No Fun Beyond the Khyber Pass

Douglas Hurd, former British Foreign Secretary, has a review in the Spectator of A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the War in Afghanistan by James Fergusson.

The book recounts the brave performance of the British Army and RAF in Afghanistan, under difficult circumstances. Nonetheless, the mission is not going well. Hurd tells us that Fergusson quotes one Captain Leo Docherty:

You don’t win hearts and minds with soldiers; you need engineers, builders, the development people from DFID. We have embedded journalists; they risk their lives to do their jobs. Why can’t we have embedded development individuals? That’s what we need.

This is yet another iteration of Tom Barnett’s long-standing cry for a SysAdmin force to “win the peace” once the initial round of shooting has died down.

Without such a capacity, it is categorically impossible to realize the kind of ambitious “nation building” goals that Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair articulated once the current two wars got under way:

The original case for the war in Afghanistan was stronger than anything produced for the invasion of Iraq. We had to dislodge the Taliban government from Kabul because it was providing a base for al-Qa’eda to terrorise the world. But after that good decision was taken, two events distorted the exercise. First we greatly enlarged our objectives. We took upon us the whole burden of Afghanistan, pledging ourselves not just to abolish the terrorist base but to solve all the political, economic and social challenges of an undeveloped country, from women’s rights to the problem of the profitable poppy. This inflation of aims was characteristic of the rhetorical thinking of the Blair government. He treated aspirations and achievable objectives as the same thing.

These nation-building tasks would be hard enough, even if the USA, the UK, and their allies had expended, in advance, the thought, planning, and spending needed to build relevant capabilities. As it is, the USA, UK and others have been trying to extemporize on the fly, and under fire, two nation-building projects. It is a miracle that it has only been as bad as it has been, instead of a pair of outright and unambiguous disasters. This can only be credited to the creativity, courage and spirit of the enlisted personnel and junior and mid-level officers in both Iraq and Afghanistan who have been making bricks without much straw for years now.

Hurd goes on to say:

If it is true that we cannot simply continue as at present, then there seem to be two choices. First, we might be able to reconcentrate on our original objective, that is denying al-Qa’eda a base in Afghanistan. We would leave the rest to the Afghan government. We would confine our own efforts to providing as best we can for our own security against terrorist attack. This return to the original objective is easier to state than to implement.
The alternative is to create our own surge in Afghanistan in the hope of achieving a decisive result. This would mean reorganising NATO’s presence, doing away with the national caveats and establishing a common NATO operational fund as David Cameron has suggested. It would involve embedding development officials and giving local commanders budgets for immediate development projects (such as the American Commanders in Afghanistan actually have) regardless of whether they meet DIFD criteria. It would mean repeated air action against al-Qa’eda in the border provinces of Pakistan with or without the consent of the Pakistan government.

Plan A sounds best to me. I read somewhere recently that Mr. Sarkozy was saying that “we” must make sure that the girls of Afghanistan are educated, and that the women there have various rights which the women of France are accustomed to. That may seem like a noble goal from the comfort of a Parisian conference room, but it is unachievable by means of military force and the other, ancillary assets currently at hand. The Afghan people, particularly the Pashtuns, have their own way of doing things, which I mentioned recently. Telling them what to do with their women is a sure way to make them shoot at you.

I am also currently reading Spying for Empire: The Great Game in Central and South Asia, 1757-1947, by Robert Johnson, which is excellent. There is lots of information in there about Afghanistan. The annihilation of the British occupation force in 1842, for example. This website, which I stumbled across, offers this pithy summary:

The First Afghan War provided the clear lesson to the British authorities that while it may be relatively straightforward to invade Afghanistan it is wholly impracticable to occupy the country or attempt to impose a government not welcomed by the inhabitants. The only result will be failure and great expense in treasure and lives.

Johnson’s book teaches, this same, unsurprising, lesson. It is sometimes possible to invade Afghanistan, but it is virtually impossible to occupy it for long. This is particularly true if you are an army of infidels who seems to have designs on the land, gold or women of the Afghans.

