Tactical Utu in a Strategic Quagmire.

News that the NZSAS conducted a raid against those responsible for the death of Lt. Timothy O’Donnell last August should come as no surprise. Although Wayne Mapp once again dissembled in public about the purpose of the raid, which resulted in the deaths of nine Taliban and reportedly eight civilians due to stray fire from close air support (not the NZSAS), the point of the exercise was threefold: to exact utu on those who killed a NZ soldier; to provide a deterrent for other such directed attacks against NZDF personnel in Bamiyan province; and to send the message to the Taliban in neighbouring Baghlan province (from where the attack on Lt. O’Donnell’s patrol was organised and carried out) that Bamiyan is off-limits. The raid was personal: it let NZ troops in theater as well as adversaries know that the NZDF takes very seriously fatal attacks on its personnel, and will respond accordingly (that is, symmetrically if not overwhelmingly).

This is, quite frankly, an axiom of combat that serves good tactical purpose. After all, the Taliban are a fighting and revenge-minded culture, so failure to reply in kind and in timely fashion to the IED  and small arms fire ambush of Lt. O’Donnell’s patrol would have been perceived as a sign of weakness and invited more and larger attacks. However, the question remains as to whether the SAS utu raid serves the larger strategic interests of the ISAF coalition of which the NZDF contribution is part. The answer, unfortunately, is in the negative.

I shall leave aside the fact that John Key said in 2009  that the NZSAS was deployed in a “training and mentoring” role for the Afghan Army counter-terrorism Crisis Response Unit (CRU) based in Kabul,  and that it would not be engaged in combat operations. I shall also leave aside the fact that Mr. Key has continued to say that the SAS would not lead any raids but instead, as part of its mentoring role, “accompany” Afghan troops into battle when needed. Yet the raid against Lt. O’Donnell’s killers was led by the SAS in concert with US troops and air cover, with only a supporting role delegated to Afghan Army units.

Perhaps the fiction of the NZSAS non-combat role is needed for domestic political cover, although it seems to me that Mr. Key and Mr. Mapp are either deluded or have contempt for the public’s understanding of what the SAS does for a living. But the real issue is whether employing the SAS outside of its publicly acknowledged remit serves the strategic objectives of the ISAF coalition. There again, the answer is less comforting than the tactical success of the utu raid.

The fact that in the aftermath of Lt. O’Donnell’s death and the utu raid the NZDF has deployed a half dozen Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) to Bamiyan as reinforcements for the Humvees and armoured Hiluxes that the NZDF use when on patrol suggests that the raid did not necessarily improve the security of those patrols. That in turn means that the strategic situation, at least as it mircrocosmically plays out in Bamiyan, has not improved as a result. Moreover, because the LAVs are up-armoured (i.e. reinforced) and wheeled, they cannot be used on the narrow goat tracks and other pathways crisscrossing the mountains of northeast Bamiyan where Lt. O’Donnell was killed (along the border with Baghlan), so they are designed for use in flatter districts closer to the PRT headquarters. This means that after eight years of doing reconstruction work in Bamiyan, the security situation has gotten worse not better, and that is not entirely due to Taliban cross-border raids emanating from Baghlan.

In sum, the SAS search-and-destroy mission against Lt. O’Donnell’s killers was an efficient, calculated and deliberate act of utu that serves as a morale-booster for NZDF troops on the ground as well as those who in the future will deploy to hostile theaters. It gives the tactical enemy some food for thought and a measure of pause before it commits resources to attacks on the NZDF. But it does not, and cannot improve the strategic balance between the Taliban and ISAF. That is only important because in a conflict between irregulars fighting on home soil against a modern conventional military coalition, a military stalemate favours the irregulars.  If the military stalemate continues without political resolution, then the odds increase that the irregulars will prevail. Tactical success in a strategic quagmire, in other words, means little in terms of the long-term picture. Since ISAF is committed to withdrawing the bulk of its troops by 2014, all the Taliban have to do to ensure their long-term goals is harass ISAF forces as they prepare to depart while cementing the Taliban position as alternative sovereigns-in-waiting.  

All of which means that, utu reprisals notwithstanding, there is a distinct possibility of more NZDF casualties so long at the strategic balance in Afghanistan remains deadlocked or favourable to the Taliban.

Mr. Key and Mr. Mapp would do well to ponder this fact, and to be more honest in their public pronouncements about the SAS mission.

32 thoughts on “Tactical Utu in a Strategic Quagmire.

  1. I honestly despair of anything ever breaking the cycle of violence that seems to be in place in Afghanistan. It seems like a foregone conclusion that engaging there is a waste of time, resources and lives.
    What do you think could be done to improve the situation? I just can’t see a solution and I’d really like to hear your ideas about what can actually be achieved, if anything.

