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Monday, July 27, 2009 

Great success!

It's difficult to know whether to laugh or cry at the hailing of the first stage of Operation Panther's Claw as a success, not just because of the 11 deaths so far, but also because of the lessons which seem to remaining unlearnt from Iraq. Part of the reason might be due to the fact that it was the US army that made the similar mistakes time and again, but there can't be any excuse for us not to have recognised how the insurgents in Afghanistan are using exactly the same tactics as the Sunni insurgency in Iraq did.

It's even more worrying when the tactics are so alarmingly simple. Whenever the US would launch a "major" offensive, aimed at ridding a certain area of the various fighters both allied and non-allied fighting against them, only the hard core tended to stay to fight. The rest simply left, and then either returned once the soldiers had moved on, or instead engaged in classic guerilla tactics, planting IEDs at night, ambushes etc. This pattern only ceased once the tribal elders and other insurgent groups grew tired of al-Qaida and the other Salafis' brutal tactics and launched the salvation councils/Awakening groups, which along with the "surge" helped to bring the casualties, both of Iraqi civilians and of American troops down. Even then and even now pockets of resistance remain, and Mosul, as well as parts of Diyala province, remain highly dangerous.

The change of tactics in Helmand, from clearing areas of insurgents to now attempting to hold the ground, with the help of the Americans, is a partial recognition that the past policy has failed badly. The insurgents just waited until the troops left and then came back. The problem is that unlike in Iraq, there is no real support from the civilians or other groups to help with the holding of ground. Poll after poll shows that the Afghans prefer the international presence to the Taliban, but on the ground that doesn't turn into enthusiasm for it, let alone armed support. There are no Awakening councils to be formed, and the presence of the coalition, which will undoubtedly increase the risk to civilians, who got out along with the insurgents when Panther's Claw was launched, will exacerbate the problems. Already one soldier has died in the "holding" phase: hitting and running, along with the ubiquitous IEDs, is now likely to be the order of the day.

As Conor Foley points out and as David Miliband today recognised, to imagine that in our present shape we can militarily defeat the Taliban is madness. Up to 80% of those fighting are not the religiously motivated, but either criminal groupings or other insurgents not linked to the Taliban or al-Qaida. Some of these can be either dealt with or bought off: the ceasefire with the "Taliban" in Badghis is encouraging, but whether it will last or not is another matter. The other problem with such deals was shown in Pakistan, when the truce in Swat with the imposition of Sharia law led to the Pakistani Taliban moving to within 100 miles of Islamabad. What has to be dropped is the repeated rhetoric that what "Our Boys" are doing in Helmand is helping to "break" the "chain of terror", an idea that is utterly fatuous and which may well spectacularly backfire. Ministers still though, despite David Miliband's attempt at honesty today, find it difficult to defend a war which they know full well if anything only increases the threat to us, not decreases. Until they come straight, support is only likely, quite rightly, to keep going down.

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