By Calvin Palmer
British and Afghan forces yesterday forced back a “Tet Offensive” style attack by the Taliban on the British HQ city of Lashkar Gah in Helmand province.
Up to 100 Taliban fighters were killed in a series of airstrikes and firefights around the city outskirts in fighting that began in the early evening as Taliban fighters were concentrating to attack the city of three sides and continued into the early hours of Sunday morning. It was the first time that the Helmand capital has been attacked.
The Taliban plan appeared to be for a “Tet Offensive” style infiltration of the city, the seat of the Afghan provincial government and home to the headquarters of the British commander in Helmand and the civilian reconstruction component of the British mission in Helmand.
An Army spokesman said that the Taliban operation displayed “a level of co-ordination that wasn’t expected.” He estimated the Taleban forces at around 170, though some Afghan estimates were much higher.
British officials insisted that there was no threat of the British base falling. “Whatever their military objectives were, we didn’t get to find them out, because they were defeated on the edge of the city” said the Helmand Task Force spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Woody Page.
The attack once again throws into sharp focus the debate on whether the war in Afghanistan can ever be won.
In The Sunday Times today, writer Christina Lamb presents an in-depth analysis of the situation in Aghanistan and tells of dinner with the Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith in the cookhouse at the British base of Lashkar Gah.
Brigadier Carleton-Smith, who has just finished his tour as commander of British forces in Helmand, said: “We need to lower our expectations. We’re not going to win this war; it’s about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army.”
In his view, efforts should be concentrated on building up the Afghan army so it can defend itself and trying to achieve a political settlement that might well involve giving some power to the Taliban.
The Brigadier’s realism echoes what diplomats and military officials have been saying for the past year in private. Publicly no one wanted to own up to the fact that the war in Afghanistan was going wrong.
Perhaps that was the reasoning behind moderator Tom Brokaw asking a question on Afghanistan during the last presidential debate, a question that referred to comments made by the British commander in Afghanistan.
Carleton-Smith’s remarks, not surprisingly, were dismissed as “defeatist” by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Gates would do well to look at Carleton-Smith’s resume. He will find that the Old Etonian is a former head of the SAS who has been in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Carleton-Smith is described by those who know him well as one of the bravest men in the British Army.
Interestingly enough, the brigadier’s candid view was backed last week by an American National intelligence assessment. The report, which combines the views of America’s 16 security agencies, describes Afghanistan as being in a “downward spiral” and accuses President Hamid Karzai’s government of “rampant corruption.”
America’s hope of a successful resolution has been entrusted to General Petraeus. John McCain believes Petraeus can achieve the same “surge” success he achieved in Iraq. America has already announced it will send three more combat brigades to Afghanistan. The first is expected to arrive by Christmas.
History will tell whether taking the war to Afghanistan was an act of wisdom or folly. America acted with good intentions but the road to Hell is often paved with good intentions. Just as in Vietnam, it finds itself in a war against a committed ideological enemy and also propping up a corrupt friendly regime. America’s firepower could not win the day then and I doubt it can win the day now; just ask the Russians.
Maybe it is time for America to stop believing it has all the answers and to learn the lessons from history. And maybe it is time to listen to the wiser counsel from men like Brigadier Carleton-Smith.