I’ve just finished Afghansty by Sir Roderick Braithwaite. The parallels between what the Soviets tried to do, and what ISAF is trying to do, are striking.

Like American and British forces, the Soviets lost no tactical engagements, and left with a compliant regime in place. Like the Soviets, we’ve been there for a decade, nominally at the request of the Government in Kabul. Like the Soviets, we’re actually taking part (again) in a 300-year-old inter Pashtun civil war between Kabul and Kandahar/Quetta, for control of Afghanistan.

Like the Soviets, most of our kit is heading North when we leave.

If they’ve any sense, the Americans’ll avoid the Friendship Bridge over the Amu Darya into Uzbekistan where the picture above was taken. Nevertheless There will be a picture of American troops and vehicles crossing the same border, over a bridge, somewhere. Whether Karzai and democracy survive in Afghanistan for 5 years or 500, that picture will be the legacy of a decade-long adventure, that the media narrative will decide was lost. Like the Soviets, that will not be entirely fair.

Tarok Kolace, Ben Tre, all over again?

Whatever the logistical and military reasons for destroying something, the costs of doing so run wider than the immediate operation. In this case a commander decided upon using 25 tons of explosives to flatten an Afghan village as it was so thourougly laced with IEDs that to clear it would have taken longer and cost lives. This is, on its own terms a reasonable tactic, given the local circumstances. It also demonstrates why we cannot “win” in any meaningful way.

The Taliban chased locals out of Tarok Kolache, in Kandahar province to the west of Helmand (which is synonymous with ‘Afghanistan’ to the UK media). The village was destroyed without civilian casualties, but it resulted in significant damage to the orchards – harder to replace than the mud huts. The US commander, rather than risk his troops fighting house to house, flattened the village with 25 tons of bombs and artillery and the local civilian population appear to be unhappy (y’ think?) about having their homes flattened. Whilst rebuilding has been discussed at Shuras, meetings with local people, this is not the way to win hearts and minds and secure the loyalty of the people to the Afghan government, nor has any reconstruction yet started, so many of the displaced will disperse to other villages with tales about what happened.

Just as Vietnam was lost, not because of any military victory by the NVA, but by the steady erosion of the peasant’s loyalty, we are at risk, by “destroying villages in order to save it“, of making the same mistakes all over again. I am NOT suggesting that such actions are thoughtless, nor am I suggesting that the US forces in Afghanistan are suffering the same fate as their fathers in Vietnam. Just that there are parallells. There comes a time when the presence in this type of opertaion of Western forces becomes the reason the war is continuing. Too many flattened villages and you have a sullen and hostile population who are ready to support the Taleban.

“Victroy” in Afghanistan will be when western forces leave in 4 years, leaving a stable Government more or less in control of most of the country and a big US base in perpetuity. That’s the best we can hope for. Democracy? And uncorrupt Government – under Karzai? You’re joking right? The problem is that our political masters schooled in stories of VICTORIES! like WW2, the Falklands, Gulf war 1, and so on expect, egged on by a more or less ignorant electorate, the same thing from Afghanistan, and as a result forces will stay in theatre expending blood and treasure long after a rational cost benefit analysis would suggest it’s time to go, in chasing a chimeric victory which remains forever on the horizon. I’m starting to think the Afghan campaign is almost getting to that stage.