Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ Category

I think most of my readers also read Patrick Lang’s blog, but I think this guest post is the best thing yet written on the Taliban/SIS/McChrystal/Petraeus fake sheikh affair. Really, there’s a great movie to be made here – the multiplicity of motives, the ironic contrast between the absurd story and the deadly serious interests and emotions that drive it forward, the eternal ambiguity of the relationship between the manipulator and the manipulated.

The ISI comes out of it as being dastardly clever, but in a deeply futile way. They succeed in preventing a dangerous outbreak of peace and sanity, but what have they gained? The wars grind on, the butcher’s bill ticks up, the fantasy of a Pakistani empire of trucks and pipes across the Hindu Kush is as far away as ever, the Indians continue with their industrialisation across the other border.

The Americans come out of it as being well-meaning but naive. After all, they only get into this story because they want peace. So does the real Taliban leader. They both share a sort of big, stupid nobility.

The British do almost as badly as the ISI; not only do they end up being the dupes of the piece, they do so without the saving grace of having good intentions. They’re as naive as the Americans but more underhanded. SIS gets involved purely as a way of sucking up to the Americans and putting one over its real enemies, GCHQ, Her Majesty’s Forces, MI5, and the main-line Foreign Office diplomats. The Government is desperately keen on the project for similarly base reasons – to suck up to the Americans, to grab at an opportunity to solve its problem in Afghanistan, and of course to embarrass the Labour Party. Of course, it would have been a brilliant political fix had it come off – but the master manipulator is not Bismarck but William Hague.

The fake sheikh, meanwhile, is a classic example of the Pinocchio/Hauptmann von Kopenick theme – the puppet of bigger forces who becomes a power in his own right. Without his successful performance, of course, none of the many expectations curling around the tale have a hope of happening. His agency is real, and his character expands to fill the role. The fact that the whole project is an exercise in theatre is interesting in itself – a film within the film. The actors in the film are, of course, puppets of the script and the direction, and it is a work of fiction. The enduring purpose of the theatre and the cinema, however, is that works of fiction have real influence on their audiences. Like the fake sheikh.

After all, the grocer of Quetta (not a bad title) is the only character in the drama who successfully pursues his interests. He gets some interesting time off away from his bazaar stall, and even gets rich. You could play this as the ordinary man who succeeds in making fools of the powerful who insist on involving him in their schemes, or perhaps as a microcosm of all the people who are getting rich off the continued war, Mother Courage rather than Kopenick. Alternatively he could be killed off, casting the whole thing as an utterly bleak tragedy. However, arguably the classic in this vein is The Third Man and that sticks with the tragicomic.

Afghan links

Here at the Low Expectations Journal we’ve been rather optimistic recently about Afghanistan – at least relative to our expectations. This week, there’s been a piece in the Washington Post that completely contradicts this. However, I would point out that this may not be as significant as all that:

Among the troubling findings is that Taliban commanders who are captured or killed are often replaced in a matter of days.

Abraham Lincoln said that he could make a brigadier into a general in three minutes, but a hundred and ten horses were difficult to replace. Isn’t this the whole “Al-Qa’ida’s Number Three” argument again, just with the sign reversed to justify pessimism rather than optimism? Surely the question is whether they are finding good replacements. An optimistic report is here. Exum wonders how the paper manages to run two entirely contradictory stories on successive days.

On the other hand, it’s not the only case of ending up like the man who has two watches and no longer knows what the time is. Here we have two widely divergent opinions on a basic fact like the rate at which IEDs are discovered. You may recall that “Population Density of Afghanistan: Experts Differ” was actually an accurate headline for a while.

Worryingly, Jeremy Scahill reckons that the negotiations are being sabotaged by the old game of reporting whoever you don’t like to the Americans as a Taliban.

