Mentoring and Timing.

Timing is everything, so they say. The Taliban attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul was a masterpiece of symbolic defiance. Apparently modeled on the Mumbai attacks of 2008 (which suggests the possibility of links to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) Islamicists that  carried out that attack and which are reported to have links with the Pakistani Intelligence Service ISI), the assault comes on the very week that overall security responsibility for Kabul was being transferred from International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)  to Afghan hands. It comes in wake of the announcement of the US withdrawal plan, which sees 33,000 US troops headed home between July 2011 and September 2012, and the bulk of the remaining 70,000 withdrawn by late 2014. It occurred during a conference held at the hotel between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan on the subject of “anti-terrorism,” considered against the backdrop of an overall ISAF reduction in presence along with the US military draw down.

The first areas to be handed over to Afghan control are Kabul and Bamiyan Province.  NZ troops are stationed in both places, with the SAS company located in Kabul while the majority of the other NZDF personnel serve with the PRT in Bamiyan. If the Taliban logic holds true, they will accelerate the pace of attacks on remaining ISAF forces in areas that are handed over to Afghan security control.  It is therefore plausible to think that NZDF troops will be the subject of targeted hostilities  in both theaters, with the timing and intensity of Taliban attacks increasing. As the symbolic centre of the foreign occupation, Kabul is a target rich environment for urban guerrillas. In Bamiyan the local ethnic Hazari population, long victims of Taliban discrimination, now must ponder a post-PRT future in which the Taliban will be a major player. That advises them to look to negotiate with the Taliban on post-PRT terms and to consequently distance themselves from the PRT. That will have an impact on tactical intelligence gathering as well local logistics, to say nothing of the security of the NZDF personnel stationed there. PRT force protection, rather than combat patrols, could well be the objective of the day once Afghan security forces assume control in Bamiyan.

In terms of the assault itself, the Intercontinental Hotel operation demonstrated sophistication and professionalism. The combined grenade, IED and small arms fire tactic involved a mix of attackers, apparently disguised as guests and Afghan police. It is speculated that some may have checked into the hotel days before the assault, while other reports have the 9-man assault squad launching the attack from the hill that the hotel backs on to. The five rings of road block blast barriers on the road leading to the hotel were ineffectual against the assault.  Afghan security forces at and around the hotel are said to have run rather than engage the attackers from the onset, which allowed them to move beyond the lobby and pool areas and into the floors above. While the bulk of the guerrillas fought floor to floor and room to room with the eventual responders, a few made the roof and used it to engage sniper fire on reinforcements (thereby demonstrating knowledge of standard counter-terrorism tactics using troops rappelling from helicopters onto rooftops). The fact that the battle lasted 5 hours indicates the planning and tenacity of the Taliban fighters, with the last one killing himself at 7AM (the attack began at 10PM).

That is where mentoring comes in. “Mentoring” in the context of the NZSAS relationship with the Afghan anti-terrorist force known as the Crisis Response Unit means training and combat support. The SAS trains the CRU and follows them into battle in incidents precisely like the hotel siege. That is what they train for, in a variety of scenarios. Should the CRU vacillate or prove ineffectual, then the SAS mentors assume leadership roles and coordinate the counter-attack. The involves them at the initial point of contact with the enemy–at the pointy end, if you will. The two wounded troopers were engaged in such roles, which along with the duration of the battle suggests that the initial CRU response was less than optimal.

If reports are true that SAS snipers platformed on a NATO Blackhawk hovering near the hotel killed the rooftop snipers (at night), it will have brought valuable and highly specialised combat experience to to the unit.  Re-taking the hotel will have given the rest of the SAS team (reported as “around a dozen”) equally important live fire exposure (and at least two scars). Should this scenario be true, from an SAS standpoint the engagement was a mixed bag, with the CRU not holding its own without help against a determined and prepared enemy, but where SAS troops combat tested a range of tactics and skills.

The bigger issue is what does this attack mean for ISAF and the NZDF. Let me suggest this: it means that whatever the technical skills and material improvements imparted by NZDF forces in reconstruction, nation-building and “mentoring” roles, the balance of forces vis a vis the Taliban indicates that their efforts have not prospered as hoped, and their security is increasingly compromised as a result.

25 thoughts on “Mentoring and Timing.

  1. Interesting. It appears these insurgents were mentored well. An interesting comparison might be drawn with the 2008 ISI-led attacks in Mumbai. Pakistan will be seeking to shape Afghanistan in anticipation of ISAF withdrawal – whether this means destabilising limited western interests and destroying any hold on safe positions, I wouldn’t know. A response to the recent American incursion to kill Osama Bin Laden might be expected, and this may have represented such.