There are few geo-strategic “iron laws”. But I can think of two candidates.

• Invading Russia is always a bad idea, unless you are willing and able to act like the Mongols.

• Occupying Afghanistan is similarly always a bad idea, even if you were willing and able to act like the Mongols.

We are, to our credit, not willing or able to act like the Mongols without far, far more provocation than anything the Afghans have ever done to us. We actually do want to help these people, not further ruin their already poor and devastated country, as hard as that may be for foreigners to fathom. One way to help them would be to recognize our own limitations.

No one has ever built a nation in Afghanistan, not even the Afghans. No invader has ended up having a happy time in Afghanistan. Whatever our political and military leaders say they are doing, they ought to be looking for the door. If our exit is preceded by a “surge”, to beat up on the worst of our enemies, scare the survivors, and clear some space for local initiatives by our friends, that may make sense. Sometimes you have to go in hard so you can get out at all. To the extent we stay, it should be done quietly and unobtrusively, through local proxies and allies to the maximum extent possible. Anything other than a low profile is probably not long-term viable.

But trying to remake Afghanistan into anything remotely like a developed-world democracy is unrealistic and can only end in blood, tears and failure. We don’t know how to do it, and we lack the means to do it. Trying to do it under those conditions is foolhardy.

(I say all of the foregoing based on things I have read. I have, for example, never been to Afghanistan. If I am wrong about my facts, analysis or conclusions, I would be interested in hearing so, in the comments, so long as the commenter provides a coherent basis for that opinion.)

16 thoughts on “No Fun Beyond the Khyber Pass”

  1. It is astonishing to me that the US government refuses to behave as a government in the matter of development talent. You send the necessary people in to do the job that is needed and if they refuse to go, they are fired for cause and with a pension penalty.

    The truth is that accommodating the dainty sensibilities of State and the other departments that have not pulled their weight in either Afghanistan or Iraq has lengthened military operations there and that costs dearly in both blood and treasure.

    So long as our elected officials cannot summon the fortitude to insist that their civil servant staff actually do the job that needs doing, we are not entirely a free, sovereign, democratic republic. What we are instead is something significantly less desirable.

  2. We have a failed state to our south. How would we nation build there? The idea seems ludicrous because we know enough to know it is ludicrous. We know so little about Afghanistan we think we can do it there.

    We would do much better focusing our efforts on nations that are capable of escaping, China and India, for example. And by taking down trade barriers for countries like Columbia.

    But our goal isn’t to build countries that don’t yet want to exist. The real purpose of our nation building efforts in Afghanistan but especially Iraq, is so that when the next outrage is perpetrated upon us, we can react by saying, “We tried carrots last time. This time the stick.” and our consciences will be clear for the utter devastation we shall visit upon them.

  3. It would be awfully nice if Douglas Hurd, the man who betrayed the people of Northern Ireland, signed the Maastricht Treaty and was Slobodan Milosevic’s best buddy would finally fade away. Sadly, he looks like a grandee, so people keep asking him to write stuff.

    DFID is, by and large, a disaster. The last thing Afghanistan needs is more development experts, all of whom are socialists at heart. Believe me. I know the breed. There are far too many of them already. What is needed is a complete change in trading policy so the Afghanis can sell what they produce to the European Union, which includes Britain (I bet Lord Hurd keeps quiet about his beloved EU’s protectionist policies) and the United States as well as help in building roads and places to store grain etc. Of course, educating girls is very important but if the economic life of the country is dysfunctional much else follows, not least the growing and sale of opium.

  4. Who was it (a general I believe) that said that when you send a military force in to liberate a country, the first 50% of the time you are a liberator;’ the 2nd, an occupier. In passing: why all the poppies, supply 90 percent of the world’s heroin? We do nothing abut it and the Taliban use it for funding.

  5. They grow poppies because it is not economically viable to produce anything else. Just eradicating poppies does not help. In fact, it makes matters worse in various ways.