Suddenly the Afghanistan news is full of talking. Petraeus says that ISAF provided one or more significant Taliban leaders with safe conduct to Kabul in order to take part in what sound like “talks-about-talks”. The Grauniad was ahead of the story on this one, confirming that contact had been made with the Haqqani network in particular. Note the usage here:

Drawing a parallel with the Northern Irish peace process, the diplomat said: “The Haqqanis know they have to make the transition from the IRA to Sinn Féin.”

Dexter Filkins makes the point explicit.

In recent weeks, General Petraeus has increased raids by Special Forces units and launched large operations to clear territory of Taliban militants.

And it seems increasingly clear that he is partly using the attacks to expand a parallel path to the end of the war: an American-led diplomatic initiative, very much in its infancy but ultimately aimed at persuading the Taliban — or large parts of the movement — to make peace with the Afghan government.

Spencer Ackerman sounds faintly bereft, and remarks that:

It would be quite an irony if the chief counterinsurgent prosecuted a hit-em-n-quit-em campaign that helped convince the Taliban that enough is enough

Interestingly, this is actually how his plan in Iraq was originally meant to work out. A combination of counterinsurgency centred on Baghdad, aggressive action against selected groups in the insurgency, and political action was meant to get the violence down to a level at which there would be an opportunity for a negotiated peace between the major factions. It didn’t work out like that – to everyone’s surprise, mine included, what little peace there is in Iraq came about from below, from local initiatives, while the grand bargain never happened. Iraq still doesn’t have a government; the census and the related federalism issues are forever delayed, as are the oil issues.

And the really worrying news on that score is the recent rise of violence at the individual level, as shown by the wave of assassinations against policemen and officials. The danger is that the shaky raft of improvised local deals, which allows the Iraqi politicians and the foreign diplomats to keep arguing without anything too disastrous happening, might break down. In Afghanistan, it looks like the plan is to focus on getting as many enemies on side as possible – and not looking too closely at the raft. This Small Wars Journal piece makes the excellent point that in some ways, the more closely you focus on the whole situation, the less you know – it dissolves into a fractal mass of micro-conflicts. It also practically exudes frustration and the desire for it all to be over. (Who wouldn’t.)

Of course, it doesn’t do to put too much reliance on the words here. As pointed out in Ackerman’s comments, whether you call it counter-insurgency or not, it’s still war. However, it’s very telling that the “kill team”‘s commander was quite so addicted to the rhetoric of the early Bush years. Sean Naylor‘s piece here quotes him as saying that he wanted to “degrade formations, supply chains and leadership near simultaneously, you’ll cause the enemy in the area to collapse”. It’s an application of all the stuff about “breaking states through simultaneous strike” that you’ll find here.

Also, he was convinced that he had better information than the Taliban because of his vehicles’ new computer system. The combination of the hubris of the network-centric warriors, the land submarines, and enthusiastic grassroots participation in torture and war crimes – it’s the great smell of the Bush era, all right, and it will clearly be with us quite a lot longer.

Logistics!

So, the raids on NATO trucks held up when Pakistan suspended the border crossing. A good point is made in comments at Adam Elkus’s blog – what about the people who own the trucks?

What indeed. The so-called “transport mafia” played a critical role in the creation of the Taliban in the early 1990s, according to Ahmed Rashid. Back in the 1980s, one of the ways the Soviet-Afghan war transformed Pakistani politics was that an economy grew up to service it. Famously, this is what Osama bin Laden actually did for the mujahedin – his construction firm built the roads up to the border, his organisation received new recruits in Pakistan and passed them on. Logistics. Another element of this war economy was a network of transport firms that trucked the war material the Americans were supplying and the Saudis paying for up from Karachi to the border.

Most of these were close to the politicians who also benefited from the war – the NWFP Islamist parties and the feudal landowners who made up the right of the PPP. In fact, very often, they were actually owned by politicians, or by their proxies. To make sure the money fell in the right places and the trucks went to the right places, the Pakistani army created a new agency, the national logistics cell, which was responsible for divvying up the contracts and organising the operation.

