Essay

BAD MOVES IN THE GREAT GAME

Even before the tragedy, some coalition partners were bridling at the U.S.

ARTHUR KENT April 29 2002
Essay

BAD MOVES IN THE GREAT GAME

Even before the tragedy, some coalition partners were bridling at the U.S.

ARTHUR KENT April 29 2002

BAD MOVES IN THE GREAT GAME

Essay

Even before the tragedy, some coalition partners were bridling at the U.S.

ARTHUR KENT

A friendly fire tragedy places acute strains on any army, but its impact on an alliance can be explosive. Grief, furstration and anger bleed up through the stitching that holds the patchwork of national forces together. The crossfire of urgent questioning can establish reasons but never a completely satisfactory answer. That’s because there simply is no excuse, particularly during a training exercise, for one warrior to shoot his brothers in arms in the back, for the most basic functions of command and coordination to break down so shamefully.

In this case, for the American commanders of coalition forces in Afghanistan, the disgrace of killing highly valued Canadian allies is likely going to result in much more than mere embarrassment. Even before this horrific blunder, several of Washington’s coalition partners were bridling at the Pentagon’s chronic overreliance on high technology and the Bush administration’s unilateralist approach to conducting war and diplomacy. And not without reason: the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan has gradually sputtered to a standstill, crippled by intelligence failures, under-strength forces, treacherous or inept regional allies and that nagging old bugbear of foreign newcomers to The Great Game, bad luck.

In this context, the incident south of Kandahar is causing some observers to predict a catharsis of sorts among Washington’s coalition partners, who’ve placed too many of their young soldiers’ lives on the line to just wait for their next marching orders in George W Bush’s war against terrorism. “Of course countries like Britain and Canada won’t quit the field,” says one diplomat associated with British troops now patrolling Kabul. “But officers and politicians from all nations in the coalition now have every right to insist on some big changes. They deserve not just to be heard by our friends at the Pentagon, but to have their advice accepted and acted upon.”

These changes, according to insiders with ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force based in Kabul, will involve much more than ensuring that a part-time fighter pilot is told where a company of infantrymen from Edmonton might be sharpening up their live-fire skills. They will focus, as well, on the overall strategy and conduct of the war.

Last week’s admission by senior officials of the Bush administration that the campaign’s commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, erred by not deploying more U.S. and coalition ground forces in the December assault on al-Qaeda forces at Tora Bora, perhaps enabling Osama bin Laden to escape to Pakistan, comes after months of grumbling, particularly in British military circles, that the Americans place too great an emphasis on aerial bombing, and too little on grunt work on the ground. The recent addition to the campaign of 1,750 infantrymen of Britain’s Royal Marines is the direct result of complaints from London that Pentagon

planners spend too much time with their heads in the clouds.

When American boots do get dusty, it’s too often the case that coalition forces storm their way into blind canyons, handicapped by inadequate intelligence-gathering and analysis. In early March, for example, in the Shah-i-Kot district near Gardez, American commanders sent a small detachment of scouts into a valley that U.S. spies suspected was the hideout of dozens of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Instead, hundreds of enemy soldiers were dug in on surrounding peaks and ridges. The resulting ambush claimed the most U.S. combat casualties in a single mission since the Afghan campaign began last October.

Red-faced Pentagon spokesmen were forced to admit that as many as 1,000 gunmen were lurking in Shah-i-Kot. But they insisted that every possible escape route was blocked by the more than 2,000 coalition soldiers who had been thrown into the batde. Operation Anaconda was meant to encircle the scattered bands of fugitives, choking down on their escape routes with snake-like coils of coalition forces. But once again, precise information about the elusive enemy was scarce, and the U.S. command was slow to take full measure of the sympathy and assistance given to al-Qaeda and Taliban forces by tribal leaders in the region.

Despite intense bombing, only a handful of bodies was found. Soldiers on the scene admitted that plugging every gap in the region’s border with neighbouring Pakistan was impossible. When the Princess Pats followed up in their first mission in the region last month, sweeping Tergul Ghar mountain, they too discovered that few enemy casualties could be confirmed. Against this, the Bush administration’s insistence that “hundreds of terrorists” had been killed rang hollow. After all, only one senior al-Qaeda leader, Abu Zubaydah, has been captured in six months of warfare. Another has been killed: Mohammed Atef, Osama bin Laden’s head of operations. But Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and most of his former cabinet are alive and well—and reportedly plotting their return to influence from sanctuaries in Afghanistan’s interior and in Pakistan.

The West’s military miscues do nothing to help Afghanistan’s interim government, which is showing the strains of trying to balance the excessively high hopes of the world community with the meagre resources provided thus far by the UN and the U.S.-led coalition. True, the return last week of former king Mohammed Zahir Shah from 30 years of exile in Rome has been greeted with jubilation by the vast majority of Afghans, who see him as a symbol of unity and reconciliation. But his arrival had been delayed by a full month due to security concerns. Only a small crowd of officials met his plane at Kabul airport, and his motorcade from the airport sped swiftly through the capital.

