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PORTSIDE  August 2011, Week 1

PORTSIDE August 2011, Week 1

Subject:

Afghanistan: Of Bumps & Foolishness

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Date:

Tue, 2 Aug 2011 21:47:41 -0400

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Afghanistan: Of Bumps & Foolishness

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan
Submitted to portside by the author
Aug. 2, 2011

Kabul, Afghanistan-American and allied forces in Afghanistan
are strengthening a layered defense along the border with
Pakistan to seize Haqqani network militants as they try to
make their way to Kabul to carry out spectacular attacks,
according to senior military officers---New York Times,
8/1/11

Okay, New York Times, time for a little geography lesson,
with a few bits of history thrown in.

Let’s start with that old Rand McNally three-dimensional map
of the world that formerly graced the walls of grammar
schools across the country (I happen to have one in my
closet). It has low spots to demonstrate deep-sea trenches
and bumps for mountain ranges. Among the biggest set of bumps
are the Hindu Kush (the western extension of the Himalayas)
that corresponds to the border between Afghanistan and
Pakistan. The highest of those bumps is Mt. Noshaq (24,580
ft).

This is also a very long border, 1,510 miles more or less
(more on that later). Think of the distance between Portland,
ME and Miami, FL, New York City and Dallas/Fort Worth, or
London and Moscow. It is mostly really big bumps, (except
some lower ones on the western edge of the border), so it is
not only long, it contains some of the most formidable
terrain on the planet.

In fact the “official” border is marked from Sikaram Peak to
Laman Peak. It is always a bad idea to fight a war where you
measure the battlefield by the distance between peaks. If
there are general rules of war, certainly one of them is: “Do
not fight in places that the Rand McNally three-dimensional
map puts lots of bumps.”

This is also not a border, in the normal sense of word, with
the striped guardhouses and border checks. For one thing, the
Afghans and the Pakistanis had nothing to do with
establishing it. That was done—with considerable mischief in
mind— in 1893 by Sir Mortimer Durand, then England’s lead
colonial officer in India (Pakistan did not yet exist).

His plan was to split up the Pashtuns—an ethnic group who
have populated the region since at least the fifth century
BC—so that they would not constitute a majority in either
region. Pashtuns make up about 42 percent of Afghanistan and
about 15 percent of Pakistan. The Pashtuns have never
recognized the Durand Line, and neither has the government in
Kabul. This makes Pakistan nervous, because aside from India,
one of the things Islamabad fears most is ethnic
dismemberment: the establishment of an independent
Pashtunistan.

Pashtuns on both sides of the border are bound by a common
language, culture and kinship system, so independence is
hardly out of  the question.

Pashtuns are among the most hospitable people in the world,
but they don’t like being invaded or occupied, which no one
has successfully managed to do, although many have tried. A
19th century British general remarked that when one gets
ready to invade the area, the first thing to do is plan a
line of retreat, the inevitable course followed by all
militaries.

So now, let’s look at “layered defense along the border,” as
well as American pressure on the Pakistani military “to
cleanse their border of militants.”

First, from the Pashtuns’ point of view, Pakistan’s military
is just as much a foreign intruder as were the Greeks,
Buddhists, Mongols, Muslims, and British, and Islamabad’s
army would have just about the same level of success as all
those other invaders. Second, any attempt to “cleanse” the
border would stir up major hostilities among the tribes and
clans in both countries and feed Pashtun nationalism, which
is exactly what Islamabad does not want to do.

But even if Pakistan was to decide to actually try to
“cleanse” the border, Islamabad has neither the manpower nor
the money to do so (even if it were possible, which history
argues it is not). Pakistan has some 1.4 million men under
arms, but only a little over 600,000 of those are regular
troops. The rest are reserves or border police and local
paramilitaries. And most of those troops have to be kept on
the border with India, with which Pakistan has fought three
wars.

Pakistan’s military is currently engaged both in fighting its
own domestic Taliban in South Waziristan and maintaining
troops in North Waziristan, but the North West Frontier and
Federally Administered Tribal Areas—the part of the world we
are talking about—are vast tracts of terrain, and “pacifying”
them is quite beyond the capabilities of any army in the
world, let alone Pakistan’s.

The situation is not much different on the Afghan side of the
border. The combined NATO forces are about 132,000, of which
100,000 are Americans (although 4,000 are headed home in the
next few months). However, with the exception of the British,
Canadians and Australians, most of the allied troops are not
involved in active combat, so the actual number of troops
available is closer 110,000. And not all of those troops
fight. Some drive trucks, some handle supplies and logistics,
some man bases. The final number of fighters? Maybe 60,000.

The Afghan Army is somewhere between 150,000 and 171,000—the
exact number is hard to pin down because so many desert
within the first few months—of which only several
thousand—two brigades— are capable of fighting on their own.
There are also134,000 Afghan police, but they don’t fight. In
fact, according to most Afghans, they mostly extort.

You can’t put all those U.S., allied, and Afghan troops on
the Pakistan border, particularly since the Taliban have
spread their attacks to formally “pacified” areas of the
country, in the north, east and west. And. in any case, the
Afghan Army is still training (although it is curious that
while the Taliban soldiers receive virtually no training,
they are able to hold their own in battle with the most
sophisticated and well-trained military force in the world).

For arguments sake, let’s say you could put a mix of 40,000
troops on the border, a border of massive mountains and deep
valleys, a border filled with passes, trade routes and goat
trails, a border that stretches 1,510 miles. With 20,000
troops, the British Army could not seal the 224-mile border
between southern and Northern Ireland.

The Taliban are mostly Pashtun, although not all Pashtun are
Taliban. Polls indicate that about 12 percent to 15 percent
of the Pashtun support the group. But the vast majority of
Pashtuns recognize that sooner or later, the Kabul government
and the U.S. will have to sit down and make a deal with the
Taliban for some kind of coalition government. The lack of
support for the insurgents does not mean the Pashtun will
betray them. Since the Haqqanis are Pashtun, they can cross
this border virtually anyplace, and, as the last few weeks
have illustrated, the Taliban and their allies can strike
almost anywhere.

The problem with all this nonsense about “thickening the
Afghan border” is not the “senior military officials”—
generals lie, it’s part of their job description—but that the
New York Times would print this blather.

It is not only silly, it feeds dangerous illusions at a time
when clear thinking is called for. As Gareth Porter of IPS
News reports, “The Taliban leadership is ready to negotiate
peace with the United States right now if Washington
indicates its willingness to provide a timetable for a
complete withdrawal.” According to Porter, the Taliban are
willing to break any ties with al-Qaeda and won’t even demand
a withdrawal date. The only thing they will insist upon are
no U.S. bases.

So why isn’t the Times reporting this breakthrough instead of
peddling foolishness?

Conn Hallinan can be read at
dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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