Wednesday, 2 January 2013
Logistics wins the war for Taliban
It must now be abundantly clear that the coalition forces' war in Afghanistan is lost, an outcome that would surprise no one with any grasp of geo-logistics.* It is a dismal testament to the hubris of advanced nations' reliance on their modern weaponry in a hostile terrain where the costly problem of stretched logistics could be turned against the invaders. The war may well go down in the annals of military history as the one that cost so much and achieved so little.
There are, of course, many reasons why the coalition forces could not achieve a military victory, not least Afghan corruption and narco politics, but there can be little doubt that the cost of logistics was decisive -- the most potent weapon in the Taliban's armoury. But why were the logistics costs so high in the first place and how could a relatively poorly armed Taliban wreak such havoc?
To understand that, one must appreciate the prevailing regional politics. To Afghanistan's south and east lies Pakistan, a country of ambivalent feelings with provinces supportive of the Taliban. To the west is Iran, hostile to any American involvement, and to the north the former Soviet Union states and Russia, which would have required the latter's approval for land-based supplies from Europe. That left just two routes, one air and one land. The land route, however, is notoriously hazardous as it means using the mountain passes where supplies could be easily destroyed. Just one attack here destroyed 40 oil tankers. That left air transport as the main option.
The costs of airlifting supplies from Europe to Afghanistan are stratospheric. One tonne of supplies, for example, would cost US$14,000 compared with just $500 if a rail route had been possible. Put another way, the cost of airlifting a fully equipped American brigade would be over $200 million. This helps explain why the coalitions' total costs are running at an estimated $2 billion a week. Britain alone has reportedly spent £17 billion so far but the true cost is much higher as that does not include the cost of supporting the maimed, the widows and their children that will continue for many years after the war. There will also be a costly fallout from those service personnel who can, alas, be expected to commit suicide. In the Falklands War the number of UK personnel who subsequently committed suicide exceeded all the UK fatalities during the war.
Afghanistan's harsh, arid, largely mountainous terrain, honeycombed with caves, make it ideal guerilla warfare terrain, which Russian discovered to their cost during their occupation. These natural advantages were put to good effect by the Taliban whose per capita support costs were less than one tenth of the coalition forces. Their relatively low cost weapons exposed another cost problem for the coalition. In a recent Taliban attack on the sprawling Bagram air base the destruction of six jump jets cost over $100 million. Hi-tech weapons can be cost effective but they come at a very high price and their usefulness in a guerilla war is marginal.
The horrific logistics cost factor has at last dawned on the British Government, who have announced an early, substantial withdrawal this year rather than 2014. Reports also suggest that the White House wants to reduce its current 68,000 troops to less than 10,000 in 2014. It is, of course, possible that the current, global economic climate has worked in the Taliban's favour, for debt financing of war is not popular back home when ordinary people are struggling under Government cutbacks caused by years of cheap credit binging, leading to unsustainable debt mountains.
So much for the costs so far but what of the achievements? It's true that much of Afghanistan has been free of Taliban trouble and that in the cities women and children enjoy a level of freedom and dignity unknown under harsh, Taliban rule. They do not want to see a return to Taliban rule, but that does not mean they will not get it. Wealthy Afghans are taking no chances. They are already moving vast sums abroad with a view to following the gold because they fear collapse after 2014 when the coalition will leave only a small presence. The only people to have truly gained are the army of foreign contractors replete from lucrative government contracts paid for by long-suffering taxpayers who have only more pain to come.
The world has grown tired of warfare and what the appalling costs mean for the global community. Global investors are, at last, rumbling those Governments who used the debt tap to finance their irresponsible binge spending over decades. They are on notice to rein back their profligacy and a major chunk of that is military related. Each year the world spends an estimated $1.47 trillion on armaments and warfare, depriving help from the sick, the homeless and elderly huddled around their winter fires insufficient to prevent death from hypothermia.
If military logistics teaches one lesson it is that if geographical factors can be harnessed by the invaded forces and turned into a potent logistics weapon against the invader then the latter is in serious and very costly trouble.
*How geography can impact logistics operations