Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Why can't NATO win?

Much has been made of the fighting spirit of Afghans, particularly the Pashtun (or Pat'hans, as they are commonly known). Every conqueror since Alexander the Great who has swept through Asia has found Afghanistan to be the end of his enterprise. Though their code of honour and hospitality is legendary, so is their ferocity; Pashtuns don't like outsiders waltzing in and telling them what to do. Afghanistan's resistance to British colonialism was immortalized in this famous painting of a British Army doctor, Dr. William Brydon, returning back to British India from the disasterous campaign.

The painting, by a British noblewoman, was called "Remnants of an Army."

That was then, though. Looking back at those times, it seems relatively obvious why the British, who dominated all of India with a relatively small force, were not able to do the same in Afghanistan. I am no historian, but we can safely assume that they were beaten by their opponents' advantages in knowing the terrain and the weather, in having shorter supply lines, and in being versed in a type of warfare that the British army was not built to prevail in.

The famous Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu, author of the ancient but oft-quoted Art of War, wrote that there were 5 factors which would determine victory or failure. He called these The Moral Law, Heaven, Earth, The Commander, and Method and Discipline. In less stilted terms, these meant public approval, weather, terrain, leadership, and training and discipline.

Today in Afghanistan, NATO commanders have been broadcasting waves of pessimism about their mission. Whatever the nuances, it appears that NATO, which is in Afghanistan entirely at the Bush regime's behest, will not have everything its own way. The top military men in situ think that some sort of compromise with hostile elements will be necessary in order for NATO to be able to achieve its stated objectives.

Afghanistan has been the graveyard of foreign armies for a long time, but this current situation is surprising. How is it exactly that a rag-tag band of religious zealots are giving the most powerful military alliance in the world a run for its money? Finger-pointing at Pakistan becomes the knee-jerk reaction, but even if Pakistan were the problem, it is hard to see why NATO can't defeat a Pakistani proxy.

Using Sun-Tzu's analysis, NATO's technological and organizational advantages should give it total dominance. With aerial surveillance, satellite surveillance, all-terrain armoured vehicles, guided weapons, unmanned drones, multi-billion-dollar training programmes, unified command structures, and staggering numbers of academics and corporations devoted to fine-tuning the military machine, NATO should have no trouble putting Heaven, Earth, the Commander, and Method and Discpline on its side of the ledger, or at least neutralizing them. The British were still using swords, riding horses, and firing single-shot rifles, all of which were easy for their Afghan opponents to match. Afghanistan today does not manufacture satellites or tanks.

Which leaves the Moral Law. Clearly, those who oppose NATO's presence in Afghanistan, and who are willing to do so with violent force, are not universally hated by the people they live amongst. It is impossible to operate a guerrilla force if all regions and segments of society believe that your cause is unjust. The corollary to that is that NATO is not universally loved by Afghan people either.

If that is the case, then what is being billed as "liberation" is exactly the opposite.

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