Magazine article The Spectator

For Answers to the Afghan-Pakistan Conflict, Ask: What Would Curzon Do?

Magazine article The Spectator

For Answers to the Afghan-Pakistan Conflict, Ask: What Would Curzon Do?

Article excerpt

David Kilcullen, the influential counter-insurgency strategist, seeks inspiration in Curzon's experience as Viceroy of India to assess what Pakistan must do to deal with the extremist threat - and how Nato can help drive the 'steamroller'

Britain's eyes this week are on southern Afghanistan. US Marines have doubled Coalition troop numbers in Helmand and are moving to clear Taleban base areas as part of Operation Khanjar. A major British offensive is also underway: Operation Panchai Palang, an effort to extend Coalition control along the Helmand River valley, one month ahead of the Afghan presidential elections currently scheduled for 20 August.

Though the Taleban seem so far to be mostly melting away before the Marines, they are making a determined stand against the British. They are digging in among the tactically important canal and river crossings of the central valley, where UK troops are fighting hard to dislodge them from the Nad Ali district northwest of Helmand's provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

During their own Afghan war, the Soviets called this area the Green Belt. They suffered heavy casualties among its complex, densely vegetated mosaic of farms, fields, villages, orchards and irrigation channels - an extremely demanding environment akin, in some places, to the Normandy Bocage of 1944. For its part, Britain has now lost 184 soldiers in Afghanistan, higher than the 179 killed in Iraq, and a number that will unfortunately rise as operations continue. Taleban deaths are much higher.

For Nato, Afghanistan will remain the military main effort in South Asia. It is an important fight which, despite its grinding difficulty, may be slowly starting to improve due to the combination of American reinforcements and the energetic leadership of the new commander, General Stanley A. McChrystal, a Special Forces officer who genuinely 'gets' counter-insurgency. The shift to a strategy of protecting the population, reducing civilian casualties, increasing the size and capacity of Afghan police and military forces, and the planned 'civilian surge' of governance and development assistance are all positive, provided the effort can be resourced and sustained. Indeed, some analysts are quietly starting to express a hope that the sharply negative trends of past years - increased violence, higher civilian casualties, a spreading and intensifying insurgency, an intractable narcotics problem and corrupt and ineffective local government - may begin to bottom out at some point in the next fighting season (conflict in Afghanistan, like its agriculture, having a very definite seasonal character). War is a complex human activity, insurgency is its most complex variant. So it is much too early to predict how the campaign will develop. But we can certainly expect continued major fighting over the summer and autumn and into the ninth winter of a very long war.

Meanwhile, across the frontier in Pakistan, another offensive is underway. And while Afghanistan is Nato's main concern, what is happening in Pakistan is of even greater strategic importance.

Afghanistan has roughly 30 million inhabitants; Pakistan's population and territory are more than five times larger. Two thirds of the Pashtun ethnic group, the world's largest tribal society - one of the biggest nations without its own state and the main recruiting base for the Taleban - are in Pakistan not Afghanistan. The senior leadership of alQa'eda, the Afghan Taleban, and the other major insurgent factions are in safe havens in Pakistan. The Pakistani version of the Taleban has defeated the army in every major campaign since 2001, resulting in a series of face-saving 'peace' deals that have ceded huge swaths of territory and population to extremist control. There have been dozens of terrorist attacks within Pakistan over the past several years, and there has been a Pakistani connection in many of the most serious international terrorist attacks over the same period. …

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