    The way it was explained to me is quite simple: the drug industry abides by market rules, so it is doing very well. The rest of the economy is controlled by do-gooding NGOs and aid agencies. So it is in a dire state. Clearly the two roles need to be reversed.

  6. I think the worst error the US and NATO have made in Afghanistan is not having a strategy. I cannot quantify or describe the mess that pretends to be the current strategy there.

    I do recognize the requirement for principles such as the two you mentioned regarding occupying Russia and Afghanistan. Our strategy must keep these in mind. Furthermore, we need to remember that we invade and occupy with the army we have, not any hifalutin SysAdmin that Barnett evangelizes about. Often construction of such SysAdmin functions will not occur quickly enough to keep up with the needs of the moment, and predicting the requirements is often difficult. Our strategy should take this into account.

    There are political strategies available: Divide-and-rule, as the British did in India, seems to me to be the best option, and as the Europeans and the US have done to the American Indians. Connecting the countryside via roads is another way of centralizing rule where there has been only anarchy. There are numerous strategies available…if we could only pick one and go with it!

    Lex–We ought to have a conversation some time about the concept of the SysAdmin. At the moment I’m convinced it’s a pipedream, but I’m open to other views. Perhaps a piece co-written by us could be written on the topic, if we could come to agreement.

  7. “…a conversation some time about the concept of the SysAdmin…”

    I have some ideas on it. I will email you.

    “… a pipe dream … ”

    Done right, it need not be a pipe-dream, and in any case, the main point Barnett makes, we keep trying to do these tasks but refuse to fund, train or plan for them. If we are going to keep getting into these situations we should stop pretending that the umpteenth one we do is just one more exceptional case until the Big One against China finally happens. These are the tasks our military keeps getting asked to do. That is not going to change.

  8. Well after the Russianss left Afghanistan and US cut its budget,presence, and just generally ignored the place, the Wackos moved in and here we are again. Now people are saying “declare victory and leave.” Of course if we leave and what’s left of the Pakistan government goes down to the crazies, then WTF are we going to do if they snarf up the Paki nukes and gain access to sea ports. It’s not going to be easy, it not going to be short, but every time we give up on that part of the world, in my opinion it will just get harder to deal with. It has been noticed that the US military has been taking over missions that the State Department should be doing. Come future budget hearins this may get State put on the hind tit.

  9. Without wishing to blow our trumpet – oh what the heck, I shall blow it – but we have been discussing it on our blog. To be quite precise my colleague has been writing pieces on his spin-off blog Defence of the Realm ( but I take some credit in that we have been discussing the issue at great length as the work has progressed. It is mostly from a British perspective but that is not so different from the American. I am afraid the conclusion we have come to (one that I came to very soon after the war started and the stories started coming out) is that all aid and development agencies, all NGOs and all tranzis have to go. They are the poison that is preventing any kind of progress. And especially DIFD has to go. Actuall, if I had my way I would slash that ghastly department’s budget to zero.

  10. Lex,

    Below is something I wrote five years ago on the Winds of Change blog.

    By way of comparison, today, we have about 150,000 combat and logistic troops in Iraq, about 100,000 private military contractors and now about 250,000 Iraqi Army and police forces.

    In the end, I was wrong about needing a draft, but only because we used private military companies on an unheard of scale.
    The American Ground Troop Shortage

    The US Army don’t need more combat “super troopers” in Iraq. It needs support force “garri-troopers,” the sort the Army has done away with in the active force, moved to the reserves, abolished or contracted out. And the Army needs a lot of them. Borrowing again from a Washington Monthly article I have quoted before:

    “Over the last 50 years, American strategy has made increasing use of effective technology, substituting machines for men, both to reduce casualties and to outrange our enemies. But this trading of capital for increased efficiency breaks down in the intensely human missions of peace enforcement and nation-building. American wealth can underwrite certain aspects of those missions: schools, roads, water purification plants, electric power. But it can’t substitute machines or money in the human dimension–the need to place American soldiers (or police officers) on patrol to make the peace a reality.”

