UK Officer: Afghanistan Policy ‘Barking Mad’

LONDON – There have been critics enough of the U.S.-led military actions under way in Afghanistan, but now military commanders too have begun to question just what they are doing in Afghanistan.

Most prominently, an officer who was an aide to the British forces in Helmand, the southern district of Afghanistan that has witnessed the strongest fighting between the Taliban and international forces, has come out with strong criticism of the British army in Afghanistan – and quit the army.

Capt. Leo Docherty said the British campaign in Helmand province was “a textbook case of how to screw up a counter-insurgency.” His statements came in an open letter that was prominently reported in British media – but not followed up in much public debate.

The army officer raised the fundamental question of the development of Afghanistan arising from the campaign to capture the town of Sangin in Helmand, a military campaign in which he participated.

Docherty says British troops managed to capture the Taliban stronghold, but then had nothing to offer by way of development.

“The military is just one side of the triangle,” he said. “Where were the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office?” As forces sat back with little to offer, the Taliban hit back, and British troops there are bunkered up and under daily attack, he wrote.

“Now the ground has been lost, and all we’re doing in places like Sangin is surviving,” said Docherty. “It’s completely barking mad.”

And such action is only provoking greater support for the Taliban, he warned.

“All those people whose homes have been destroyed and sons killed are going to turn against the British. It’s a pretty clear equation – if people are losing homes and poppy fields, they will go and fight. I certainly would.” He added that British troops have been “grotesquely clumsy” in their operations, and that the military policy was “pretty shocking and not something I want to be part of.”

Development and rights groups have for long been critical of an exclusively military intervention. They have warned also that military action of this kind appears to local Afghans as part of a larger Western assault on the Muslim world.

“There were windows of opportunity for collaboration five years ago between the West and Muslim countries, but the window of opportunity is closed now, that is for sure,” Emmanuel Reinert, head of the Senlis Council, an independent group studying the effects of drugs policies in Afghanistan told IPS.

“We can still reopen it but we need to show that we are going to change our ways,” he added. “There has to be a clear change in our approach, a change of management.”

There is little promise that will happen. The United States has been struggling to get more soldiers into Afghanistan to bolster the international force. The emphasis on strengthening the military rather than raising resources for development is now only growing.

Human development in the form of improved rights for women is in fact becoming a casualty of the military operations – after declarations that human development was one of the goals of the Afghanistan intervention besides countering terrorism.

The Senlis Council has reported starvation conditions in several parts of southern Afghanistan. And this is only increasing support for the Taliban, and potentially, for terrorism too.

The increased military presence is not always helping the military, either. Another British army officer has said in a leaked e-mail that the air force is “utterly, utterly useless” in protecting troops on the ground in Afghanistan. The air force has been called in as ground troops face increased attacks from the Taliban

Such military voices from the front in Afghanistan are in alarming tune with warnings from groups such as the Senlis Council. Some soldiers are talking the language of development now more than governments.

The new voices from Washington suggest increased pressure on Pakistan to cease military support for the Taliban, under pressure from visiting Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. Much of the future of Afghanistan could be decided by decisions – or the lack of them – on increasing development support for Afghanistan.