Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Debt and logistics defeat Britain in Afghanistan

Politicians and the military castes rarely have a firm grasp of economics and the impact that warfare can have on national finances. But a firm understanding of economics without a similar grasp of logistics is dangerously incomplete when the war trumpets beckon. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Afghanistan, where an 11-year war has humbled the coalition forces, including Britain, despite their overwhelming fire power against the Taliban. The reason is that the geo-logistics* have worked tremendously in the Taliban's favour. It is a war that will probably enter the annals of British military history as not only an unpopular war but one that cost so much and achieved so little.

Politics often trumps economics when calling on national finances but it is economics that will ultimately smite politics with a rod of iron and leave the people's aspirations dangerously unfulfilled. This scenario is now unfolding throughout Europe and America as years of debt-fuelled growth, often helped by war, and irresponsible fiscal governance come home to roost.

It could be reasonably argued that since losing an empire Britain has continued posturing on the world stage as though it were a world super power. But punching above its weight has dire economic consequences. Just as Government debt allowed Britain to finance foreign wars since the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694, and along the way helped create the world's greatest empire, war-created debt finally became the empire's nemesis, forcing the sale of many overseas assets, years of austerity and taking on of American loans that took decades to repay. Debt is a great instrument for expanding economic growth but it is not to be treated insouciantly. Such disdain, at all levels, ever since World War 2, now drives nations finally to  realize the consequences of ignoring soaring debt and good economic governance.

So how come that a far off, arid land that most people might have difficulty locating on a world globe could humble not just Britain but the NATO coalition forces and the world's leading super power, America? Military logistics is not just about controlling the supply chain effectively to deliver all that is required to the war theatre at the right time. Britain's own army logistics corp, supported by centuries of experience, does a fine job delivering the goods, despite the lamentable record of an incompetent Ministry of Defence that has cost taxpayers billions of pounds. Logistics is also about how the chosen battlefield can be used to degrade an enemy's military ambitions.

Logistics favour the Taliban

As previously pointed out in my blog: "Logistics will be Britain's Afghanistan calvary," Afghanistan is a harsh, arid, unforgiving land, prone to temperature extremes, two thirds mountainous and honeycombed with caves -- ideal guerilla warfare terrain. It is this geography, admittedly helped by surrounding countries' suspicions of the occupying forces, which is the Taliban's greatest weapon, a weapon that in per capita terms costs the coalition forces on the ground at least 10  times as much as the Taliban.

The financial costs of the Afghan war beggar belief, and even more tragic is that the hoped for return for the outlay has not and will never be realized. As the former British ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cooper-Coles, explained to the House of Commons, the only solution to the Afghan problem can be political one. He believes that the Afghan war is costing Britain £6 billion a year but the British Government claims  that between 2001 and 2010 the cost was only £11.1 billion, even though it now admits that the Afghan war is absorbing 30% of the MoD's £35 billion annual budget. The real figure will be much more and, of course, will continue to rise for many years after the last of the coalition troops have left to pay for the maimed, the war widows and their children.

Just how Afghanistan's terrain can send the cost of logistics soaring can be gauged by the coalition's exit plans for the 2014 pull-out, which would have been very much more if Russia had not decided to allow NATO to fly all its 140,000 troops and supplies to Russia for onward journey by rail to western Europe. Until now, much of the coalition's supplies have been flown into Afghanistan at a cost of about US$14,000 per tonne. A railway solution through Russia would have cost only US$500 a tonne. Using a land route for bringing all the military supplies through the passes to Karachi would have been too risky so the daunting prospect of a new Dunkirk lay ahead. Airlifting all the supplies to western Europe would have cost so much that much material would have had to be abandoned. In Britain's case that would have meant leaving £4 billion worth of military kit behind. If that had been lost, one British officer opined, "Without it we will not recover for a generation." NATO and Britain, in particular, has much to thank Russia and President Putin for their accommodation, but even so the exit cost will be staggering and the withdrawal has been described as the biggest logistical challenge for the military since the second World War.It will involve moving 11,000 cargo containers and 3,000 vehicles.

Armaments and wars currently cost the world an estimated US$1.479 trillion annually, but the true costs of anything are the alternatives foregone. Such a staggering sum could have provided much hope rather than despair for the impoverished, sick and oppressed. Mistrust of one's neighbours is, perhaps, mankind's greatest tragedy. It is also humanity's most damning indictment.
*How geography impacts logistical operations

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