    To administer Iraq effectively, given the foreign fighters being fed in by Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, the USA needs a garrison of at least 250,000. It has ~160,000 in Iraq now (counting the British Army) with two divisions worth of various Europeans and other allies (including Mongolians!!! Mongolians in Baghdad?!? Talk about bad historical memories!) headed for Iraq right now.

    So if the USA has a force of 250,000 in Iraq just for garrison. Just how large a force structure are you going to need for an on-going mission there? The ratio of two units preparing for or coming back from a peacekeeping assignment means an on-going commitment to Iraq will require 750,000 troops in the force structure and they are not combat troops. Add 750,000 to 480,000 and that gets an Army of 1,230,000.

    Force structure wise, I was told by e-mail that we should be aiming for 2-3 COSCOMs (Corps Support Commands) and a TAACOM (Theater Army Area Command). A COSCOM is a roughly division sized force of support units and a TAACOM has several COSCOMs under it with additional support units of its own.

    This is the ending text of a series of e-mails:

    “That’s right. The mix of logistics, medical, administrative and MP units that would support combat-arms forces of corps size (or theater army level) could also serve, sans combatants, as a ready-made, tailorable relief force (with the field combat units still occupying able to more fully utilize their own COSCOMs and TAACOM without hardships to our own combat troops).”

    To get that number of trained soldiers in 18 months to two years is going to take a draft. Whether the politicians or the public likes it or not, America is half way to a draft already with the US Army offering two year enlistments for new recruits. The refusal to admit this by the professional American military and the politicians is going to give us a burnt out “hollow military” ground force inside of two years, due to tubing re-enlistment rates by reserve troops and regular non-coms unless something drastic is done.


    Too sum this post up, WE ARE AT WAR! In this war there is no substitute for American troops to fulfill the mission of killing terrorists and terrorist supporting states, rooting out weapon of mass destruction (WMD) infrastructure and human capital, and reforming Arab culture at gun point. The only way we are going to get enough American support troops in Iraq fast enough is via a draft

  11. Lex,

    This is clipped from another piece of mine from the Winds of change blog at roughly the same time.

    Please note what I said about NGO’s and foreign allies then, and how it has panned out since.

    U.S. Military — Back to the Future!

    T.R. Fehrenbach wrote the following in his Korean War classic “THIS KIND OF WAR”:

    “You may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life, but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.”

    It is this enduring truth that is now being used by partisans of the US Army Brass and Democrats to beat up Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and the Bush Administration in the aftermath of the recent Iraqi War.

    The argument is that the Bush Administration ignored the well-informed Brass, particularly Army Chief of Staff Gen. Shinseki’s advise, on the need for thousands more troops in Iraq – that the Army is “executing a 12 division strategy with a 10-division Army” – especially in light of Iran and Syria sending in foreign fighters to the Sunni areas of Iraq to support the Ba’athist remnants.

    Conservatives like Stanley Kurtz have been harping on the shortage of American combat troops here and here long before this.

    I disagree with this analysis….

    In terms of war fighting strength to conquer Iraq, Rumsfeld was right and Shinseki was wrong.

    We did not need 250,000 combat troops to conquer Iraq. We did it on the ground with a third that number. This is a very important point. In the narrow field of professional evaluation of relative ground combat power, where Shinseki should have beaten Rumsfeld all hollow, the civilian Defense Secretary called it right.

    It is the number and type of troops needed in the aftermath of our victory where Rumsfeld and Shinseki are both wrong.

