Afghanistan is a harsh, arid, unforgiving land, prone to temperature extremes, two thirds mountainous and honeycombed with caves -- ideal guerrilla warfare terrain. As if these natural advantages were not enough for any home-grown insurgents, the Taleban have one other great advantage -- their enemy's logistical problems, the cost of which could break the coalition forces' will at a crucial time when nations must tighten their belts as the world faces another, possible financial meltdown.
Earlier this month, Britain finally came clean on the cost of its 9-year Afghanistan war. Between April 2001 and March 2010 Whitehall figures show that tax payers stumped up £11.1 billion for Afghanistan and currently about 30% of Britain's £35 billion annual defence budget is devoted to that country. Such a staggering cost, however, does not include troops' basic salaries or long- term care for the seriously wounded. And the payback for such a war? Over 300 British dead, many permanently maimed and traumatised, with suicides certain to follow, and a conflict that is worsening almost daily, along with commensurate cost rises.
Wars are often sparked by unexpected international incidents and the reactions hasty and poorly thought through. If the American and British governments had carefully considered the logistics of fighting in a distant, land-locked country, surrounded by friendly neighbours or others suspicious of America, and recalled the lessons of history then events might have taken a more sensible turn.
History is important but only if its lessons are learned by subsequent generations. Over the last 170 years Afghanistan has humiliated two super powers, Britain and Russia, by sending their invading armies packing with their tails between their legs. In both cases, the combination of natural and logistical forces crucially forced their humiliation. In 1842, the British retreat of 16,500 during a horrendous winter, harried by Afghan attacks in the passes, massacred all but one survivor. Would a British public tolerate such losses today? Hardly. In the 1980s, attacks on Russia's stretched supply lines in perfect, mountainous, ambush country played a major role in their defeat, helped, admittedly, by stingers.
Land-locked but sinking the Royal Navy
The military mind, alas, is rarely original and often blinkered on subjects outside their remit and so we have fatuous cases of top service chiefs griping, for example, about cutbacks in the Royal Navy while insisting that Afghanistan must still be the MoD's top priority. The former First Sea Lord, Sir John Slater, berated the outgoing labour government for a decade of underinvestment which "has left the Royal Navy with a serious shortage of ships."Any further cuts, he warned, would lead to "an enormous strain on the service." He was particularly concerned at the decision to halve the number of type 45 destroyers. Labour said it had to make Afghanistan its priority and could not afford to pay for the number of ships in service. Sir John agrees that Afghanistan must be Britain's top defence priority but seems unable to grasp that Afghanistan is part of the Royal Navy's underfunding problem. Can Britain really afford an Afghan war while at the same time properly funding the navy during severe financial belt tightening?
The incumbent First Sea Lord, Sir Mark Stanhope, is similarly fighting his corner for a properly funded navy, arguing that: "Maritime capabilities are not a luxury, they are a necessity."Agreed, but he, too, should recognise that you cannot have it every way with limited resources and a worsening economic climate. The British electorate is being asked to make huge sacrifices and as Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union said, ministers could not cut jobs and services while the "grotesque waste of money in Iraq and Afghanistan dominate spending priorities."
The grotesque waste of money can be gauged by a look at the logistics of the Afghan war, but first the military reality. The occupation has failed to suppress an insurgency that has significant popular support. Even with the extra 17,000 US personnel promised there will still be less than 90,000 US and Nato troops. Given the size and population of the country, military analysts estimate that a force of up 500,000 would be needed.
President Obama has admitted that the US is not winning the war in Afghanistan. Even in Pakistan, the operations of 100,000 Pakistani troops have failed to break the Taleban's grip.
The coalition forces cannot hope to engage the Taleban in pitched battles, much as they would like to. It is not that kind of war. This means that the use of superior weapons, which in some wars was decisive and even changed the course of history, like the needle gun and Krupp steel cannon, is not an option.
The $105 billion bill so far
The logistical scope of resupplying US forces in Afghanistan is immense. There are currently nearly 400 US and coalition force bases in the country. The Pentagon has said that there are now 87,000 US troops alongside 47,000 troops from 44 other countries. The number of contractors to the US military is a staggering 107,000. By the end of 2010 fiscal year, Afghanistan will cost nearly $105 billion.
Examples of obscene waste can be judged at specific levels. The cost of airlifting one Stryker brigade of 3,900 men and all its vehicles is $210 million at a cost of $14,000 per tonne for all the 15,000 tonnes needed. Transport by rail through Russia would only be $500 per tonne, or just $7.5 million.
America is looking at other supply routes than through Pakistan, where currently 75% of supplies pass through the port of Karachi. But this involves a treacherous, 1,200-mile road journey taking in the Khyber Pass. In just one attack in 2008, 42 oil tankers were destroyed. "The idea that you can wage an effective military campaign in this land-locked country without safe and dependable logistical support is crazy," one US Defence Department official at the policy-making level was heard to have remarked.
But whatever 'safe' routes may be negotiated it is clear that a determined, fearless, war-hardened Taleban, whose per capita support costs are less than one tenth of American troops, with logistics problems working in their favour, will stymie a coalition victory. National cohesion will only come through a political process. The recent announcement of up to $2 trillion worth of mineral reserves in Afghanistan may only serve to lengthen the endemic conflict. But if all Afghans could agree to adopt good governance of the people and by the people as one unified nation, eschewing petty sub nation differences, then a golden age would beckon.
"Before the fighting proper, the battle is won or lost
by quartermasters" -Erwin Rommel