Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Hugh Graham, "Afghan tactic turns into whack-a-mole futility," Toronto Star, Nov. 22, 2006.

After Canada's September triumph at the battle of Panjwaii, it was clear that if we were still fighting there in two months, it would have been no triumph. Now it's mid-November, we're still there and 10 more Canadians have been killed.

Yet this sort of war is in fashion.

Almost all of us are children of two epochs: the epoch of peace and human rights which began in the 1960s, and the epoch of low-tax efficiency that began in the 1980s.

In the post-Cold War world we are faced with small, nasty and expensive wars and we want to fight them with 1960s virtue and 1980s cost-cutting. We want a war that we don't have to pay for and where no one gets killed.

It would appear that two strategies which happen to be suited to such a war are the "ink-spot strategy" and the "three-block war" and those are what we're using in Afghanistan.

In the "ink-spot strategy," local centres are seized in combat and secured through development funds. Then the secure zone spreads to link up with other seized, secure and developed zones; literally, like spreading ink-spots.

The "three-block war" is the urban version of the same thing. Humanitarian work is carried out in one block, stabilization and security in the next, offensive combat in the third.

In both strategies, again in theory, the local population is won over and the enemy deprived of support. So you don't need many troops or much killing: It's cheap and it's moral.

The "ink spot" has been celebrated because it worked so well for the British in Malaysia in the 1950s. Ink spots of local combat by British troops, combined with development, defeated the Communist Chinese.

The opposite of the ink spot and three-block war is "search and destroy."

"Search and destroy" was used by the U.S. in Vietnam, where it failed. In 2003, in Iraq, the Americans entered Baghdad without a strategy for continuing the war and so they resorted to the old search-and-destroy strategy.

Of course, they only ended up playing "whack a mole," the carnival game where you hammer down one mole (insurgent) and others pop up again. That's when military theorist Andrew Krepinovich recommended to U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that they try the "ink-spot strategy" and wrote a renowned piece about it in Foreign Policy magazine.

The ink spot worked with limited success in the town of Tal Afar and the three-block war was tried in Fallujah.

In Tal Afar, it ultimately failed because the U.S. didn't continue to commit resources there and the three-block war failed in Fallujah because the insurgents fled to areas the U.S. couldn't hold. As a result, the U.S. army continued to play whack a mole. The lesson? The ink spot and the three-block war require a lot of troops, money and old-fashioned combat.

In Afghanistan, the ink-spot and the three-block war, adopted by Canada and Britain, are also failing.

The British won't supply enough troops or money to secure and develop Musa Qala, Sangin and other ink spots in Helmand so that they'll spread outward and join up. Consequently, the ink spots have shrunk into towns under siege.

If Canada has been more successful in Kandahar, it still doesn't have the troop strength or the money to fight the three-block war needed to hold the densely packed villages around Panjwaii, only 30 kilometres away. As a result, we have to keep killing.

Designed to put an end to the game of "whack a mole" the ink-spot strategy and the three-block war have only brought it about again.

Moreover, Malaysia turns out to have been a bad example.

First, it required the British to commit a great many troops. Second, the ethnic Chinese, who were sympathetic to the guerrillas, were transported out of the area (a mortal sin in the age of human rights). And third, the British were able to use the added enticement of independence.

We could pull out of Afghanistan. But the hard core of the Taliban will never negotiate and we'd only leave others in the lurch.

There is, however, one last strategy for a cheap, pacifist's war. Instead of dropping ink spots into the middle of unstable areas, we might try fighting and securing inward from a border with a friendly nation, but only as funding and troop strength permit.

So far, Iran is ambivalent and Pakistan has proven ineffective in providing a secure border.

Obviously, the West's diplomacy, where the answer still lies, is in a mess. Maybe that's also why we've been doing ink spot, three block and then whack-a-mole for so long.

Hugh Graham is a Toronto writer who has written extensively on Afghanistan and Iraq.

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