Deja Vu all over again?

According to press reports US Defense Secretary James Mattis is considering sending between 3000-5000 additional US troops back to Afghanistan to bolster the 13,450 already there. Last week he is reported to have asked NATO members and non-NATO military partners to commit additional troops up to the desired threshold of 1,200. Fifteen NATO members and partners have apparently committed to the task, with the UK (which has nearly 600 troops in theatre) promising an additional 100 soldiers and Norway and Lithuania publicly stating their intention to do likewise (without revealing numbers or units involved). Given that New Zealand has non-member partner status with NATO, is a member of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and is a bilateral US military partner that earlier agreed to a request to send a handful of soldiers back to Kabul, it is certainly possible that it has also been asked to consider bolstering its presence in that country. Mattis conceded that in retrospect the earlier US drawdown of troops from Afghanistan was too large and too sudden given the prompt resurgence of the Taliban (especially in Kandahar province) and the rise of Daesh as a new adversary in theatre. So what he is asking is for reinforcements to re-stem the extremist tide and continue the mentoring and advising that, along with selected hunter/killer missions, have been the mainstay of the ISAF role since the drawdown began a few years ago.

The question is: has NZ agreed to this latest US request to send more troops back to Afghanistan and if so, in what capacity? Given Donald Trump’s demands that US military allies “do more and pay more” for their common “defense,” is it prudent for NZ to refuse the US request?

On a related topic, reports are now regularly surfacing that Iraqi troops and federal police are committing war crimes on a significant scale in the battle to push Daesh out of the country, including torture and summary executions of unarmed suspects. Many of the war crimes are being committed by Shiia members of the Iraqi armed forces, who see their acts as revenge for the atrocities committed by Sunni Ba’athists during and after Saddam Hussein’s regime (since many Daesh fighters in Iraq are Iraqi Sunnis with ties to the deposed regime). No mention has been made of where these personnel were trained, but given the urgent need to commit troops to battle, is it not possible that some of the 20,000 Iraqis trained by NZDF personnel at Camp Taji outside of Baghdad since 2015 might be involved in these war crimes? (the NZDF is now in its fifth rotation at Camp Taji and claims that its training involves instruction on “fundamental human rights law and the Law of Armed Conflict”). This question is particularly relevant given that the NZDF admits that most of the soldiers it has trained have been committed to the battle for Mosul where war crimes have recently been documented (WARNING: the link contains nasty imagery).

Given that the NZDF has in the past had problems with some of its foreign security partners with respect to the treatment of prisoners (such as the NZSAS handing over detainees to the Afghan secret police, who then tortured and purportedly killed some of them), is it not possible that its combat training at Camp Taji (which emphasises infantry skills) has overshadowed the ethics training component of the mission given the urgent need to commit Iraqi troops to battle? Or do the Iraqis simply ignore the ethics part of their training or go rogue afterwards? Could this have contributed to the commission of war crimes by graduates of Task Force Taji’s training program? Since a NZDF officer is serving as a spokesperson for the anti-Daesh coalition in the battle for Mosul (and has had to explain the use of white phosphorous munitions in urban areas), and NZSAS personnel are believed to be serving as intelligence gatherers and target designators in the theatre, it is likely that the NZDF would know if its Task Force Taji graduates are involved in committing war crimes.

The culture of secrecy and denial within the upper ranks of the NZDF will make finding honest answers to both sets of questions difficult, but they are certainly worth asking.


PS: I shall leave aside the incidental question as to why a senior NZDF officer is serving as the Coalition spokesperson for the Battle of Mosul when the ostensible role of the NZDF in Afghanistan is limited to training Iraqi soldiers at Camp Taji and a few other bases.

11 thoughts on “Deja Vu all over again?

  1. I think Afghanistan should be broken up and distributed among Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, possibly retaining the greater Kabul area as an international city. I don’t see any other possibility of “victory”.

  2. To James Green, good luck on that one as it would never get off the ground and I think it would only make place more unstable than it is atm.

    I was away on a SNCO cse a couple of years ago and of one our senior instructor’s (Ex RAF Rgt) said and was later backed in David Kilcullen interview that US went into the Gan and Iraq without a Counter Insurgency Doctrine and everyone WTF.