Only 10 days before, the interim defence minister, Mohammed Fahim, was targeted by assassins near Jalalabad: four people were killed and 18 injured when a bomb exploded at the front of his motorcade. Fahim escaped unharmed. The attack followed the rounding up of more than 250 people in Kabul over an alleged plot to overthrow the government. Fahim and his close associates

THE RETURN OF THE KING

Dancers in white tunics and red sashes swirled to the beat of drums while thousands of people lined the route, desperate to catch a glimpse of their former king. After 29 years in exile, Mohammed Zahir Shah, 87, returned to Afghanistan last week. He waved to the crowds and shook hands with tribal leaders before getting into a black Mercedes-Benz for the ride to his newly refurbished home in Kabul. “This is a sacred day,” said onlooker Jawaz Ismaelkhel, 55. “I think all Afghans hope he will bring peace to the country.” Few observers expect the frail former king, who reigned from 1933 until he was ousted in a palace coup in 1973, to be more than a benevolent father figure. He is seen as a pacifist, in stark contrast to the warlords and Islamic fundamentalists who fought for control of the country following his departure. In June, he will convene a loya jirga, a national assembly of tribal elders and other Afghan representatives, who will select a new government to rule the country until elections in late 2003. There are no plans for restoration of the monarchy, but Shah said he wants to spend his last years serving his people. “I’m a patriot who does his duty,” he said. “I will carry out any role or mission the people of Afghanistan wish to bestow on me.”

blamed Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the extremist villain of previous acts of Afghanistan’s decades-long wartime drama. But opponents of Fahim’s ethnically Tajik cadre, who dominate the interim government, claim that the spectre of a coup by FFekmatyar was used as a pretext by the Tajiks to keep their rival Pushtun politicians off balance.

Trapped by this confusion and strife is the interim prime minister, FFamid Karzai, himself a living symbol of the lost opportunities ofWashingtons Afghan adventure. Ever since his swearingin last December, Karzai has appealed in vain to the Bush administration and the UN for more peacekeeping troops. Without them, he warned, the countryside would descend into chaos as the old warlords reclaimed their fiefdoms.

FFe’s been proven right. Attacks on aid workers are common-

place—an Afghan UN employee was murdered in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif in early April—and even ISAF troops do not consider themselves safe, especially after dark, in the streets of the capital. In Kandahar last week, a gunman opened fire on two U.S. soldiers strolling through town. One of the Americans and a civilian were wounded in the attack. Meanwhile, a war of leaflets is underway. U.S. forces are distributing handbills urging local Afghans to support the interim government, while alQaeda flyers offering bounties for the killing and kidnapping of Westerners have been pushed under doors in at least one province, Paktia.

It is across this perilous landscape that FFamid Karzai and his ministers must shepherd representatives from every province, district and valley in Afghanistan to the loya jirga, or grand assembly, in June. The assembly is the next crucial step toward free elections in 18 months’ time. All of Karzai’s powerful foreign benefactors have pledged their support. In the shadows, however, things aren’t as clear or comforting.

That blowback-prone veteran of the Afghan wars, Americas CIA, seems unable to shake off bad habits formed in the pre-Taliban and Soviet eras. Even while Bush repeats the mantra, “There must be an end to warlordism in Afghanistan,” the CIA has tried to buy the loyalties of local warlords the old-fashioned way—by stuffing a lot of money in their pockets. In January of this year, traders in Peshawar, Pakistan were reporting a surge in sales of big, garishly painted 4x4s. Payment was always in fresh U.S. bills, and it was mainly Afghanistan’s self-professed anti-Taliban local potentates doing the big spending. “The decision seems to be that if we can’t put enough of our own troops on the ground to secure strategic provinces, then we’ve got to rent the next best thing—a friendly warlord,” says one U.S. congressional aide. “Just because that approach blew up in our faces before and gave us the Taliban doesn’t mean we won’t try it again now.”

That wry comment aside, the Americans won’t have long to wait before experiencing their next blast of blowback. The replanting of poppies in many of the country’s opium-producing regions is indirectly the result, say diplomatic sources in Kabul, of misguided patronage by the U.S. Several of the local commanders who sided with the Americans against the Taliban in Kandahar and at Tora Bora quickly turned their attention to regaining their share of opium cultivation and trafficking in their regions, which the Taliban took from them during their rise to power. Farmers, too, are eager to replant, and in one incident last month fired on officials of the interim government who offered too little in compensation to burn the poppies. One official was killed and four wounded. Widespread revival of the trade now seems impossible to prevent.

Some critics within Washington’s intelligence circles say the upsurge in warlordism means there’s an urgent need to redefine the end goals of the Afghan campaign. “For months, all you could hear around D.C. was the sound of everyone patting each other on the back for kicking the Taliban out of Kabul,” says one analyst. “You couldn’t mumble a word of criticism without being called unpatriotic. We’ve got to get over that and get back to the drawing board, big time.” Even if that happens, a refined strategy will do little to console the grief-stricken families of Canada’s friendly fire victims. Nor will it ease suspicions that the Bush administration’s war against terrorism has lost its way in the Afghan wilderness, and did so because a smokescreen of triumphalism obscured even the fog of war. 03