Sunday, 16 January 2011

Britain will yield to Afghanistan's logistics costs

The British military may call the tune on resources for Afghanistan but it is the power of economics and logistics that will be the final arbiter of its fate. This observation also applies elsewhere, more so than ever in America where gathering adverse economic forces will sap the military's capabilities and ultimately the support of its citizenry to wage an unwinable war costing $2 billion a week.

As Britain's former ambassador to Kabul, Sir Sherard Cooper-Coles, remarked to the House of Commons' Foreign Affairs Committee last November: "It is a political problem that needs political treatment.... and it is time for the politicians to take charge of the project, as I believe the new coalition government is doing." The problem, as he sees it, is that Afghanistan needs a new political and regional settlement that cannot be delivered by military force. He sees the Afghan constitution as unstable because it is highly centralised and therefore does not go with the grain of Afghan tradition. "We need something much more decentralised," he added, which cannot come soon enough as efforts so far to build a durable causeway of good governance between the narco-mafia and the Taleban have not succeeded, admitted Sir Sherard.

The undesirability of allowing the military unquestioned support was hinted at in supplementary written evidence by Sir Sherard delivered in January. "Good soldiers.....are not especially imaginative. Nor, until relatively recently, did many senior officers have intellectual pretensions." He believes "the war in Afghanistan has given the British Army a raison d'etre it has lacked for many years, and new resources on an unprecedented scale. In the eyes of the Army, Afghanistan has also given our forces the chance to redeem themselves in the eyes of the Americans.....of the British Army's performance in Basra."

It beggars belief that the British military mindset should be concerned about what its allies may feel about the Army's image and that is should take a real war to justify its existence. Such numskull thinking, however, gets worse. Sir Sherard explained how the then Chief of General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, told him in the summer of 2007 that if he didn't use in Afghanistan the battle groups then starting to come free from Iraq, he would lose them in a future defence review. "It's use them or lose them," he said.

Logistics ignorance costs billions

If Britain's top military brass and its politicians had a thorough grasp of logistics they might just have baulked at the cost of military intervention in Afghanistan, however strong the deferential desire to please the Americans. This is because the Taleban's greatest weapon is logistics, which in per capita terms is costing the coalition forces 10 times as much as the Taleban.

Sir Sherard believes that the Afghan war is costing Britain £6 billion a year but the true cost is likely to be much more when consideration is given to the high cost of supporting maimed military personnel, the war widows and their children. But it seems that even now the Army has no intention of cutting its demands on the public purse. Its latest request is for the supply of 12 Challenger 2 main battle tanks that would cope better with IEDs. They would not, however, be immune to armour-piercing missiles, as the Afghan countryside testifies with its numerous wrecks of heavy Russian tanks.

Jingoistic journalism's ignoble role

In Sir Sherard's experience, "Ministers were reluctant to question the military advice put to them for fear of leaks to the Press suggesting that they were not supportive enough of the troops." Ignorant, jingoistic journalism, therefore, also plays an ignoble role in the Afghan mire. But ministers risk widespread public anger if they continue to ignore the economic consequences of overseas warfare at a time when Britain's government finances are sorely stretched and the public hard hit by economic cutbacks.

In America, the economic situation is worse but potentially far more dangerous to global financial stability. From just 0.1% of gross domestic product (GDP) back in 2001, America's structural gross federal deficit, excluding one offs like bail outs, is now 8%, or $1,230 billion. This compares with Britain's 7.9% of GDP. In a startling warning, Paul Ryan, the new Republic chairman of America's House of Representatives budget committee, said that if the US did not get its finances in order, "We will have a European situation on our hands and possibly worse. The consequences of not tackling the country's mounting debt burden would be dire. We will have the riots in the streets, we will have the defaults, we will have all those ugliness problems," referring to the French teenagers lobbing Molotov cocktails at cars because the retirement age would be moved from 60 to 62.

Currently, the US government borrows about 40 cents in every dollar it spends. The big fear over the deficit is that if no action is taken investors might punish the US for its fiscal laxity and so undermine its triple A rating. This would have consequences for foreign affairs and defence. Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, warned last year that the debt pile could limit the flexibility of the US in funding its military. Last week, the Pentagon announced that it would trim its annual budget of $500 billion by $78 billion over the next five years compared with its earlier projections.

Meanwhile, it should not go unnoticed that the West's involvement in costly wars is doing for China what the aftermath of World War 2 did for Japan -- strong economic growth unencumbered by wars. China is now banker to America and seems to have pretensions to be the same for the EU. That would shift the balance of power dramatically in ways that are not entirely comforting at present.