Whenever I think about Afghanistan, I think about Tølløse.
I think about it because in the summer I read in an article in Information with the headline “The War with the Taliban is Over“, that the enemy who the Danish soldiers in Afghan Helmand province had been fighting for many years, the Afghan Taliban warriors, according to the operation commander, Major Rune Pedersen, were now reduced to a little ludicrous “motorcycle gang from Tølløse“.
I don’t know if there is actually a motorcycle gang in Tølløse. But if there is one, is the police station in Tølløse surrounded by sandbags and guarded with machine guns? Do the local officers only patrol the surrounding countryside in armoured personnel carriers wearing helmets and bullet proof jackets, all the while keeping a nervous eye out behind them and for roadside bombs? Are automatic pistols counted in their standard equipment when they patrol in groups of 24 down Tølløse’s high street?
That’s how Danish soldiers live in their area of responsibility around Gereshk in the Afghan Helmand province.
And it is all because of a local motorcycle gang. If I were a journalist on a visit in the Danish Camp Price and heard Rune Pedersen say that, I would never have guessed that I was listening to a man who knew what he was talking about and therefore someone I needed to take seriously. I would have guessed instead that it was an audition for a standup show and I would have agreed that the major had a sense of humour.
So called war correspondents might object that it is the military that have a better understanding of the war and not us journalists. Imagine a man whose entire raison d’être is to wage war trying to enlighten us… should we just burst out in laughter? No, I wouldn’t say that you need to laugh. You could instead look around and try to see past the limited horizon of Danish responsibility of only 250 square km to the 650 000 square kilometer country.
So, for instance, you would know that the leading military people in Nato at the beginning of the year in a leaked report expressed the belief that the Taliban would come back to power in 2014 when Nato retreat. The American commander General John Allen counted the Taliban as high as 35 000 in May. That’s 10 000 more than three years ago, when the so called surge began.
150 000 Nato-soldiers have been fighting a handful of rebels and the media has repeated the victory messages when one province after another was cleared and the entire middle layer of local Taliban leaders were taken out in so called kill or capture operations. And even so, the Taliban is stronger than over, says the man whose responsibility it is to destroy them.
A motorcycle gang from Tølløse?
In the Danish papers you can also read that the training of the Afghan army is all going to plan and that the 195 000 strong army is fully ready to take over the security of the country when Nato leaves in two years. That was the Danish officer’s optimistic message which journalists willingly repeated.
What you don’t read is that the Afghan army loses a third of its soldiers every year. An astronomical number of over 60 000 men who leave the service either because they do not renew their contract or because they just desert. So, they must train up fresh recruits the whole time. A huge fraction of the soldiers who are sent to battle against the world’s most persevering motorcycle gang are therefore the world’s least experienced.
A few weeks before the Danish journalists arrived on what they ironically call “a rodeo”, the British troops who operate in the same area as the Danes, received orders to sleep with their weapons ready. The danger of attack from soldiers amongst our nearest allies in the Afghan army was judged as imminent.
This was the type of attack that the British and American press dubbed “insider attacks” or “green on blue” (with respect to the colours of the different army’s uniforms) In the Danish press, the attacks were not called anything in the first few months. Here, the new attacks were scarcely referred to before the point when so many Nato soldiers had been killed that even President Obama needed to include the motorcycle gang from Tølløse in one of his speeches.
It is the Danish perspective of the war in Afghanistan. That it is happening in Tølløse.
The politicians here have learned from the military. They don’t think that there is a world outside the 250 square kilometers where the Danish military appears to have control. Two years ago, TV2 had a theme evening about Afghanistan where I had the opportunity to debate with the then foreign minister Lene Espersen. Confronted with the still worsening situation in Afghanistan, the foreign minister appealed with her arms open wide.
How could anyone expect that she should have an overview of so many square kilometers. “Afghanistan is just as big as France,” she said in an educational tone, as if the debate about the war had changed into a geography lesson. I realised that Lene Espersen was not the foreign minister of Denmark, she was the foreign minister of Tølløse.
In the summer of 2011, a previous officer of the British army’s intelligence service Frank Ledwidge, gave a devastating analysis of the British war effort in Helmand in a book called “Losing Small Wars”. He described the war, which Danes had also been a part of, as nothing short of “a catastrophe of incompetence, a violent tragedy” where entire city centres were bombed out, thousands made refugees and uncounted others were killed or wounded.
The situation in Helmand is today worse for the residents of the province than when Nato troops arrived with regards to development and economy. And the Brits don’t even control anything more than a small strip of land that they can guard from their own fortified camps. The British government’s reason for the continuing presence of the troops changes from month to month and surveys have shown that a worryingly high number of officers have no idea why their country is fighting in Afghanistan.
Ledwidge’s book was received with receptive respect and also from unexpected areas, not just the conservative press but even the British military. “They completely agree with my analysis” he explained in an interview in London, “their problem is just finding a way of retelling it so it gets them out of hot water and justifies their failed actions.”