    However, it seems also possible or even likely that CRU units are not impermeable, and their operations and training are not as well guarded as they could be. As much as the ISI deserve intense scrutiny, I’m not convinced they’re the fount of all evil in the region.

    All of this is idle speculation from someone who rarely looks west of the Myanmar/Burma border, so take it as you will.

  2. It’s really quite simple, if one is Afghan.

    You invaded our land. You kill our people. What do you expect – a standing ovation?

    The 9/11 revenge operation took a wrong turning as it morphed from eliminating al Qaeda into eliminating the Taliban. al Qaeda is Arab. Taliban is Pashtun. The latter live there.

    Furthermore, at the risk of being demonised as traitorous, I do think that the hero-worshipping stories of our highly trained killers ignore the basic facts I outlined above.

    So we can afford to train a few very effective killers. Whoopdy doo!

    But that doesn’t make them morally right.

    Occupations always end, usually messily for the invaders.

    Look forward to more of the same as the US winds down this unnecessary war.

  3. Luc, I’m pretty sure a lot of Afghans don’t consider the Taliban “their people”. As you rightly point out, they’re Pashtuns – a group that makes up about 40% of the Afghan population and is not well regarded in many parts of the country.

  4. Luc:

    Your views are well known. Regardless of the multiple UN resolutions authorising the use of force in Afghanistan, you will never be convinced of the legality of the move. Yet your view of the situation is simplistic. Hugh has already noted that Pashtun are not a majority in Afghanistan, and people like the Hazaris have been traditionally oppressed by them. Not all Pashtun are Taliban either. The Taliban do not enjoy universal support and in fact are reviled by many. The educational, medical and infrastructure-building tasks performed by the international community and ISAF make for a very different type of occupation, the complexities of which you prefer to overlook.

    And of course you do realise that the Taliban assault on the Intercontinental was designed to kill as many unarmed civilians as possible,and it was only the response by the SAS that prevented the death toll from being much greater. Is that such a bad thing?

    As for the statement that “occupations always end, usually messilly”: ask the aboriginals or natives of Guam, Diego Garcia and Hawaii about that one. The truth is, again, a but more complex and not reducible to a simplistic black/white equation.

    Where I agree with you is on the issue of mission creep. Once ISAF deviated from the original objective of ousting AQ from the country, and given that the Taliban just retreated rather than fight in 2002-03, it started on a slippery slope of post-modern nation-building in a pre-modern society in which many sectors wanted some but not all of what modernity brings (and specifically rejects the cultural baggage that it brings). Given that the Taliban were never defeated and can move about at will along the border with Pakistan, that was a prescription for failure, one that National continues to deny even in the face of allied withdrawals from ISAF.

  5. Pablo – to be blunt, Afghanistan no longer matters. The Arab spring will do far more to reduce strategic jihadist terrorism than trying to bring Afghanistan into modern world will do.

    Whilst I have huge respect for the job ISAF are doing and hope they continue for moral reasons it is worth being realistic. The various tribes will determine for themselves whether they will allow Taliban to dictate their future.

    It seems like America under Obama has lost its mojo. It has realised its financial weakness means it has strategic weakness and it is simply not willing to make the reforms necessary.

  6. What National are doing in Afghanistan is very sensible for New Zealand’s strategic defence. It has participated in nation building in Bamiyan and its special forces are re-establishing their fearsome reputation whatever the nitpicking journalists might write.

    For New Zealand our security has long been based on participation in superpower actions that provide mutual defence assurance. ANZUS was the culmination and expression of that. Lange and Margaret Wilson created an exception to that which has taken 25 years to put right.

  7. Phil:

    Now you are oversimplifying. The Arab Spring is a political phenomenon with geostrategic implications. The Afghan intervention/occupation is a geostrategic conflict that has political ramifications. The outcome in Afghanistan, which will be the result of a political compromise in which the Taliban will be centrally involved, will have direct and immediate impact on all of its neighbours, not just Pakistan. That is why Russia and China (which shares a border with Afghanistan) have started to take an interest in the post-ISAF future. Then there are the humanitarian issues and R2P responsibilities that make Afghanistan an ongoing concern, especially since failed states are AQ havens. Given that both have Islamic irredentist movements in their Central Asian border regions, look to see the Chinese and Russian get much more involved with Afghanistan post 2014.

    The National govt wants it both ways: they kiss up to the US, now formalised in the November 2010 Wellington Declaration, while lying to the NZ public about what the NZDF is really doing there as well as the nature of the security situation. It is not “nitpicking” for a courageous journalist to simply note the nature and implications of the mission–it is responsible journalism in a democracy. What is irresponsible is for govt leaders to deliberately lie to the electorate under the assumption that the NZ public are too stupid or apathetic to care.