  2. I agree a sound tactical move, but from a party to a
    a flawed western strategy.

    The policy of secrecy about SAS work has certainly been dismantled during the Afghanistan period, probably so that allies noticed us doing our bit beyond PRT “peacekeeping”.

  3. Tidge, the idea that a certain part of the world is always going to be a cesspit of violence and all the West can do is disengage in order to keep our hands clean is perhaps not as progressive as you might think.

  4. Just on a tangent, I HATE the use of “NZDF”. It is the New Zealand Army. Calling an army a defense force is one of those deeply dishonest pieces of sophistry that has rendered so much of the English language useless since the it became fashion over the last thirty years.

    If it was a DEFENSE force, it wouldn’t be in Afghanistan.

  5. Sanctuary:

    I use NZDF as per standard usage and because the personnel serving in Afghanistan are not all Army. But I agree with your larger point and suggest that when armed forces are tasked overseas they should do so under the orders of the (renamed for the purpose) Ministry of War (which is a phrase from my youth in Latin America, although now everyone in the region uses the term “Defense”). Since NZ has had Ministers for Disarmament, it seems reasonable to have one for War, Peacekeeping and/or Occupation depending on the circumstances.

  6. The changeover from “Ministries of War” to “Ministries of Defense” began in WW2 and seemed to be largely complete throughout the world by the late 1960s. I don’t think there’s a single Ministry of War anywhere in the world and any country who instituted one would simply be villified as a warmonger (let alone a “Ministry of Occupation”!)

  7. Hugh:

    I was taking the piss with the latter suggestions. But at least they would be honest names.

  8. Pingback: Anzacs and Afghans « The Standard

  9. Why stop there? I think the Ministry of Social Development is quite grotesquely named given current practices.

  10. Hugh: Not to continue the tangent, but I could not resist. Under the current government surely there is place for a Ministry of Greed?

  11. Under the previous government too, although maybe we could concede it should have been called the Ministry Of Not Quite So Much Greed As The Last Guys So You Should Be Grateful.

  12. Just occasionally nowadays the New Zealand Army does something to be proud of.

    Equally the message sent by Wayne Mapp is the serious view. He and Army leaders would be failing their responsibilities if they allowed revenge to be the only reason for the tactical reaction.

    The necessity of making Taliban in the neighbouring province understand they would not be allowed to harass NZDF without a response is clear and entirely justifiable. You could readily argue that would have been the case even if no NZ soldier had been killed.

    You do make a reasonable point about being more open about the activities of the SAS.

    I utterly disagree there is a strategic quagmire. The strategy of entering Iraq has paid handsome dividends. Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, certainly Libya and with increasing likelihood Syria.

    The Arab spring is not turning towards Al Qaeda, normal people have seen the viciousness of those backward looking fanatics and look to the democratisation of Turkey as a better role model. As time goes on I am becoming more comfortable that the Clash of Civilisations has been averted.

    Afghanistan simply has too far to go in such a short time but it has received a substantial hand up. If Bush had not gone into Iraq they would have seen the full force of Jihadists concentrated in a 10 year attritional war that would have been lost by now. Arabs have seen what happened in Iraq and taken their own actions.

    Expect ISAF to withdraw the bulk of their forces in Afghanistan to strategic bases on the stated timelines. The Afghans will realise, as the Iraqi’s have done that it is their own problem now. ISAF will maintain a presence to ensure there is not a military return of the Taleban in its current form.

    I think the brutal truth is that Afghanistan will go through a long period of violence until the Afghans experience their own awakening.

    That said the McChrystal/Petraeus strategy of targeting mid level commanders could yet cause Al Qaeda in Afghanistan/Pakistan to implode.

  13. Phil, you’ve been peddling the “George Bush invented the idea of democracy in the Middle East so everywhere it appears it’s because of him” line for a while without finding any buyers here. Maybe it’s best to seek a more receptive audience?

  14. Re: NZDF

    Historically the Army and Navy (in Britain and the US at least) were largely independent and reported into government through the (UK) War Office and Admiralty.

    In WW2, Churchill became Minister of Defence as well as PM to provide common ministerial control over the three services. Post-war, this evolved to a defence ministry which eventually subsumed the individual service ministries.

    NZ used to have this model of the three services reporting directly to the MoD, but since 1990 has had a service-led Defence Force and a purely policy-making Ministry. (I’m not quite sure why. Possibly it’s a compromise from having a single armed service as in Canada and most NZ-sized nations).