    Fighting a major COIN war without doctrine is surely end badly for the West. The Brits, Aussie’s and the Kiwi’s had one, but pollies hamstring its Forces by only committing the bare number of forces to the War effort. It’s no wonder the place has gone to the dogs again .

    I think Templer, Kitson, Johnny Cooper, Ted Sorong, J.P Cross, W Walker, Walls and Hickman the last two from the Rhodesian Armed Forces are either turning in their graves or shaking their heads saying WTF is going on here.

  3. Exkiwiforces:

    That was an interesting comment, especially since the US has worked hard to develop a COIN doctrine and has had plenty of opportunity to test it. The inkblot strategy used in Iraq had some positive effect but apparently was not transferable to Afghanistan. My former colleagues in SOCOM have the view that the “Big Army” as well as politicians interfeered too much because they wanted a major part of the action, and the risk averse culture of the military high command, DoD and political elite made the move to stand off weapons, particularly drones, the more palatable option. Although understandable from their perspective it pretty much abandoned the old “hearts and minds” axiom of the past.

    I have a feeling that all of this is going to be tested again in SE Asia in the not to distant future.

  4. I’ll have to find the link on David’s Kilcullen comments, but have I’ve heard him say it a number of times during a interviews on the ABC’s 7:30 report that the US didn’t have any COIN Doctrine let alone a political/ COIN strategy after the initial surge in to the Gan and Iraq. Also I read his books and his articles in the Australia newspaper.

    As you and I know the SF lad’s do have their own COIN Doctrine, but I and those on SNCO tactic’s cse were a little bit surprise that the US Regular Army had bugger all on COIN warfare and such comments around the were WTF or that’s a hell of way to wage war knowing the history of both regions.

    My own POV on the use of UAV’s is a waste of unless it’s used for Intell/Sigint gathering, in a overwatch and or in a CAS with troops in contact. Anything outside of this is going to piss the native’s off in more ways than one.

    Yes Pablo, who hit the nail on the head with this “the risk averse culture of the military high command, DoD and political elite” dead soldiers upsets the voters and end’s people careers. Having taken some USMC and some USAF SECFOR guys out bush a couple of times for training has left me with low opinion on very basic fieldcraft and battlecraft for a low level ops in COIN environment, but others aren’t so kind that have operational time along side USMC and USAF SECFOR.

    “I have a feeling that all of this is going to be tested again in SE Asia in the not to distant future.” My POV is I think that’s going to be more just throwing F1 grenades, the odd 40mm gold top being fired, but a lot of heavy stuff being throwing around the place in SEA within the next 10yrs +/- 5yrs.

  5. The remarkable thing about SEA is that every one of its states is ruled by a different flavour of authoritarianism, I don’t quite see how this is going to lead to COIN being used though.

    No amount of soldiers using COIN doctrine would have helped in Afghanistan when the govt they were trying to impose was so awful.

    My idea has the merit of dampening India’s influence there, that’s a big part of why Pakistan supports the Taliban. The road to peace in Afghanistan runs through Kashmir.

  6. Pablo, James

    The Afghan campaign was doomed the moment when Bush Jnr withdraw about 80% of the combat forces for his silly little shit fight that was Gulf War 2 and the following invents afterwards.

    History will tell you COIN warfare is highly centralize form warfare and some of the stuff I’ve seen over and heard afterwards left a very sour taste in my mouth. The only thing I enjoyed was the debates in tactics with the US officer corp. Even some of former FLT Cdr’s who now served in the RAR’s could work out why NZ, Oz, Uk, Canadians, and other Commonwealth nation come together under a single command and fight this dammed war the right way.

    In simple terms COIN is game of chess as you’ve got think at least 5 moves ahead and more than your opposite number, as old Sqn Cdr once said slowly, slowly catch the monkey and he’s ex-Kenyan or from Southern Africa amazing man to learn from like many others over the yrs. COIN like Peacekeeping you have to be in it for the long haul and if you are not stay away from it as it will be let sticking a stick into a hornets nests.