After the war was over, the system stayed in place and became part of the general berserk vision of extending Pakistani and Saudi influence into Central Asia. The military would get to implement the strategic depth concept, and keep recruiting jihadis to use in Kashmir. The jihadis would get to continue their never-ending tour. The Saudis could spread Wahabism and dispose of their malcontents. The ISI would reinforce its special role in politics. And the transport mafia would benefit from what appeared to be enormous economic opportunities trading through Afghanistan into what had been the Soviet Union.

In fact, when the Pakistanis came to pick a proxy in Afghanistan after 1992, the choice was between Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the project of creating a new movement. The ISI wanted to stick with Hekmatyar, who they had originally sent into Afghanistan in the mid-70s. However, the other beneficiaries of the war weren’t satisfied with him – in the first Bhutto government, the logistics mafia and its friends were very powerful indeed. The key figure was the Interior Minister, the former chief of the Frontier Corps who had recruited the first generation of mujahedin in the 70s.

From a left-wing point of view, a crucial factor here was that the whole imperialist vision of caravans of trucks trading across the Hindu Kush as far as Siberia was a form of economic development that went straight to the traditional powers in Sindh via their new investments in the war economy. A stereotype view might be to say that the PPP was a mixture of Benazir and Bhutto – mass protest politics, and the feudal world. It was this intersection between internal Pakistani class and regional politics, grand strategic visions, and tactical opportunism that led them to support a group of Afghans based in Spin Boldak. Later, during the wars of the 90s, the Taliban repeatedly benefited from transport supplied by the NLC.

So you’ve got to wonder if setting fire to a load of trucks isn’t overreaching a bit. The role of transport and route security just can’t be overstated here; the irony in this McClatchy piece is intense.

For nearly a decade, the U.S. has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to cut off the remote, high altitude mountain trails Taliban forces use to smuggle weapons and fighters into Afghanistan. Now, the U.S. military is turning its attention to the border crossing.

“More and more we’ve realized that they are not coming through the passes, they’re just coming through the . . . gate,” said one U.S. government official in Afghanistan who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could candidly discuss the unfolding plan to focus on the border crossing.

On the other side of the border, here’s the guy who charges $1,200 a truck for safe passage. People are starting to notice; the US Host Nation Trucking contract amounts to 10% of Afghan GDP, paid to companies controlled by the Afghan government’s relatives.

Obviously, there are a lot of people in Pakistan who would be delighted to set fire to trucks owned by a Northern Alliance defence minister’s son, but as far as I know a major dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan is precisely about whether cargo can move through Pakistan in foreign-owned vehicles. This strongly suggests the movement on the Pakistani side is controlled by the same old, same old people. Key quote:

Until now, the diplomat said, protection of the route had not been needed because the delivery rate had been remarkably efficient given the length and rough nature of the route from the port of Karachi.

I suspect that if they want it delivered, it will be delivered. I’ve even heard it suggested that some of the cargo burned was insured in advanced, which if true would be impressively sick – it’s not often you get to have your own foreign policy and pull off an insurance fire at the same time.

iterative post mortem

Theo Farrell has published a new paper on the British Army in Helmand, which makes some more progress in explaining just how it went so wrong.

OK, so let’s remind ourselves of the rising chatter about a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan from a couple of months ago. We know that there was some evidence of Hezb-i Islami cooperating with ISAF. The first group targeted as part of the diplomatic effort were the Haqqani network.

Since then, we’ve learned about the build-up of US reconnaissance in Afghanistan. As a result, the drones strike more and more often. Here’s Sean Naylor on what seems to be a broader offensive against the Haqqanis. Note that this also refers to even more reconnaissance and intelligence assets being deployed, transferred from Iraq. (Looking at this, a subplot of getting out of Iraq seems to have been getting better at data analysis in the field.)

