Retracting the Panther’s Claw

July 13, 2009

Operation Panther’s Claw may turn out to be one of the more spectacularly optimistic code names in recent times. The assault, involving both British troops, Afghan and U.S. forces represents the largest assault yet on Taliban held territory in the province of Helmand and, in keeping with its expanded scope, Panther’s Claw has taken more British casualties than any other. 15 servicemen have died since the operation began in early July. 8 died last friday, sending the government scrambling to justify the assault.

Yet the other main parties showed no desire to question the basis of the Afghan operation itself. David Cameron attacked Gordon Brown for allegedly failing to provide sufficient helicopters to ferry British soldiers around. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argued in the House of Commons that the operation should be less “ambitious” but did not call for the withdrawal of British troops.

In the press, calls for withdrawal are few and far between. The tenor of debate generally concerns operational matters and the scope of British involvement, rather than questioning that involvement from the root. Michael Evans, a senior defense correspondent at the Times, for example, dedicated a length piece today to the quality of British fighting vehicles, such as the predictably predatory “Jackal” – a souped up Land Rover which Evans suggests is not up to the challenge posed by Taliban road-side bombs.

Indeed, the Jackal displaces the Vector and the Viking – all insufficiently bomb-proof (though snazzily named) and will be joined by the Wolfhound, the Husky, the Coyote and the Warthog, the Snatch-Vixen and the Bison all part of a £700 million package destined for Helmand in the not too distant future. Such terminology is quaint, and was probably more than enough to sway credulous MOD officials at the various arms shows via which they are marketed. But the British effort in Helmand will, as the Tories suggest, be more dependent on aerial support to pluck squaddies away from danger. If only the troops carrying copters on the way could magic a military victory from what is actually a devastating quagmire, but the nearest the British will get to that fantasy is the Merlin brand-name attached to their newly arrived merchandise.

At present, the British are taking part in a clearance operation – the first part of a process which runs from clearance, through control, to the construction of infrastructure and, in theory, to stability and development. Sir Jock Stirrup, the British commander in Afghanistan, claims that 197 dead insurgents have been “positively identified” as a result of these clearances (a brazen lie, as there is clearly no central register of insurgents to tick them off from. Many, if not most will be innocents) while “The real number is probably more like double that.”

Yet the British and the Americans are tackling only one tiny element of the Afghan insurgency.

Saleem Syed Shahzad, the Asia Times’ experienced Afghan correspondent, reports that “In the provinces around the Afghan capital Kabul, the Taliban have once again established a firm grip in the vital provinces of Ghazni, Logar and Wardak, virtually paralyzing the control of the local administrations.” As Shahzad reports, the Taliban in Helmand, perhaps loyal to Mullah Mohamed Omar (though we have no proof of his operational role) have in any case been joined by “the Qari Ziaur Rahman group in Kunar and Nuristan in Afghanistan and Mohmand and Bajaur in Pakistan; the Haqqani network in Ghazni, Paktia, Paktika and Khost and Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area; Anwarul Haq in Nangarhar, besides the network in northern Afghanistan led by commanders loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.”

The chaos created by the occupation – which has resulted in almost no economic development – has allowed warlords to reconstitute their regional power bases within or outside the political system created by the invaders. Corruption has become endemic, facilitating the creation of private armies funded by an orgy of multinational criminality. As an opinion poll commissioned by the BBC and ABC News found in February 2009, 82 percent of those living in the Kabul region see corruption as a “big problem” and 81 percent around Herat. Across the nation, 29 percent rate the economy as “good” while – in a country immiserated by years of warfare and poverty, only 47 percent believe that their childrens lives will be better than their own.

Local warlords and their cliques have been allowed to rule through terror (and drug monies), leading more and more Afghans to despise the government and the occupation which has facilitated their resurgence. In 2007, 26 percent blamed ISAF, the US and the Afghan government for violence afflicting the country and 36 percent blamed the Taliban. By 2009, these figures had reversed, with 36 percent blaming the government and the occupiers and 27 percent the Taliban.

Commenting on the polls, Anthony Cordesman, of The Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote that “Twenty-four percent of Afghans say it’s their impression the Taliban “have changed and become more moderate” — far from a majority, but one in four. And that view spikes in some provinces — most notably, to 58 percent in Wardak and 53 percent in Nangarhar, bordering Kabul to the west and east, respectively.”

This means that the government and the occupation are losing ground to anti-government forces – which are generically labelled as “Taliban” although, as Shahzad relates, the reality is more like a patchwork of insurgencies.

Helmand, where the British are fighting, is predominantly ethnically Pashtun and increasingly dependent upon the opium crop, meaning that the insurgency has been fuelled by resistance to eradication programs as much as by a distaste for the Kabul government. It is thought that the Pashtun fighters there have links with groups within Pakistan, and with Pashtun groups on both sides of a porous border this is almost certain. It is also almost certain that Pakistan has been seeking to use the insurgency in southern Afghanistan for its own ends, fearing the establishment of an Afghan government pliable to Indian overtures, but this only goes so far. After all, in feeding insurgency across the border, Pakistan also provokes anti-government forces within its own borders.

In any case, without the grinding poverty caused by a lack of agricultural development aid and the suppression of drug production, the Helmand insurgency would be extremely weak. As it is, the presence of foreign forces gives it an intensity unmatched across Afghanistan, and British blundering will not do anything to abate it.

Nearer the capital, however, the insurgency is almost as acute, and much more strategically dire. As a report by the Senlis Council put it in late 2008, “The increase in their geographic spread illustrates that the Taliban’s political, military and economic strategies are now more successful than the West’s in Afghanistan. Confident in their expansion beyond the rural south, the Taliban is at the gates of the capital and infiltrating the city at will.” According to the respected think tank, “The Taliban are now dictating terms in Afghanistan, both politically and militarily” and are “manoeuvring skilfully to fill the governance void, frequently offering a mellower version of localised leadership than characterised their last stint in power.”

Maps produced by the report’s authors put the problem in perspective. 72 percent of Afghan districts now report a “heavy” Taliban presence, up from 54 percent in 2007. That is, anti-occupation or anti-government attacks were occuring weekly in almost three quarters of Afghanistan. Little has changed since then. What the Panther’s Claw exercise can achieve in national terms – such as averting a mortal threat to the puppet Karzai government, is questionable. What it can achieve in local terms, purely within Helmand, is also in doubt. Without massive aid monies to build infrastructure, a tolerant attitude towards opium cultivation (and possibly its processing into internationally marketed medicines), and a willingness to negotiate with whatever forces are arrayed against the occupying army, Operation Panther’s Claw is destined to fail.

The Afghan people seem to know this. The BBC-ABC opinion poll found that 64 percent of those questioned favored negotiations with the Taliban. Such “metrics” as how the Afghan people actually feel are obviously not consulted by the policy makers in Whitehall and Washington, however, and they press on with their fight to the death regardless.


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