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Butcher and Bolt

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Issue: 62 Section: Foreign Policy Geography: Middle East Afghanistan Topics: afghanistan, war

August 21, 2009

Butcher and Bolt

Why "special forces" fail in Afghanistan, from Churchill to Obama

by Dave Markland

A Seabee assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5 weathers a mild sand storm in Helmand, an Afghan province near the border with Pakistan. History shows that foreign troops' presence in Afghanistan results in an escalation of violence against civilians; extreme violence by foreign special forces was reported in a village in Helmand in 2007. [cc 2.0]

VANCOUVER—With the ongoing enlargement of US forces in Afghanistan—expected to include a 29 per cent increase in special forces—observers reasonably expect a corresponding rise in violence in that country. But if history is any guide, the augmented firepower may also bring more of a particular brand of counterinsurgency.

As early as 2007, reports emerged of a vicious special forces attack on civilians in Helmand province. Villagers from Toube, in a remote area near the Pakistan border, claimed that foreign special forces along with Afghan soldiers entered the village in a helicopter late at night and proceeded to enter homes and kill civilians on the spot.

Locals interviewed by Afghan journalists "spoke consistently of soldiers breaking down doors, shooting children and cutting throats," and claimed as many as 18 civilians were killed. The accusations were ignored by the international press.

In Winston Churchill's day, such tactics were known as "butcher and bolt" operations and involved indiscriminate attacks on Pashtun villages, leaving crops and homes burned. Circa 1897, the young Churchill's unit, stationed on the edge of British India, were practitioners of the art. Later in his career, Churchill would recommend their use, by name, against the coastal towns of occupied Europe.

But savagery against the Afghan enemy was a feature of British policy from day one, going back to the First Anglo-Afghan War, whose failures would be repeated twice more at 40-year intervals.

The First Anglo-Afghan War ended in 1842 with a storm of English revenge for an infamous incident where the British garrison forces at Kabul were massacred as they retreated. The "Army of Retribution," led by General Nott, was duly dispatched from British India for the purpose of "re-establishing our reputation," in the words of the Governor General. With their reputation at stake the British forces set to work, and several months of savagery reached its climax in an attack on a village north of Kabul where British-led forces killed every adult male and raped and killed many women.

The Second Anglo-Afghan War saw General Roberts' still-remembered "reign of terror" in Kabul. In 1880, as the war was winding down, Pashtun forces met the British in Helmand in the Battle of Maiwand, wiping them out. The retreating Brits then occupied the city of Kandahar, ousting its 8000 civilian inhabitants while they prepared retribution.

Paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division patrol the Ghorak Valley, in Helmand. Obama plans to increase US troop presence in Afghanistan; some American officers and military theorists who championed the surge doctrine's use in Iraq are "divided" over its applicability in Afghanistan. [cc 2.0] Photo: Army.Mil

Despite history's lessons, and in the face of Afghan opposition, US president Barack Obama is going to ramp up the war. "Most of the Afghans interviewed," writes veteran correspondent Pamela Constable, "said they would prefer a negotiated settlement with the insurgents to an intensified military campaign."

Skeptical responses to the surge don't end with its civilian recipients. Even some American officers and military theorists who championed the surge doctrine's use in Iraq are "divided" over its applicability in Afghanistan, according to counterinsurgency specialist Andrew Exum.

Neither is it the case that troop surges have not yet been tried in the current conflict. The results have been consistent—namely, an increase in insurgent violence commensurate with the build-up of foreign troops in the country. Civilian casualties have inevitably followed the surge in violence, hence the opposition of the Afghan population to another troop surge. There is little reason to expect a different result this time around.

This apparent disconnect between tactics and expected results has spread, along with the war, into Pakistan. A recent New York Times report cites "CIA veterans" in Pakistan who warn that Predator strikes "won't undermine, and may promote, the psychology of anti-American militancy" which is already on the rise.

While civilian casualties are widely considered the most important determinant of success for the counterinsurgency effort, there too the US-led war machine is out of touch. While we are regretful when we kill civilians, goes the Pentagon line, we must remember that we do so by accident. The Taliban, on the other hand, do so on purpose, revealing the depths of evil in which they lurk.

Yet Pashtun civilians see it decidedly differently. In their view, violence against civilians is mainly the fault of the US/NATO occupation. As a correspondent with substantial recent experience in the country explains, "[I]t does not matter if the victim was killed by the Taliban, US forces or Nato soldiers. Relatives of the dead now usually blame the government and the occupation for their loss."

Nor does the highest law of the land support the Pentagon stance. International law makes no distinction between deliberate attacks on civilians, which western military leaders often accuse the Taliban of committing, and indiscriminate attacks. "From the standpoint of the law of international armed conflict," notes a leading legal scholar, "there is no genuine difference between a premeditated attack against civilians (or civilian objects) and a reckless disregard of the principle of distinction; they are equally forbidden."

None of this vital context gets coverage or commentary in the mass media, which prefers stories about helpful occupation soldiers whose victory is imminent. Amnesty International's recent assessment of the war in Afghanistan might therefore shock any North American news editor: "Violations of international humanitarian and human rights law were committed with impunity by all parties, including Afghan and international security forces and insurgent groups. All sides carried out indiscriminate attacks, which included aerial bombardments" by NATO and US-led forces.

In spite of impending violence and disaster, the Obama administration and its international partners will persevere in bringing more misery to a terrorized land. As the staid publication The Economist predicted last year: "If America fails in Afghanistan, as it might, it will be remembered there for killing children."

Dave Markland lives in Vancouver where he organizes with StopWar.ca and edits a blog at stopwarblog.blogspot.com.

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