Noah Schachtman’s piece does connect this with the negotiating track, but not in the way I think they are related. This reminds me of two things – one of them is the IRA concept of the Tactical Use of Armed Struggle, from the 1990s. The basic idea was that the main effort was the negotiations, and the violence was intended to support their negotiating position. The other one is, yet again, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, during which the Russians often carried out operations that were intended to put pressure on particular warlords to get on side.

Armchair Generalist has interesting quotes from the IISS’s recent report on Afghanistan:

A tripartite dialogue between Afghanistan, India and Pakistan is desirable; not least to diminish risks that enduring conflict could escalate to civil-war proportions. Central Asian states, Russia and Iran will have competing concerns in Afghanistan that will have to be reconciled, but a less ambitious coalition military posture in Afghanistan should be used to make this possible.

This is close enough to my line to make no difference, although I do suspect that the key factor in this will be good old low expectations.

Meanwhile, Joshua Foust would like everyone to know that Turkey has no possible advice to offer on fighting separatist guerrillas or transitioning from a military dictatorship towards democracy without achieving a 626% electoral turnout, and Indonesia knows nothing whatsoever about a complex, sometimes violent polity with radically different levels of development and a tradition of guerrilla activity.

I add this merely to remind myself that the Pajamas Media brand retains significant value as a counterindicator.

this land is…

I mentioned that the Economics Fairy gives those people who prove themselves worthy of her their greatest wish: a chance to fail. That is, of course, as nothing to the opportunities for failure and disaster offered to people with good ideas about agriculture. (You ask Nikita Khrushchev, come to think of it.) Joel Hafvenstein reports on a British Provincial Reconstruction Team discovering the truth of this in Afghanistan.

In the FZ’s case, while the money was available on time, the expertise was not. The technical advisors hired to help with the project were stuck in Britain. The PRT team on the ground in Helmand (civilian and military) went ahead with buying the wheat to make sure they made the deadline for distribution. Because they weren’t development agriculturists, however, they made some critical mistakes – notably buying most of their wheat seed from local farmers. You can see how this seemed like a good idea.

Yes. Yes.

The UN Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) has put a lot of work into developing, certifying, and monitoring a network of improved-quality wheat seed producers in Afghanistan. Most of the aid agencies working in Afghanistan are aware of this and insist that any wheat seed bought locally needs to come from FAO-certified suppliers.

Another data point for my as-yet unlaunched campaign to go round newsrooms making journalists say sorry to the UN for all the shit and vitriol they heaped on it over the last 10 years or so.

Unfortunately, the inexperienced Helmand PRT team responsible for FZ did not make use of the FAO network. They – or rather, the Afghan-staffed contractor agency operating under their instructions – instead bought thousands of tons of “seed” from local farmers outside the network. Then, showing that the PRT team knew just enough to be dangerous, they screened the wheat to remove weed seeds and treated it with fungicide. The resulting wheat seed was – in technical language – crap.

Oh dear.

When the distribution started, it was also a major disruption to local markets. A lot of previous US and UK money has gone into supporting agricultural input traders, particularly in Nad-i-Ali district, the heart of the biggest US-funded irrigation network. These bazaar merchants were understandably peeved that their pricy commercial stocks of improved seed now had to compete with handouts that looked suspiciously like trash. They sent samples of the Food Zone seed off for testing. When the test results confirmed that the seed was far below the national standards for seed distribution, they started to raise an almighty stink, with the added voices of Nad-i-Ali elders.

The FAO privately informed the PRT that its seed was flawed, and that the only responsible recourse (since it had been dressed in toxic fungicide) was to destroy all the remaining stocks. This didn’t happen. Instead, the Ministry of Agriculture made an exception to its quality standards to allow the shoddy Helmand Food Zone seed to be distributed, and the PRT sent the seed to district officials for distribution.