    The issue of American combat power and military “transformation” are irrelevant to the needs of “nation building.” An article critical of Rumsfeld accidentally captures the essence of the issue:

    Young Men in the Mud

    “In many ways, the contrast between war fighting and nation-building resembles the difference between productivity in the manufacturing and service industries. Businessmen have long known that you can rather easily substitute capital and technology for labor in manufacturing. Until very recently, however, it’s been far more difficult to do so for the service industries. A similar principle applies to military affairs. In war fighting, everything ultimately comes down to sending a projectile downrange. How you send the bullet (or bomb) makes a difference–you can use an infantryman with a rifle, or a B-52 launching a cruise missile. But the effect at the far end is the same–the delivery of kinetic or explosive energy. Over the last 50 years, American strategy has made increasing use of effective technology, substituting machines for men, both to reduce casualties and to outrange our enemies. But this trading of capital for increased efficiency breaks down in the intensely human missions of peace enforcement and nation-building. American wealth can underwrite certain aspects of those missions: schools, roads, water purification plants, electric power. But it can’t substitute machines or money in the human dimension–the need to place American soldiers (or police officers) on patrol to make the peace a reality.”


    America is in the chaos elimination business because tyranny anywhere is a threat to Americans everywhere, even at home. That is the searing lesson of 9/11. There is no such thing as defense in this war – only the complete elimination of our enemies. This means killing terrorists and reforming at gun point the societies that breed them. This is why Democrats are dead and damned on issues of national security – the kind of naked military and cultural imperialism necessary to win is against the party’s secular religious creed.

    NGO’s, on the other hand, are parasites. They thrive on the open wounds of chaos and disorder in the international system.

    Rumsfeld is as blind here as the military’s brass hats. He is far too concerned about transforming the fighting force and nowhere near enough concerned about anything else critical to national security. I am tempted here to say that war should no more be left up to a Secretary of Defense than to the Generals.

    These are the truths we face.

    1. We are burning out the National Guard and Army Reserve support troops from repeated deployments. Retention and recruiting for both are crashing.

    2. Contracting out nation building to multinational NGO’s or corporations like Brown & Root or Dynacorp won’t work without a secure environment, something which only American troops can provide.

    3. Military allies can’t provide long-term security in occupied areas either because their interests and ours are too likely to diverge, though their forces can help immensely during and immediately after a given conquest.

    4. If we must deploy large numbers of American occupation troops anyway, which can’t be our existing, expensive and limited ground combat specialists who are needed for further operations, we must create a new force structure as cheaply as possible — AKA draftees — to provide the staying power we need for long-term nation building.

  12. Trent,

    I am sure that General Petraeus’s staff are fully aware of the problems you outline. But why transport over thousands and thousands of American garrison-type troops when you can “grow your own” locally? You write as if the Iraqi Army (and its reconstruction) does not exist. We don’t need to draft young Americans when Iraqis are ready to volunteer. Think Brits and Gurkhas.

    I agree with you about NGOs (somewhat). If they are left to run around according to their own devices, then the overall positive effect is dubious. I would imagine that they would benefit from an NGO overall command to control and coordinate what they do on the ground. Also, since they can suffer from corruption and/or collaboration with the insurgents (not saying they all do!), the country as a whole would benefit from the NGOs being on a tight leash. (The reason why I say collaboration, is that interesting questions are raised by the readiness of FARC to hand over their hostages to the rescuers posing as NGO workers. It’s as if this happens quite often – that NGO helicopters would handle kidnap traffic. See Instapundit.)

    Yes the military allies basically failed to materialise in the numbers hoped. But the US and UK have managed without them.

  13. DWMF,

    The take over of Basra by the Iranian backed Sader (sp?) militia does not argue that the British are “reliable allies” in Iraq.

    The Labour government ceded control of Basra to the Iranian backed militia’s for a number of reasons ranging from domestic political considerations regards casuaties to a foreign policy objective of denying the American military secure ground lines of commmunications into Iran from Iraq if America decided to go it alone in taking down the Iranian mullahocracy.

    This leaves out the fact that Britain is also a signatory of both the anti-personnel landmine treaty and cluster munitions treaty, which weakens its military forces in any large scale conventional engagement.

    For instance, due to the latter treaty, it is now currently illegal from Britain military to use its stores of 155mm cluster munition shells, its aerial cluster bombs, and the vast majority of it’s MLRS rocket artillery ammunition.

    This means that British military forces are becoming a liability on the flank of American heavy combat manuever forces due to inadequate artillery and aerial fire support from a lack of ammunition.

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