The recent news from the Afghanistan theatre has been anything but encouraging. Four Canadian soldiers killed in as many weeks, and all were victims of separate attacks.
While still relying on Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) along the roads in Kandahar province, the Taliban are also launching bolder conventional attacks and suicide bombings against NATO targets across the country. Although these were relatively pinprick attacks that were easily defeated, the Taliban attempts to penetrate the US base in Bagram and the Kandahar airfield mark a significant shift in the insurgent tactics. The Taliban propaganda machine has made the most of these brazen raids to try and convince the local population that the US troop surge will not defeat them.
At the very least it is clear that the unexpected resilience of the Taliban has thrown the US timetable well behind schedule. Last February, NATO mounted a much publicized offensive against a tiny insurgent stronghold in the town of Marjah, Helmand province. The concentration of overwhelming force and superior technology meant that the outcome of the Marjah battle was never in doubt.
However, as the last of the Taliban fighters slipped away and hid their weapons, NATO unveiled their new counterinsurgency tactic. Described by senior officials as ‘government-in-a-box,’ the defeat of the Taliban military force was to be immediately cemented with the provision of civil services. The plan was to rush in police forces, medical personnel, teachers and civil administrators who would soon demonstrate to local Afghans that the government of President Hamid Karzai was able to make significant improvements to their day-to-day lives. The belief was that when the Taliban instigators slunk their way back into Marjah, the now happy and prosperous residents would run them out of town on a rail, while proudly displaying presidential portraits of Hamid Karzai on their mud brick living room walls.
The weak link in the plan was of course the fact that the ‘government-in-a-box’ that NATO delivered was no different than the corrupt and incompetent ‘steamer-in-a-litter-box’ that presently governs (and polices) the rest of Afghanistan. Instead of the clear cut victory which NATO had been confident of achieving, three months later US Commander General Stanley McChrystal now describes the Marjah operation as a “bleeding ulcer.”
Worse news yet is that the Marjah offensive was heralded as both a stepping stone and a template for the major operation planned for Kandahar. With no attempt to conceal their intentions or the timing, NATO commanders were openly discussing the fact that this summer would see the decisive battle for control of Kandahar. The surge in US troops was going to allow NATO, for the first time, to properly choke off the entire city of Kandahar from Taliban infiltration. With the insurgents pushed off to the hills, NATO would deliver their magical ‘government-in-a- box’ and the locals would happily flock to the Karzai cause. With the rebellious south pacified in this manner, the US and NATO allies could then safely begin scaling down their troop deployments on keeping with President Barack Obama’s ambitious timetable of summer 2011.
Unfortunately even the military component of the planned Kandahar offensive has fallen drastically behind schedule. The sheer logistics associated with such a rapid troop build up in one of the most remote corners of the planet has proven problematic. As such, pundits are now estimating that NATO may wait until after the Islamic religious fast Ramadan and Eid festivities to launch the combat phase of operations. That would mean no major offensive until sometime in September.
In the meantime, instead of trying to make the ‘government-in-a- box’ concept more palatable to the locals, what if we had our soldiers concentrate on learning to speak Pashtu?
In a Canadian Press story last month, reporter Murray Brewster profiled Master-Corporal Shawn Grove of the First Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Grove, whom I also met briefly at an ‘undisclosed base in the Middle East,’ last February, deserves a mention because he taught himself to speak Pashtu. Able to address the locals formally and crack jokes, Grove was instantly able to break down many of the existent cultural barriers that have been such a challenge to winning over the hearts and minds of Afghans. Three tours of duty and a worn-out Pashtu-English dictionary form the basis of Grove’s grasp of Pashtu.
For the record, despite deploying battle groups to Afghanistan since February 2002, it was not until 2007 that the Canadian Army first began offering training courses in Pashtu. It may be a case of too little, too late, but, if the success of MCpl Grove’s one man initiative teaches us anything, it is that far too few resources were committed to overcoming the language barrier.