And it goes on from there. Unsurprisingly, anyone with any sense is growing poppy, because whatever dangers international heroin smugglers expose you to, at least they don’t pull this kind of stupid crap. There’s more here, including the good point that many of the accusations of direct corruption (rather than just bungling) come from someone who’s probably in the poppy biz.

There’s an interesting data point in there – apparently, Helmand produced about 300 tonnes of opium over and above total world illegal demand last year. Evidently, if it was produced, not seized, and not demanded, it must be in store somewhere. This implies we’ll probably see a significant fall in production some time soon, as the supply chain’s buffers fill up and the market overhang drives down prices.

Here’s something interesting.

We must also consider the alternative that many of the most prominent and powerful Afghans are in fact motivated by greed and opportunism. [harrowell: ya think?] It is therefore in their interest to maintain the status quo of massive US and international spending that fuels the Afghan “rentier state” economy.

This isn’t just recreational cynicism; they argue that the latest announcement of a clampdown on private security companies in Afghanistan is to be taken more seriously than the last six, and that this actually represents an effort to integrate them into the Afghan government’s forces or at least its allies. Importantly, and very differently from Iraq, the main players are local rather than foreign – like the 24,000-strong Watan Group. (Check out their Corporate Social Responsibility page.) Rather than just being part of the ISAF baggage train, they’re a significant nonstate actor in Afghan politics.

If you were feeling optimistic, you might consider this as being similar to the various political fixes the Soviets arranged in 1988 to keep the roads open for the Afghan government post-withdrawal. If you’ve been reading this since at least 2007, you’ll know that I think the absolute best that could happen in Afghanistan would be to get back to something like the 1989-1992 period, just without the continuing US/Pakistan/Saudi destabilisation and the cut-off of Russian aid that kicked off the civil war (and the destruction of Kabul, the invention of the Taliban, and so on). I agree this is pessimistic, but then, well, I wouldn’t start from here.

In Iraq, understanding the business/organised crime environment may have played a bigger role than is publicly acknowledged in getting the US Army out of town. For example, here’s a Joel Wing piece on the history of oil-smuggling (you’ll note that the Baiji refinery comes up. party like it’s 2005!). Interestingly, the initial Awakening Council leader Sheikh Abu Risha was an important oil smuggler, and you can bet those networks were of use.

Leaving aside the obvious Afghan export, the analogous business is probably selling stuff to ISAF. Bagram now has its own cement plant, inside the perimeter, but that’s a Turkish construction firm.

How did the British Army decide to fight the Helmand campaign as it did? Chatham House has a fascinating paper by Anthony King on the development of the campaign, the abandonment of the original plan, and the processes of decision-making that led the British to fight as they did. The original plan, it turns out, was very different to the implementation – quite a few observers in the summer of 2006 tended to think that the infamous “platoon houses”, outposts in northern Helmand held by small groups of Paras, were an ill-thought out effort to implement a counterinsurgency strategy and live among the people. If they had been, this quickly became impossible due to constant and intense fighting with the Taliban just to hang on.

But it seems that, whatever the aim of this deployment, it was a major departure from the original plan.

The plan identified the area around Lashkar Gar, the provincial capital, and Gereshk as vital. This area was defined as an Afghan Development Zone on which British inter-agency efforts would be focused. DFID and FCO would work within this area,
improving living conditions and governance. As part of this plan, the Helmand Task Force was ordered to establish a British centre of operations at Camp Bastion and to secure a triangle of territory between that base, Lashkar Gar and Gereshk.

The military plan for Helmand developed by 16 Air Assault Brigade involved two fundamental elements. In order to secure the Lashkar Gar–Bastion–Gereshk triangle, one company from 3 PARA would be deployed to Forward Operating
Base Price near Gereshk. The other companies would be used either to secure areas for the provincial reconstruction team or to conduct raids against areas in which ‘insurgents/criminals’ were known to operate.11 With 3,500 troops, of
which only 600 were infantry, the plan for Herrick 4 was ambitious, as Stuart Tootal, the commanding officer of 3 PARA, recognized: ‘Even if our operations could be limited to the region around Lashkar Gar and Gereshk as we planned,
it was still a huge area for the limited number of troops that I would have at my disposal.”

