Command of NATO forces in Afghanistan is changing hands again. This time the Brits are handing over to the Americans, whose General in charge has earned himself the nickname “Bomber” so we all know what’s coming next.
US and British soldiers have fundamentally different attitudes to solving military problems, even when fighting together. The American military it seems likes to use a “hit ’em hard” approach like they used in Vietnam; the Brits, with their experience of winning hearts and minds and ending hostilities in Northern Ireland, like to take a more pragmatic, softly softly approach.
Last year there was a British led offensive to remove the Taleban from Helmand province in SE Afghanistan, which the Brits nearly won. They needed and asked for the funds for more reserves so they could cut off the retreating Taleban and finish the job, but were denied the men they needed. Of course, the Taleban got away to fight another day.
This year, the US take over command of ISAF and are also planning another campaign to remove the newly returned Taleban. And guess what? They are getting the extra cash and reserves the Brits asked for last year. Surprise surprise. Someone wants to hog all the glory.
There are two problems here. The first is a uniquely American one: some, but certainly not a majority, of their on the whole rather good Generals covet political power. Examples of this include Gen Wesley Clark who ran for the Democrat Party’s nomination for President, and Gen Colin Powell who served as Secretary of State in George W Bush’s first term.
Those two Generals were certainly not the first though: they stand at the end of a long line of Generals for whom glory on the battlefield led to political success as well.
Does this affect their judgement as soldiers? Possibly. Does it mean they are more likely to jealously guard or seek out any “glory opportunities” for themselves, perhaps at the expense of getting the job done?
There are certainly some strong rumours that Osamu bin Laden got away because the Americans wanted to be the ones to capture him, even though the British SAS were in the best place to strike, had him under close observation, and were told not to strike but to wait for the Americans.
Somebody once said “You can achieve anything so long as you don’t mind who takes the credit” and I suppose this was one of those moments where the credit mattered more than the task itself. A bit like the internal political squabbles that affected the performance of American security agencies inside that great country around the time of 911.
The second problem here is the squabble over tactics, and in a way this may be affected by the first problem. Let me explain.
Part of the British softly softly approach was to win over the tribal elders (the real power in societies such as Afghanistan and Pakistan). The Brits got together a group of people willing to stand up to the Taleban, people who helped push them out of their protected powerbases. These people went out on a limb to get rid of the Taleban, and have been let down.
Why? Because the Taleban were not crushed, and are now returning. By denying the Brits the reserve support, not only could the Americans claim the British tactics didn’t work, they also created circumstances in which the glory could be theirs – or at least, not the Brits’.
Now the Americans are coming in with Bomber as their boss, the fragile but strategic gains made under the British command may be obliterated in a storm of bullets, bombs and heavy-handedness.
It’s about time the hunt for glory was left behind, and people started focussing on the issues now. If we are to get rid of Osamu bin Laden, does it matter who does it? Or are future political careers more important? Soldiers’ lives may depend on how much of a glory seeker their boss is.