  15. What’s worse with all of this, is that naiive decisions taken will be used as legitimate reasons for our foes to ‘target’ us now on our own soil. If ever there was an exercise designed to compound the situation – that was it! When at some time in the future, we see “terroist” attacks by foreigners (not unlike Rainbow Warrior-like activity), then we have only ourselve (OR RATHER OUR LYINH ELECTED REPRESENTAIVES) to blame. God forbid, one of them is about to become the next Guv!

  16. This is obviously site that doesn’t like backspace the backspace key. As I submitted – things seemed coherent. Make of the previous post what you will – it’s NOT as I intended.
    Perhaps an opportunity for a “web developer” to excel.
    Yay….a web developer to mince his or her way forth and take on the world.

  17. Tim:

    Your original comment went into the spam trap. I checked and approved it once I saw that it was legitimate. If you would like me to delete the original comment just ask and I will do so. That way you can re-phrase things as you prefer.

  18. Hugh – Surely you have learned by now that the conventional wisdom has its flaws. You will have to do a whole lot better than “most people think you are wrong…” to rebut my point.

    I certainly dont claim the straw man you describe. Like Reagan did not defeat communism directly he simply engaged in so much defence spending that the Soviet Union was incapable of keeping up and sent themselves broke.

    The removal of a dictator in Iraq can now be viewed more clearly as a major strategic success, simply by virtue of the delayed domino effect.

    If you think the events are unconnected, I look forward to your explanation of that. The intent was for the Arab spring to be triggered directly by Iraq, that obviously did not happen because Al Qaeda and the jihadists fought back so hard. If you take a longer term view and believe in the plausibility of the clash of civilisations theory then it is arguable the fight against the jihadists must have taken place at some time.

  19. Phil: You appear to be suggesting that these events are the result of some grand plan – yes?

  20. what a prat. Did I say that? no. Do companies engage in price wars to weaken their opposition even at the cost of their own short term profit? Yes.

    Was one of the strategic intentions of going into Iraq, the removal of a particularly nasty dictator, that would hopefully trigger a domino effect that would bring democracy to the middle east and strategic security to the US. I believe so, you obviously think that has to mean a grand plan when in fact any reasonable student of history would realise that you cannot dictate events where there are multiple actors, you can only hope to influence outcomes.

    Al Qaeda committed 911 in the hope of drawing the US into a war of attrition that would be a Vietnam that would draw many people to the AQ cause and which the supposedly weak and pacifist US and europeans would withdraw from, thereby handing AQ a strategic win.

    Unfortunately GW proved more determined than they were and the technology the US brought to bear is proving overwhelming on the battlefield and providing enough space for freedom aspiring arabs to take their own actions.

    I am no more stupid to believe that is all part of a grand plan than I am to believe 911 was a US conspiracy. Read or view Charlie Wilsons war to understand the serendipity of US foreign policy. Read Michael Smith the big short to understand how stupid bankers are.

    The war is very far from over and could still be lost by a pacifist US president, which I would not accuse Obama of being to date.

    Now rather than throwing up some more straw men would you or Hugh or anyone else care to engage in the principle of the argument rather than manufacturing BS straw detail to attack.

  21. Phil, I didn’t say most people think you are wrong, I’m saying that your argument has logical flaws and doesn’t seem to have convinced anybody I’ve seen you use it on. But I really have no desire to go round that particular mulberry bush with you yet again. You ask me to “engage in the principle of the argument” but this isn’t a basic human right. If I started telling you that penguins grew on trees or that milk was yellow you wouldn’t feel compelled to engage with me on the principle, right? This is the same thing.

  22. Do I understand the article correctly as concluding that due to increased NZDF armament in the area, the outcome of the SAS utu exercise has been to make worse the strategic balance between Taliban and ISAF? If so, I don’t really understand why. On the one hand, you’re saying that the mission will have sent a “don’t mess with us” message; but you also seem to be saying that the beefed-up protection armour is a sign that the SAS has stoked the fire, so to speak. Are these two perspectives compatible?

  23. TomC:

    It has been a while since you graced us with your presence.

    I may not have been clear enough: the cross-border raid into Baghlan province occured against the backdrop of a strategic stalemate throughout the entire ISAF theater of operations and a worsening situation in Bamiyan province which is the PRT’s AOR (hence the LAVs). The latter is not a function of Taliban attacks from Baghlan but of local (mostly Asiri rather than Pashtun) discontent with the occupation.

    Thus my point is that in spite of the tactical success of the SAS raid, it did not alter the strategic equation within which the NZDF contribution to ISAF is taking place, and the NZ government is not only lying about what the SAS does in Afghanistan but is not being honest with the public in its assessment of the utility of the NZ contribution given that equation.

