deployment of Canadian forces to work alongside them is now a regular occurrence, and may be an indicator that the situation has improved somewhat in Kandahar province, though that can change any time. Indeed, the Taliban and their allies have over the past months increasingly conducted operations in Farah province, which lies to the northwest of Helmand and is sparsely patrolled by Italian, Portuguese and Spanish ISAF forces, which are far less robust than Canadian and British forces. Have some of the Taliban cells in Helmand been forced by the success of ISAF operations to retreat or rebase into Farah? Or are they maintaining their position in Helmand and expanding into Farah? That is unclear right now. The attacks in Zabul province, northeast of Kandahar, on Sunday should perhaps be interpreted as test operations against Zabul’s relatively new ISAF occupants, the Romanians, and not evidence of successful enemy operations as part of a “spring offensive.”

Canadians should remember that this war is a battle of wills and perceptions. NATO troops have made mistakes, but our motives are morally superior to the objectives of Mullah Dadullah and his friends. Our losses at Vimy were not in vain, nor should our losses in Afghanistan be because Canadians chose to be intimidated by a group of violent people misusing Islam to enslave a proud people who deserve better after over 25 years of war. M

Sean Maloney teaches Contemporary Warfare at the Royal Military College, and is the author of Enduring the Freedom: A Rogue Historian in Afghanistan.