We have a wicked problem

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From what is known of how the US Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter went down in the Saydabad district of Maydan Wardak province in Afghanistan, it was a simple ruse. The Taliban operating in the area lured the Americans into an ambush and took the heli out during ingress, at a time when it was flying low and slow. They chose the terrain and the timing, force-multipliers for them against a much better equipped adversary.

A simple tactic resulted in the so far worst loss of the 10-year war for the US Army. But it was made possible by the American strategy of conducting night-time raids against the Taliban to take out their field commanders. The Taliban have suffered because of such raids. This ambush was their response and worked well. Adaptability is the key to success in a war which comprises many battles and where the zones of war and peace are tightly coupled.

Sometimes it is done by the surprise induction of a new weapon system, as Charles VIII did against the Italian principalities by using his then-advanced artillery and breaching their fortresses with an ease that awed the Neapolitans; other times by using new battlefield tactics, as Hannibal did against the Romans at the battles of Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae.

The stronger states are fighting weaker adversaries but failing despite general battlefield successes against the weaker side and despite amazing technological advances. The adversary adapts. If you cannot out-tech the stronger side, you must adapt and go low-tech. That’s what the Taliban have been doing, harnessing other factors into their operations, the most important being remaining elusive and, unless absolutely necessary, not presenting themselves as a concentrated target to a superior force.

Add to that the fact that Clausewitz’ fog of war obtains despite the emergence in the late eighties of what has come to be known as RMA (revolution in military affairs) and the armed contest remains as interesting as ever. RMA, as a concept, was underpinned by the communications revolution and linked to technological and organisational changes and synergy.

As I wrote elsewhere, the first soldier to identify this as the next step for the United States military and, by extension the threat it offered to the Soviet Union, was the Chief of the General Staff of the USSR, Nikolai Vasilievich Ogarkov (1977-84). Marshal Ogarkov was concerned about the US military’s superiority in information technology and argued for increased defence spending in view of what he called the upcoming military technical revolution (MTR). He was fired!

Broadly, RMA brings into harmony four features: precision targeting and standoff strike capabilities; dramatically improved command, control and communication capability which integrates the four levels – political, strategic, theatre and tactical – connecting the last two specifically through real-time data sharing; information warfare and, finally, non-lethality.

The fourth feature assumes that a force operating on the basis of such capabilities will be able to overcome the adversary without the kind of indiscriminate bombing the allies had to resort to in WWII against German and Japanese cities.

The emergence of the concept of integrating technologies to enhance military capabilities is important to flag because what we have seen is the inability of militaries trained and equipped to fight industrial, inter-state wars to ‘fight among the people’, to borrow Rupert Smith’s phrase.

When the US military went into its two recent wars – Afghanistan and Iraq – its equipment, organisational structure, war-fighting manuals and its entire approach to battle was based on RMA. As Barry Posen’s posited, the US military was unprepared for the “contested zone” even as it commanded the “commons”. In the contested zone the adversary (and here the nature of the adversary has changed) relies on tactics that serve to blunt the technological superiority of an advanced military.

Posen argued: “The closer US military forces get to enemy-held territory, the more competitive the enemy will be. This arises from a combination of political, physical, and technological facts. These facts combine to create a contested zone – arenas of conventional combat where weak adversaries have a good chance of doing real damage to US forces (“Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of US Hegemony”; International Security, 2003).

At such a moment, the nature of war changes and militaries, still being employed in pursuit of a strategic objective, are required to fight at sub-strategic levels. Soldiers are required to fight never-ending wars. The balloon effect kicks in. Put them down here and they will pop up there, there and there.

Can something be done? The question presupposes an answer, or at least hopes for one, that contains a magic solution. There is none because no one can begin with a clean slate. What is clear, however, is the fact that use of force in and of itself has not succeeded. Thousands of miles away from Afghanistan, in April, Abdullah Abdullah said to me with matter-of-fact grimness on the sidelines of a Brookings conference that the venture was doomed. “We have not been able to reach out to the people and we have failed to provide them good governance,” he said. He noted then that President Hamid Karzai’s ministers could not go to their own provinces which are de facto ruled by the Taliban. Incidentally, he mentioned Maydan Wardak and Logar, among others. What he said is corroborated by hundreds of other reports.

Talking is the option now being talked about. But equally, there is an attempt to talk from a position of strength. Hence, the continued raids and also pressure on Pakistan to take out the so-called Haqqani network which is supposed to be a nexus player between Al-Qaeda and the various Taliban groups on both sides of the Durand Line. Right!

The problem is, and this hasn’t been talked about in all the brouhaha about the Chinook being taken out in the skies over Maydan Wardak, that the Afghan Taliban have the capacity to operate successfully against the US military deep into Afghanistan and may not necessarily have a line of communication running from the east of Durand Line. They have enough funds, many coming to them, ironically, from the US military itself (the transport contracts and payment scandal is just one such), the weapons are available and the will to fight remains intact.

We have a wicked problem.

The writer is Contributing Editor, The Friday Times.