The award winning American journalist Rajic Chandrasekaran published a book this summer about the American war effort with special focus on the last three years’ surge where 33 000 extra solders were sent into the war. Five years ago, Rajiv Chandrasekaran published a gut wrenching, tragi-comic account of American incompetence in Iraq, entitled “Imperial Life in the Emerald City.”
He saw the American fiasco there up close but when it came to Afghanistan, he was still optimistic on his country’s behalf, he wrote in his book. The war in Afghanistan was a just war. At the end of his three year long journalistic journey, he reached the same conclusion as in Iraq: America lost not because the Taliban won but because American incompetence apparently became an insurmountable hindrance to any victory.
“Ambitious and arrogant generals refused to realise that more troops will have the opposite of the desired effect,” he wrote. “The presence of even more foreign troops in the Pashtun heartland will only help the Taliban recruit even more followers.”
All too few soldiers left their bases to live with the Afghans in their villages. All too few diplomats could be bothered to understand the language and culture. All too few development experts were interested in anything other than a quick profit. All too few politicians had been brave enough to try to create a lasting peace. And no one was interested in cooperating with anyone else.
Chandrasekaran gives the surge in Helmand as an example. The defeat of the insurgency in Helmand became a prestigious project for the marine corps who planted themselves so heavily in the province that Helmand was internally known in the American army as “Marineistan”. That meant that the strategically much more important Kandahar province had to be downgraded in priority and that is where the Taliban were able to take hold.
The sharpest, most angry protest against the way the war is fought has come from the American military itself. Lieutenant colonel Daniel L Davis was on a 14 000 km, 12 month long inspection tour of Afghanistan in 2011.
He had, in contrast to the Danish Major Rune Pedersen, seen a little more Tølløse, when he came out as a scathing critic of the war which was, in his opinion, lost long ago but continued to suck young people down into death and permanent disability.
“I was witness to a complete absence of success on all levels.”
Our military leaders are lying to us and they are lying to the nation, writes an angry Daniel L Davis, who isn’t your average lefty whistle-blower or Wikileaks II, as he calls it. He is a born again Christian from Virginia who went to a local pastor for advice before he came out with his critique.
From the USA’s celebrated General David Patraeus, the architect behind the so called surge in Iraq and all the way down the military hierarchy, he exposes the lies and hypocrisy in all the optimistic speeches about progress for Nato and Karzai’s government’s increasing support in the population. It is the complete reverse, wrote Davis.
Everywhere the American soldiers are besieged and pushed without credible support amongst their Afghan allies, who almost all make deals behind the Americans’ backs with the Taliban as if they were already preparing for the insurgents’ takeover of power. Of the population’s support of the Afghan government, he can see no evidence and nor does he see any sign that the government are in the least bit worried about their population’s needs.
The most disturbing discovery that Davis makes on his long inspection tour is that it is the mere presence of American troops that is creating rebellion. A province can be neutral in relation to the government, or in any case passive. The moment American soldiers show up, out come the weapons. With the use of enormous firepower, it is possible to crush rebellion in the district but only to see it flare up in a neighbouring district. It is never possible to hold an area for a long time.
As soon as the American troops retreat, the territory falls once more into the Taliban’s hands while the Afghan army watched passively on or flees.
It is the same Afghan soldiers who, again and again, are praised by the American generals and Nato officers for their courage and professionalism. In an ironic quote mosaic, Davis shows how this hypocritical praise has been made in almost identical terms for nearly eight years. The Afghan army is always nearly ready. In a minute. Tomorrow. And yet, never.
A report from the Pentagon published in the beginning of December 2012, confirms Davis’ desperate sarcasm. Only one out of the Afghan army’s 23 brigades is ready to operate independently.
At the end of September, nearly one year after Davis published his report, Nato had to suspend training of the Afghan army indefinitely. The number of Afghan soldiers, who in the middle of exercises, would turn against their western allies and brutally murder them has now reached an alarmingly high level and Nato were forced to admit that the army was infiltrated by the Taliban.
It is said that “a drowning man is ready to clutch at straws”.
The training of the Afghan security forces were the failing Nato-strategy’s final straw in Afghanistan.
Insider attacks got the French president François Holland to announce an early withdrawal of French troops. In the British parliament, there was a passionate debate where demands for troop withdrawal were made, also from the conservative side. In Denmark, the defence minister Nick Hækkerup announced a “conference” on the problem. But the conference still hasn’t happened. If you ring the Defence Ministry, you find out that it is scheduled for some time in late January.
If you want to know what Danish soldiers think while their defence minister hesitates, you should turn on the tv station Al-Jazeera where a Danish officer Klaus Augostinus, in a programme from 13th December says that an insider attack on a British colleague has made “an enormous impression on me. I would really like to see my family again. I like to get to know people and bond with them but I can’t do that any more. Every time I get close to someone, I ask myself “will it be him that gets me?”.
The defeat in Afghanistan doesn’t seem to interest the population, press or politicians. We have instead our own self-satisfied Danish mini-version of world history, where the stand up show that ritually happens on the bi-annual press junket to Camp Price in Helmand province becomes the official truth:
We won in Tølløse.