Saturday, September 05, 2009

Afghanistan and the nature of hobby wars

I'm finding it tiring to comment or even think on Afghanistan. The place is past the point of no return in the same way you and I can't go back to yesterday. A thousand thousand irreversible wrongs have been done in there, so many of which look something like this. There's are periodic utterances from generals and politicians about the need to change to strategy or tactics in Afghanistan, but these, if they ever translate into NATO operations are simply exercises in reordering the deck chairs and not actually plugging the damn hole. Not that we could do that anyway, given that the hull breach is now well submerged. It's nice to see the current NATO in charge getting all misty eyed and direct about getting to the bottom of this latest gorefest, the same way it nice to see old junkies suddenly clue in and lament the wayward path they've trod. General McChrystal, dude, sir, I get that you're trying, and from what I've read I think you get it, but as long as your troops have access to air strikes no matter what sort of restrictions you impose, this stuff's gonna happen.

In my view, there is, or was, a blood price for any form of success for Teh West over there. It is widely accepted that successful counter insurgency involves bringing the local population onside by offering them a better deal than the other guys. Right now, we support a government that without military protection would fall in yet another civil war. Right now, we tell ourselves we are less brutal than the Taleban because not intending to kill a pile of civilians with air dropped high explosives makes it less bad when we do. Like people can be less dead. I find it darkly funny when NATO challenges Afghan reporting on the casualties of our fuck-ups. Do they seriously think the Afghans are going to believe them, even if, in the remote instance, NATO's figures are true? I guess that bullshit is for us. Please.

Back to the blood price. We've brought with us the same weapon systems, a little updated mind you, but the same ones nonetheless as the Soviets. Fast air, helicopter gunships, armour, and the all the tactical formations that go with them. These do two things that work against us. First, they inflict massive amounts of destruction on places we deploy them. I don't think most readers, and even the people that deploy these weapons in battle have a realistic view of their social and physical effects on the bigger picture. Too culturally wedded to the machine, the western way of war, are we. This blocks us I think from fully appreciating what happens when we use them. The second thing: We are quite fond of calling the adversary "coward" when he blows himself up or remains hidden when the IED goes off, yet in our brave martial prowess, we limit our own casualties by calling in air strikes and artillery as a means of both destroying the enemy and reducing the risk to ourselves. Funny enough the Afghan civilians seem to pay an inordinate price in their own blood for our savings. Hell, we can't even provide the Afghan army with same protective kit as we give our own - they get handmedown surplus clothes and rifles, and just LOOK second rate, and well, when they rape kids, they ACT something much worse. We get what we pay for and then some there, me thinks. We're not willing to pony up the cash to kit them out properly, but hey, rhetoric is cheap and infinite. And so are Afghans looking for a paycheque. Perhaps we don't want to create a national army out capable of turning on us and ejecting us from the country. No, we want something that can absorb our casualties, enforce our will, but which we can destroy should our 'friends' turn on us. I'm getting sidetracked - where was I?

This is not a morally equal fight.

Now, picture it if we took away the tanks, the fighter-bombers, and the gunships and let our troops fight with the same kit as the other guys. Let them dislodge Taleban the old fashioned way. Our own numbers of dead and maimed would be much greater, but we at least would be bleeding in solidarity with the locals. Imagine if we had done this from the beginning and not dropped a single bomb, or shot up a single 'speeding' vehicle, and instead accepting our own casualties so that we would not have to risk getting it wrong and killing innocent Afghans, and making that the fucking point of the whole exercise. We would have been the first invader of that place that went out of its way to protect ordinary Afghans and not ourselves, our puppet governments and war lords.

Our rhetoric says this is what we're about, and we are bleeding, but compared to the bloodprice necessary, we've only pricked our finger.

This post is a thought exercise. I do not believe that we are capable on a political, military, and societal level, of operating and thinking this way. No elected government would survive making this argument, and the NATO armies would mutiny if they were asked fight this way. So like a hobby, we're fighting this war as a zero-risk venture. Sure we might not be successful in the ened, but we can play at it for years without actually having to really bleed. Politicians can shower themselves in unearned glory and salutes, pose with the troops, name highways, and make big statements about sacrifice and stuff when the hearse-planes land in Trenton. People can paste yellow stickers on their trucks and maybe feel like they're part of something. Mil-bloggers (some real, some just sportsfans) can chatter about the relative merits of different kit and vehicles against IEDs and the stinginess of mil-budgets. And a comparatively minor number of our kids can have nightmares for the rest of their lives. But there's no real risk for us as a whole. Only for the expendable few troops who are maimed or die, and those with a political or armchair hockey fan investment (seriously, find out your local war fan's favourite team, slag that team, and I bet their reaction would be the same as if you had criticised the war) in a war that is still paying some dividends in votes and arms stocks. Not, say, like the Afghans, who like an abused spouse, get to take the beating, and then listen to our whinging about how we really didn't mean to do it.

So I'm getting a little tired of hearing about Afghanistan. It is what it is, and for all our talk, we're not gonna do anything about it one way or another until they throw us out. Or something really bad happens to us that makes us bleed like the Afghans.

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