But as it turned out, there was immediate pressure from Afghan politicians to drop this plan and to send soldiers much further north, on the basis that the Taliban were about to overrun various places where there was meant to be some sort of Afghan government presence.

British troops were quickly deflected from their officially designated task of securing the Lashkar Gar triangle. Almost immediately upon deploying to Helmand in April 2006, the commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, Brigadier Ed Butler, came under political pressure from the incumbent governor of Helmand, Mohammed Daoud. Daoud claimed that various settlements were about to fall to the Taleban, and would do so if the British did not deploy immediately. As a result, Brigadier
Butler deployed his already meagre forces across Helmand province from Garmsir in the south to Musa Qala in the north. In all, the battlegroup spread itself across seven major positions, about 600 square miles of difficult terrain.

According to Antonio Giustozzi, what was happening was that the Quetta Taliban leadership was trying to move to the third phase of the classic revolutionary war strategy and build up a force there to attack Lashkar Gah and Kandahar in the hope this would lead to a general collapse of the state, and northern Helmand was on the main infiltration route from Pakistan via the Ghilzai tribe’s territory – but nobody on the Allied side knew this.

The upshot was a string of vicious localised battles around the outposts; over time, they became surrounded by a depopulated war zone of ruins, wrecked by Allied firepower, itself surrounded by the enemy. There were nowhere near enough soldiers to go out and pursue them, or to expand the defences to include the whole local area. The British were isolated from the population by their own close air support and fixed in place by their isolation from their own forces.

The FOBs formed an archipelago of partially secure islands whose small forces were unable to suppress Taleban activity beyond a narrow strip of territory: ‘The soldiers might push the Taliban back a kilometre or two. In the process they might uncover a small-arms cache or a bunker which they would then blow. But they did not stay to hold the ground.
They trekked back to base and the Taliban crept in again’.

This quote refers to the situation in April, 2008 – even though the summer fighting of 2006 was recognised as a disaster for the campaign, surprisingly little had changed.

King’s key point is that in the light, or perhaps the darkness, of the lack of information about the Taliban in Helmand, it’s very hard to say what the British leaders were trying to do. It wasn’t counterinsurgency – even they admit that. It wasn’t an effort to stop the Taliban offensive in its tracks with a spoiling attack, because nobody outside the Taliban knew about it at the time. It wasn’t that nobody considered any alternatives.

There was little pressure from NATO or ISAF itself for the British to disperse. General
Richards, commander of ISAF at the time, was actively opposed to the platoon house strategy although he did not have direct command of Helmand until 31 July 2006. Major-General Ben Freakley, who was commanding coalition forces in the south, was vehemently opposed to the platoon house strategy. Decisively, instead of dispersing across the province, it would have been possible for 16 Air Assault Brigade and, to a lesser extent, its successors to concentrate as planned on the Bastion–Lashkar Gar–Gereshk triangle, notwithstanding the evident pressure which Governor Daoud applied on Ed Butler.

In fact, he argues that there wasn’t really a rationale – instead, the decisions were guided by culture, habits of mind, the tendency to apply skills learned in other contexts, and bureaucratic factors.

Thus, British commanders like Stuart Tootal knew full well that they did not have the forces to secure Helmand and that therefore dispersal was likely to be counterproductive in the long term. However, ingrained with a professional
imperative to act, it was as impossible for 16 Air Assault to refuse Daoud in 2006 as it was for subsequent commanders not to engage in recurrent offensive operations, even though they knew they could not hope to secure the areas they were seeking
to clear. The professional self-definition of the British officer corps made tactical inactivity impossible for them….

