Friday, August 27, 2010

Staring defeat at the end of the barrel?

Aug 27, 2010

By William Choong

FEW gave Muhammad Ali a chance against George Foreman during the 'rumble in the jungle' World Heavyweight Championship Fight in October 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire. Ali had a slightly faster punch and was lighter on his feet, but Foreman was simply the strongest, hardest hitting boxer of his generation then.

In Round 2, it looked as if Ali was cowering at the ropes. Foreman rained blow after blow on him. Using the elastic ropes to absorb much of the force of Foreman's punches, Ali kept taunting his opponent, saying: 'George, you disappoint me.'

To spectators, it looked as if Ali would soon fall. But Foreman wore himself out. In Round 8, Ali knocked Foreman to the canvas.

Such David versus Goliath stories are the stuff of legend. As the Biblical proverb goes, the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong. Indeed, the history of warfare is replete with examples of the weak defeating the strong.

The French, for example, are well known for the number of defeats that they have suffered at the hands of smaller and less capable foes.

In Algeria's battle for independence in the 1950s, the French fought an insurgency with a 10:1 numerical superiority. It won the war in military terms, but lost it politically after France's brutal tactics led to a loss of support at home.

In 1954, the Viet Minh destroyed French forces at Dien Bien Phu. Only 3 per cent of French forces in Indochina were involved at Dien Bien Phu. But the psychological effect of the 1954 defeat was so huge, it ended French rule in North Vietnam.

The Americans experienced the same fate 14 years later during the Tet Offensive. The North Vietnamese and the Vietcong surprised US and South Vietnamese troops, but were eventually trounced. Still, the offensive led to a loss of public support in the United States that eventually forced America's exit from Vietnam years later.

The list goes on. In 1989, Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan after a decade fighting a rag-tag bunch of mujahideen fighters. In 2006, Israel's so-called effects-based operations against Hizbollah forces in southern Lebanon did not prevent the Israelis from suffering a staggering defeat.

These lessons of history apply to Nato's current campaign in Afghanistan. By camping in the inhospitable mountains, where Nato's advanced militaries find it difficult to operate, the Taleban - like the Vietcong and the mujahideen before them - are basically fighting the war on their own terms. And like the Vietcong, which secured a reliable line of supply from the Chinese, the Taleban are being supplied from havens in Pakistan, even reportedly Iran.

Most importantly, the Taleban are clearly emboldened by US President Barack Obama's promise that American forces will withdraw from Afghanistan starting in July next year. As General David Petraeus, the commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, said recently, Taleban leaders are simply telling their foot soldiers to stay low and wait for Nato troops to leave.

This is not to say that the war in Afghanistan is lost - at least not quite yet. According to Gen Petraeus, Nato forces have gained momentum in the southern provinces. Last year's change of strategy from counter-terrorism to counter-insurgency is indeed turning the tide against the Taleban.

But the American experience in Vietnam casts a long shadow over Afghanistan. As early as 1965, then-US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara believed the war in Vietnam to be unwinnable. Two years later, he suggested adopting a 'flexible bargaining position while actively seeking a political settlement' with the North Vietnamese.

The fact that Gen Petraeus has now suggested some form of reconciliation with Taleban leaders who have 'blood on their hands' is telling. Essentially, a political settlement in Afghanistan would be what French insurgency expert Gerard Chaliand disparagingly calls a 'decent non-victory'.
In 1975, American colonel Harry Summers met a North Vietnamese colonel in Hanoi and bragged that the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had never defeated US forces in battle. The NVA colonel pondered for a moment, then said: 'That may be so. But it is also irrelevant.'

The same might be said of the situation in Afghanistan. If US forces could stay there beyond July next year, they could take the fight to the Taleban. But, as in Vietnam, this might be irrelevant.
Western armies like America's are adept at waging war, but not so great at strategy - or at using military means to achieve political ends. As Ali did, the Taleban militants, by hanging on - and more importantly, not losing - are sapping the will of Nato forces, and ultimately, draining the domestic support that undergirds the alliance's campaign in Afghanistan.

In a prescient paper written in 1969, then-US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger wrote of the Vietnam War: 'We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion.

'In the process, we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerilla warfare: the guerilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.'

Sadly, the same could well apply to Afghanistan today.

[Lots of quotable quotes and soundbites here.

Perhaps in combating guerillas, foreign military advisers should focus on training the indigenous forces in counter-insurgency and leave it at that. Minimise foreign troops to key strategic points. The role of "foreign military advisers" would be to providea safe and stable platform for lawfully elected government leaders to win over their country.]

No comments: