I am currently reading Antonio Giustozzi’s Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop – The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan. I’ll review it more fully when I’ve finished reading it – now there’s an idea – but here’s something that stands out for reasons of pure partisan rage. John Reid has been mocked plenty for saying that he thought the 16th Air Assault Brigade would complete its mission in Afghanistan without firing a shot (of course, he didn’t – he said he hoped it would), but I hadn’t fully appreciated the utter blundering stupidity with which he approached starting a war on two fronts.

Like practically everyone, I’d always assumed the eruption of violence starting in June, 2006 was associated with the deployment itself – that the Americans had believed that this ungoverned space was essentially neutral, until the Paras actually located in the middle of it and found it was teeming with the enemy. Giustozzi provides a mass of evidence that in fact, the tempo of Taliban operations had gone off the charts in January, 2006, with a huge surge in attacks on international and Afghan government forces, a wave of school-burning, and an increase in platoon and larger raids on defended targets rather than IEDs, rockets, and bomb outrages. He argues, with considerable strength, that this should be understood as an attempt to launch the third stage of a Maoist revolutionary war, the general offensive that starts a widespread uprising and eventually overwhelms the state.

Put it another way, Reid sent the army straight into the teeth of the Taliban’s Big Push, with an official concept of operations that didn’t mention counter-insurgency or even combat. I think his current obscurity is well earned. In Giustozzi’s terms, interestingly enough, the strategy General Richards adopted was actually not as crazy as it sounded. He argues that the bulk (40-50%) of Taliban forces come from local communities who are in an alliance of convenience with the movement, having been angered by unfavourable turns in tribal politics, the diminishing strength and authority of tribes in general, the behaviour of government forces, an unfulfilled desire for minimal state functions like local policing and arbitration, or some combination of these.

In this view, the spread of government influence into the villages was precisely the worst thing that could happen to the movement; the local elders who treated with the Taliban one day might treat with the government the next. Hence the aggression and tenacity of the assaults on British camps in Sangin and elsewhere – it was necessary to demonstrate that the movement was determined not to be edged out. As Tony Blair might have put it, they decided to pay the blood price in the hope of wearing out the British, provoking intense fighting among the civil population, and preventing the British from installing a rival authority. Giustozzi also suggests the ultimate leadership was being pressed by its Gulf-based moneymen and Pakistani allies to do something dramatic – a feeling yer man well knew.

A contrarian argument might have been that had the Taliban not been fighting so hard besieging Para platoons in their stronghold of northern Helmand, who knows what their general offensive might have achieved with more men and material concentrated on its target of Kandahar? But this is probably silly. It doesn’t take account of the benefit to the movement of having many, many villages chewed up by the fighting, or the unavailability of troops tied down in defending their perimeters, or the fact that while the soldiers were engaged in a succession of vicious mini-sieges out in the north, they were neither conducting anything that could be described as counter-insurgency or reconstruction there, nor were they doing any closer to home where it might have been possible to make a start.




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