  24. Very late reply here – I forgot I had commented and hadn’t checked the ‘notify of follow-up’ tickbox.

    @Hugh – I wasn’t aiming to be progressive, I was aiming to be honest. I really don’t know what the best plan of action in Afghanistan should be – I’m not saying I think it is pulling out and leaving them to it, I’m just saying the current engagement seem (to me) to be not achieving an awful lot. The most hopeful thing I’ve seen in relation to the region is an Aussie woman running a skate academcy for kids: http://skateistan.org/content/video and that concerns me, for reasons that should be obvious.

    So perhaps instead of interpreting my comments according to some imagined agenda, you (or someone else) could instead provide an answer to an honest question, i.e. wtf SHOULD we be doing there to help?

  25. First of all I think we should acknowledge that the future of Afghanistan is shaped by conditions on the ground not by some kind of preordained destiny to always be a hellhole full of strange people fighting for medieval reasons.

    Personally I think western intervention in Afghanistan would go much more easily if the framework of the Afghan state wasn’t accepted as a given. Right now a lot of effort goes towards trying to keep Afghanistan as a state entity in existence. There doesn’t seem to have been much of a cost-benefit analysis done on this point. So much of Afghanistan’s political inertia seems to be centrifugal, and I don’t think preventing that is very worthwhile.

  26. I agree with Hugh that Afghanistan is a failed state, so “success” there is unattainable for that reason.

    It would be better to partition the area into more viable units – something similar applies in Iraq (likely to become a failed democratic state because of identity politics) and the success window there may soon end because of this.

    Afghanistan needs a northern and southern administration under a federal central structure (this supported by the UN), with the Taleban rehabilitated within the south (under central guidlines/limitations).

    Iraq needs a federal structure with resources allocated to northern, central and southern regions.

  27. Phil, I would argue that the Soviet Union was struggling economically and that it was the the collapse of the oil price that was the decisive factor in the 1980’s. The subsequent need for the Soviet Union to focus on internal economic and political renewal left it unable to pursue an imperial policy and thus its withdrawal from the Cold War.

    The USA brought to the equation was the Star Wars concept and a willingness to place missiles in western Europe – these provided a security rationale (extra argument) for the reformists to end the Cold War but was not the underlying reason.

    Today the American need to undergo economic and political renewal may well see it withdraw from the world stage, the lack of public or elite support for any more than a limited role in Libya is instructive.
    The irony though is that the belated and last minute no fly zone may have vital to sustain momentum in the democratic renewal of the region – and yet someone like Gates (ex CIA) was opposed to any involvement.

  28. SPC – That is a really interesting undrawn comparison, between the USSR in the eighties and USA now. The more you think about it the more valid it becomes.

    I find it more than a little bit bemusing the two differences between Iraq and Libya are that Saddam had killed huge numbers of his own people whereas Qaddaffi was threatening to. Oh and the Cheese eating surrender monkeys went troppo.

    Morally the case for intervention was no different but I do not see any anti intervention marches. Perhaps the absence of the US as lead is the other difference. Which would kind of make previous protests less about the morality and more about the anti americanism.

    We do agree that Afghan is a failed state. The shame for Afghan is that the Arab spring offers the opportunity for Obama to withdraw on his timeline and leave it to its fate rather than take responsibility over the next few decades to bring it back to the potential it had in the fifties. But at least the Arab Spring will bring more people to freedom and self determination .

  29. Personally I think the comparison between the US and Soviet interventions in Afghanistan is asinine.

    At least on a strategic level. Tactically there is a lot for the US to learn from the successes and failures of the Soviets. But the idea that the US is going to collapse in the same way the USSR did due to its intervention is a huge oversimplification.

    Please note I didn’t use the term “failed state”. That’s you putting words in my mouth.

  30. Way to put words in each others mouths all, we are doing well on this thread. Hugh – you are quite correct you did not name it as a failed state. My apology for any undue inference.

    That said you certainly mix up my point. The parallel between USSR and USA has almost nothing to do with Afghanistan in either case. Far more to do with the economic choices made over decades.

    The Chinese economy will soon be bigger than the US and the US owes China trillions. The US has weak leadership that refuses to recognise the degree to which reform is required. It could certainly afford the Afghan commitment as part of a Defence to GDP% which is well within historical norms if it was not blowing so much money on unsustainable spending. The US is on the same political path as California. Long term spending commitments that are economically unsustainable but politically unchangeable by weak leadership until crisis point is reached.

  31. Hugh, the reason effort is placed on “Afghanistan as a state entity”, is because it’s vital to the western exit strategy.

    My point is that the Afghanistan state that exists is so flawed that it won’t survive the departure of foreign troops.

    Similarly the cracks in the Iraq regime will become apparent once foreign troops leave and the Mehdi Army guy destablises the regime and becaomes a front for Iran as groups in Lebanon are for Syria.

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