It is noticeable that each brigade tour of Helmand has sought to define itself by a major operation: 16 Brigade ‘broke in’, 3 Commando Brigade retook Sangin, 12 Brigade ‘mowed the grass’, 52 Brigade retook Musa Qala, 16 Brigade transported the turbine to Kajaki, 3 Commando Brigade seized Nad-e-Ali and now 19 Brigade have taken Babaji. Until the final two rotations
there was very little continuity between the tours

There’s something incredibly grim about this list of flags in the map. And that turbine still hasn’t been installed, because the cement hasn’t got there yet.

Much of this is an example of one of the key themes in the history of the British empire – the tension between Whitehall and the Man on the Spot. Better communications were never the answer. Lord Milner in South Africa complained bitterly of the “tyranny of the telegraph”, but it cut both ways – the telegraph helped him indulge in alarmism and self publicity as much as it helped the Government control him. Here’s an example.

On 19 June 2006, Brigadier Butler warned Stuart Tootal that Sangin was about to fall and gave Tootal 90 minutes to decide whether to deploy or not. Tootal and his tactical headquarters ‘quickly rehashed the pros and cons’. Tootal recognized that his troops ‘were here to support the government of Afghanistan’. However, the decisive impetus for insertion was regimental, as Tootal himself confessed: ‘Finally we were Paras and being asked to do difficult and risky things was what we were meant to be about.’ Tootal confirmed that he was ready to deploy 20 minutes after Ed Butler’s initial communication. Deployed for a 24-hour operation, A Company were finally extracted in early July, but the battlegroup remained besieged in Sangin until the end of the tour.

Whatever had been said or thought in London, Kabul, Brunssum, Brussels, and Washington, this was the defining decision. We might well wonder what else it defined.

King also discusses what might have defined that decision. He argues that a major, unspoken factor in the whole decision to go to Helmand was the Army’s fear that a post-Iraq reckoning would result in its budget being slashed. For the MOD more broadly, a similar factor may have been the experience of failure in Iraq and a desire to demonstrate continued willingness to support the US.

The availability of the newly acquired Apache helicopters played its own special role. Having bought them and made the investments necessary to put them in service, the bureaucratic momentum meant they would be used the next time the Army was called on, which meant that the Airborne side of the Army would be called on. That had consequences for the way they would fight, too – King quotes some truly startling remarks from Lieutenant-Colonel Tootal.

‘I also made the point that running out of supplies when surrounded was part of our history. When I talked of what conditions must have been like for paratroopers who held the bridge at Arnhem for nine days against ferocious German assaults, having only planned to hold it for two, in 1944, people got the point that I was making.’

Further, the Apache’s capabilities made it possible to survive the plan as amended. At one point in 2008, there were only 50 British soldiers in Lashkar Gah, supposedly the strategic centre of the entire war – unsurprisingly, the Taliban chose that night to attack, and only the helicopters prevented them from overrunning the place.

King concludes by suggesting that there is still scope to change course, and that the Army is now turning back to the original plan. He argues that, as preparing for a handover to the Afghan government becomes more important, some of the culture issues will start to work the other way; using more Special Forces as advisors, for example, will tend to bring their prestige to a task that has been seen as secondary to the goal of finding a decisive battle with the Taliban.

If you’re after some crumbs of optimism, this could be one – Hezb i-Islami cooperating with ISAF, which if true argues that the Pakistanis mean it about supporting a political solution. Efforts at forming an anti-Taliban firqat are on. Ackerman calls it a

a hodgepodge of improvisation that manages to keep the structure from totally falling apart in the near-term

. I’d take that.

Anyway, read the whole thing.

Ordinary Pakistanis appear to have a very clear idea of their country’s problems.

Angry protesters at the site of the bombing raised slogans against Israel, the US, the Taliban and the ultra-orthodox strain of Wahhabi Islam.

I don’t know about the first one of those, but you can’t have a demo without someone getting het up about Israel. Classical information theory states that therefore we can filter that out without losing any information.