September 04, 2009

Kunduz: What It Means for NATO

Smart Afghanistan watchers -- like Joshua Foust and Gilles Dorronsoro -- have been worried about Kunduz Province, a province in northern Afghanistan with a signficant Pashtun population, for quite some time. And with reason. The security situation there has been deteriorating rapidly, endangering a larger region of the country that has been, for the most part, at peace. And because RC-North is under German command, a lack of aggressive German patrolling has -- depending on your perspective -- either worked to pacify the area through an understated pressence or has left big problems lurking underneath the surface undiscovered (à la Basra Province circa 2005-2007).  

At approximately 0200 this morning, a German ISAF unit called in an F-15 strike on two fuel trucks believed to have been hijacked by the Taliban. Scores of insurgents and innocent civilians were killed. (RFE/RL; True Slant; Foust)

General McChrystal has promulgated new rules of engagement concerning the use of air power. His belief is that although the laws of land warfare and the Geneva Conventions allow you to do a lot on the field of battle -- such as bomb a compound in which the Taliban have taken refuge -- you can at once be technically and legally correct yet operationally stupid. Experience spent trying to kill his way out of the war in Afghanistan has shown him -- and this blogger, for that matter -- that killing civilians has a serious effect on your operational effectiveness in a conflict such as the one being fought in Afghanistan. So foremost in McChrystal's mind following this attack will be two questions:

  1. What happened to that guidance I issued? Was it followed? And if not, why?
  2. What does this event mean for ISAF's credibility on the ground? How does this affect the way we are perceived?

One question he is not asking now -- but may well be asking once the dust settles and an inquiry has been conducted -- concerns the consequences of leaving a deteriorating RC-North under the operational control of a military whose parliament limits the degree to which they can conduct operations. A friend of mine was recently at a conference in Europe where a German parliamentarian was touting the successes of the Bundeswehr in northern Afghanistan -- at the expense of the Dutch, Canadians, British, Australians and Americans fighting hard in eastern and southern Afghanistan. "Great," a smiling Dutch questioner asked, "perhaps you would now like to deploy your troops to the south and show us how it's done?" (Cue laughter from the audience.)

As with the British in southern Iraq between 2003 and 2007, everything -- the tactics, the operations, the mindset -- looks great while things are quiet. And the Germans in northern Afghanistan are quite happy with themselves and with their approach. But what if things start to turn south? What if things are going on underneath the radar where you do not have visibility because you don't have an enduring pressence with the population? And what if you need to ramp up your operations? The British ended up with egg on their faces when it took the Iraqi Army -- working alongside the U.S. military -- to crack down on the militias of Basra while the British Army sat in their bases. What does it means for the NATO/ISAF coalition in Afghanistan if Germany cannot or will not escalate operations in Kunduz (and Baghlan)?

I know that General McChrystal is waiting on the results of an investigation before he starts acting to clean up this mess, but it will be a real and early test of his command and of the alliance if he has to start cracking non-American skulls in the wake of this incident.