    Been going though some notes lastnight. The one that stood out like a 3rd ball on a greyhound. That after Vietnam the US wanted to avoid COIN warfare full stop and leave to it’s SF units or either to allied nations such as NZ, Oz, UK etc.

    I found this over at

    I’ll leave it for while, as all I got out Middle East Region and my Peacekeeping tours is PTSD. Keep up the good work Pablo as I’ve always enjoyed reading comments and it’s Bloody dam shame in the way you were treated. If I was still in NZ at the time I’ve like to have listen to your lectures and you are like me bloody straight shooter.

  7. exkiwiforces:

    Thanks for the kind words. I use the blog as an outlet for more ideological or “charged” opinions/analysis that I cannot do in the private sector.

    You will be interested to know that that after Vietnam War the Army War College assembled a research team who read through thousands of after action reports and over the course of a decade produced a COIN manual (I still have a copy in my library). The Marines and SF used and adapted it over time and still have it as required reading. But the “Big Army,” egged on by the Air Force and Navy, eventually dropped emphasis on its major precepts in favor of high technology stand off weapons using “shock and awe” tactics, with little thought given to the aftermath. If anything what eventuated for after-conflict reconstruction efforts could be called the Paul Bremmer approach: nation-building without hearts and minds and no local knowledge.

    This diminished immediately after the Cold War when SOLIC became the new trend. I was around for that period and saw the struggles between special operators and the Big Military over how to approach situations like Somalia. We managed to get a joint team SOLIC approach going for my area of responsibility (LATAM and Caribbean), used mostly against drug traffickers and guerrilla groups like the FARC, Sendero and ELN, but that was not copied by other commands and eventually was overshadowed by conflicts elsewhere in which Big Military concepts prevailed (but did not always work).

    Then they got into so-called 3rd and 4th generation warfare and “effects based” strategy, and the result is as you have noted. The Human Terrain Mapping approach using anthropologists in the Ghan was a good idea but died pretty quickly once the Big Military got wind of it and a few civilian contractor anthropologists got killed. So we are where we are today.

  8. Isn’t Afghanistan the one country where foreign armies have never won?? Or at least something along those lines?

    I don’t much care for military doctrine. My only understanding of the country is through books.
    I ( choose ) to believe Afghanistan is a highly complex society.
    A person’s first loyalty is to their family then clan, tribe, area, allegiances, religion and least of all NATION. And I would say pretty much in that order

    So when the hell are the west going to learn to butt out??

    And while I am at it lets remember there are two branches of Islam. Why do they fight against each other?

    It is as if the worst enemy of Islam is another follower
    of Islam…..

    Leave them alone and let the locals fight it out for themselves?

  9. @Edward: The Mughals did a fairly good job of conquering Afghanistan and they were a foreign army. As did the Mongols.

    The whole idea of Afghanistan as unconquerable is pretty recent. In fact the British invasion was the first invasion that failed.

    I think the concept that Afghanistan is innately immune to conquest comes from British exceptionalism – if the British couldn’t conquer it, nobody else possibly could either.

  10. What you seem to ignore is that modern wars (as in post 19th century) are no longer wars of annihilation but instead are fought for more limited goals. That, coupled with the development of professional armies bound by jus in bello strictures operating in a fractured ethno-cultural terrain, has made it much more difficult to “conquer” the Ghan, at least when compared to the extermination strategies of the pre-modern era. Even the Soviets found their hands tied when it came to dealing with the myriad divides that beset that country. So, while I tend to agree that Afghanistan could be “pacified” or “subdued” for a while, nothing short of scorched earth is going to keep it under a conquerer’s boot. Perhaps it will be the Chinese who are the next to find this out the hard way, given how they have used the ISAF presence to advance their economic interests with the central government in Afghanistan while trying to cut side deals with assorted Taliban and other tribal factions.

    One small side note, yet again. You continue to comment with fake email and web addresses, in violation of the comments policy. I will allow this one through but will delete further comments from you, whichever moniker you choose to use, unless you behave more honestly when commenting.

  11. @ Ataturk: Thanks for setting me straight!

    Sorry….. I forgot about ol’ Ghengis!

    Now there is a military figure that I really do admire

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