  8. Which Islamic irredentist movement is active in Russia’s Central Asian border region?

  9. There are Islamic irredentist groups in all of the former Soviet Central Asian Republics, to say nothing of places like Chechnya. The biggest concerns are are with Tajikistan as well as Pakistan, but Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and China (all of these bordering on Afghanistan) as well as India, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have armed Islamicists challenging the status quo (in the case of Iran with Sunni Arab support). An outright Taliban victory in the geographic centre of the sub-continent would be most injurious to the great powers closest to them, hence the Russian and Chinese (belated) entry into the diplomatic fray.

  10. Thanks LF, that is good stuff. My son recently returned from a Peace Corps stint in Kyrgyzstan (mostly in Karakol) talking about the Uzbek-Kyrzic rifts. Energy is always an issue in the region, which is why the big powers have an interest.

  11. Thanks for your input, Pablo.

    But I have never had an opinion that the war in Afghanistan is illegal. I reserve that view for the Iraq war and I am in good company there.

    In fact, I supported action against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan but became increasingly horrified at the mounting civilian casualties. It’s interesting that amongst the first areas to be bombed on the opening days of the war were civilian sectors in Kabul. Plenty of al Qaeda there!

    And truly simplistic analysis fails to recognise that these highly criminal terror attacks are in response to the invasion and subsequent occupation. Our focus needs to be on addressing this situation.

    Neither did I say Taliban is supported throughout the country. It’s a very divided country but enough people want an end to the occupation to make for a violent environment with no possibility of a military solution.

    And my comment on the endgame of occupations did include the word “usually.” I excluded the absolute deliberately so exceptions did not become the rule.

  12. Oh, OK, I thought you meant irredentist movements who actually wanted to grab pieces of Russia herself. As far as I know there are no such groups in Central Asia. (Chechenya is generally not considered part of Central Asia, and is separatist, not irredentist).

  13. OK Luc. Thanks for the clarification.

    Hugh: I am aware of where Chechnya is located and used it as a counterpoint in the discussion. There are irredentist forces within Chechyna that are opposed to a pro-Russia status quo.

  14. Ah, the issue of the Caliphate in the Caucuses is now broached, where historical grievances of a ethno-territorial sort underpin an Islamicised rejection of Russian domination. There is much written on this subject, but you can start with any word search that includes “irredentism” and “Chechyna.”

  15. In my understanding irredentism applies to movements who want to attach a territory to a pre-existing state, not to those who want to make it a part of a hypothetical larger state, even if that larger state would incorporate territory that crosses pre-existing national borders.

    I took your advice, though, and the only reference I can find (on Wiki, no less!) to Chechen irredentism is the claim on Akkia in Dagestan, which seems to have gone dormant long before the current conflict and was about irredentism to Chechenya, not of Chechenya.

  16. Hugh: You need to read more. Irredentism can refer to attempts to reclaim lost territory as much as attempts to gain new ground. Since this is a side-bar to the post, I shall consider the matter closed.

  17. Pablo – I completely agree that the Taliban will be involved in governing Afghanistan to some extent. But AQ wont. And that is a substantial difference.

    The reason I said it does not matter is that if ISAF had simply pulled out as they are doing now without the context of the death of Osama and the Arab spring it would be seen as a strategic defeat. In the same way as the Allies were utterly defeated in Gallipoli and yet won the wider war it does not matter what happens now in Afghanistan. AQ and jihadist extremists are in retreat. The jihadists aims and methods have been refused by the vast bulk of moderate Islam.

    It is completely understandable that Afghans fight against what they perceive as an occupation. We in the West wish that it were not so and have the best of intentions but a staged withdrawal with the willingness to use superior Western technology to back the government in the same way as is being done for rebels in Libya.

    As far as NZDF is concerned I made the point in an earlier post that the NZSAS as simply not equipped to take prisoners. That is not their role. It is very easy for armchair critics and journalists to pass judgement on native forces in Afghanistan. It is their country!!

    Journalists can certainly hold America to account as they rightly did over Abu Ghraib but it is fatuous to impose our peaceful norms of behaviour on conflict situations. The reactions and comments of the government and NZDF personnel simply reflect that reality.

  18. Pablo, that’s not the way they were teaching it at Universities when I was studying. But given that you’re on record of considering the NZ University system as entirely unfit for purpose I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you consider their teaching of basic terminology faulty.

    OK, back to the main thrust then. I have a meta-question for you, Pablo. You’ve mentioned several times that you feel that New Zealand is risking drifting onto the wrong side of a long-term dispute between Asian dictatorships and Western democracies. It seems that you think that, for all their flaws, New Zealand’s interests will be better served by ending up on the latter side.

    Having said that it seems being on the latter side means getting involved in Afghanistan-style wars, with all the problems you’ve so clearly outlined here and elsewhere – the wars are often poorly fought, with minimal respect for human rights, and New Zealand lacks the ability to influence the war’s direction and overall strategy on anything other than a local level. Since withdrawing from participating in a war would mean further drift away from the western/democratic pole doesn’t that mean that we have to accept NZ troop’s association with or even participation in human rights abuses in wartime as the lesser of two evils?

  19. Hugh:

    I will ignore your first paragraph as it is irrelevant but I will reiterate what I said before: you need to read more on irredentism and on Chechyna. Since reading appears to be optional in many NZ university departments, perhaps you missed out.

    As for the East/West dichotomy that you outline. Nothing requires NZ to participate in wars of aggression or choice just because it is allied or identified with Western democratic interests. Many democracies–Latin American for example–refuse to participate in US-led armed expeditions such as the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Being “of the West” does mean being a tool of larger powers. NZ’s “Melian Dilemma,” of which I have written at some length, is that it wishes to be all things to all states, seeking to court Arab and Asian dictatorships on economic grounds while quietly strengthening its security alliance with the US and OZ (perhaps in the mistaken belief that closer security ties will eventually bring about a bilateral trade deal with the US, a subject that I and others have repeatedly shown to be a false hope because the US does not see “issue-linkage” between trade and security in the way NZ does)

    NZ’s utility in the international arena is as a independent and autonomous interlocutor and a good ally where its national interests converge with others. It is a leading voice in support of universal rights, multilaterialism, non-proliferation and conflict resolution. IMO, anything that negatively impacts on that international reputation is deterimental to NZ’s long-term global interests.

    NZ fudged the issue in Iraq by sending a company of engineers for a year after Saddam was toppled and by covertly sending SAS personnel to Basra where they were attached to a British SAS unit dealing with Iran-backed Shiia militias. The ISAF intervention in Afghanistan was a legitimate response to the Taliban regime aiding and abetting AQ terrorism abroad, and is justified as a defense against a Taliban return to power. Hence NZDF participation in ISAF fulfilled its UN and NATO-allied obligations.

    However, the way in which the ISAF mission evolved has made the eradicating the Taliban difficult to achieve, something that in part is a function of cultural differences stemming from the pre-modern/post-modern divide I have written about earlier. Hence the need for a political accommodation with them (recognizing that there are many factions and tribal splits with the Taliban movement). NZ may have a role to play in constructing the end game leading up to the 2014 ISAF withdrawal, but so far it has either not been asked, has avoided engagement or simply not divulged its participation in post-ISAF futures forecasting.

    Thus, my answer to your serious question is that NZ is best served by the “principled but pragmatic” approach it had from 1985 until National came to office. The country can stand on principle when it comes to the ideals it defends in international fora, but it also can pragmatically assess, out of realist self-interest, where hard-nosed engagement is required along the margins (not the core) of those ideals. What it must not do is brush principle aside in the rush to curry favour with other states in the areas of trade and security. That, unfortunately, is exactly what National has done since 2009. Hence the Melian Dilemma.

  20. Pablo: I guess I’d be better off not mentioning my degree when applying for an internship at Buchanan Strategic Advisors Ltd, huh? Seriously though, while I appreciate that denigrating your readers’ basic English comprehension skills is an important part of your own particular metier, I think saying “I’m going to ignore this except to insult you” is trying to have it both ways. Maybe step away from the keyboard and have a quick breather? I’m enjoying the part of the conversation which isn’t about you trying to make me feel like an undereducated idiot, so it’d be nice to be able to focus on that.

    As for the Melian dilemma, I do think you have an unrealistically rosy view of New Zealand’s pre-2008 foreign policy, but we’ve discussed that before and it doesn’t really affect your main argument.

    What you’ve said here certainly makes sense, although I think appeals to being “hard-nosed” and “pragmatic” are not very helpful – almost all decision-makers regard themselves as pragmatists, and a self-consciously pragmatic analysis can yield extremely divergent results for different people, because differing assumptions yield very differently pragmatic results. But prior posts seem to have implied that you feel there will be an actual shooting war, or at least a Cold War, between the USA and China, and that New Zealand will not be able to be uninvolved and will need to pick a side – and that if it’s not careful that side will have been “pre-picked”.

  21. Pablo,

    I don’t know if you are aware of this site but I am interested in your comments on one aspect in particular.

    The analysis of the effectiveness of military action against what we call terrorist organisations that shows the terrorists win more contests than the military.

    Of course, one must always be aware of confirmatory bias, so your critical eye cast over these findings would be invaluable (forgive me, but flattery tends to get one a long way!)

    Here is an interview with a director of the project:
    and I particularly noted her point that their casualty figures are understated. Generally, people from the ME put deaths at fourfold their figure.

    And the number displaced as a result of the War on Terror is truly horrific, I think.

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