Andreas Whittam Smith: We need to tear up the rules of our Afghan engagement

Rather than killing the enemy, it is better to disable him

Share
Related Topics

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have once more shown us armies fighting new wars with the methods of the old. When I was a soldier doing National Service in the 1950s, I joined an army identical to the one that had fought the Second World War 10 years previously. In new circumstances, however, the old force structure does badly. Hence the British jibe that we lose every battle except the last. Victory is achieved when a new way of fighting has been adopted.

That this moment has now arrived in Afghanistan was signalled earlier this week by the sacking of the top US commander, General David McKiernan. This is the first time since the Korean War, when President Truman dismissed the headstrong General Douglas MacArthur in 1951, that the US government has removed a general while he was on active combat duty.

General McKiernan was an expert in the use of heavy armour. His successor, Lieutenant-General Stanley McChrystal, is a special operations specialist. That is the key difference. Manoeuvering tanks is old style, operating behind enemy lines is new style. Lt-Gen McChrystal recently ran all the commando operations in Iraq. Such capabilities are required by the new US/British approach outlined by John Hutton, the Defence Secretary, when he called recently for a "rebalancing of investment in technology, equipment and people to meet the challenge of irregular warfare".

In the First World War, this turning-point in methods came in 1917 when tanks and aircraft were used in action for the first time. Three years earlier, the French and British armies had confidently taken their horses and sabers up to the front line.

Lt-Gen McChrystal is one of the few warrior-scholars. He has worked at the Council on Foreign Relations, a very prestigious think-tank in New York, as well as spending night after night in Iraq chasing down terrorists. He eats just one meal a day in order to avoid sluggishness and runs to work listening to audio books on his iPod.

He reminds me of the British general, Orde Wingate, a pioneer in special operations, who during the Second World War often wore an alarm clock on his wrist that would go off at times. He also kept a raw onion on a string round his neck in case he required a snack. When the eccentrics come to the fore, we know we have entered a new phase.

The new model of warfare does simultaneously what used to be done serially. High-intensity combat is conducted in parallel with seeking local support and getting on with reconstruction projects. Forces must now combine soldiers, police and civilians with the capacity to undertake various humanitarian and legal activities. There are few set-piece battles. Rather than killing the enemy, it is better to disable him. Only then can he be questioned or released if he wasn't a combatant after all.

The British general Sir Rupert Smith argues that the transparent operation of law, monitored by international observers, will be crucial in the Wars against Terror. He comments: "If we are to operate among the people, we must do so within the law. To do otherwise would be to undermine our own strategic objective, to establish and uphold the law."

Among the many problems ahead for the Nato, three stand out. Naturally there is great emphasis on force protection but this brings with it a difficulty. Force protection is secured by the use of body armour, heavily armoured vehicles and well-protected bases. As Gen Smith has observed: "We fight so as not to lose the force". Nonetheless, this distances military personnel from the very civilians they are seeking to protect. It enhances rather than reduces mutual suspicion.

Moreover, the question of whether there is one theatre of war, Afghanistan and northern Pakistan itself, linked by dangerous border area, or whether these two countries must for military purposes be treated separately, has not been resolved. Last month, Gordon Brown sought to blur the distinction, saying "the greatest international priority is the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are the crucible for global terrorism, the breeding ground for international terrorists, and the source of a chain of terror that links the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the streets of Britain".

The final doubt concerns the Afghanistan as a state. It is shortly to hold its second presidential election. But corruption is unchecked. Discrimination against women receives legislative support and warlords increase their power. At a certain point, moral revulsion could take hold among Nato governments and their electorate. Why should a single soldier of ours die for this, we may well ask one day?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Manager - SAS - Data Warehouse - Banking

£350 - £365 per day: Orgtel: Manager, SAS, Data Warehouse, Banking, Bristol - ...

Web Analyst – Permanent – West Sussex – Up to £43k

£35000 - £43000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Internal Project Manager - Business Analyst, Financial Services

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: One of the best known and most pr...

SQL DBA/Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL DBA/Developer
 SQL, C#, VBA, Linux, SQL Se...

Day In a Page

Read Next
There are now half a million self-service checkouts in operation across Britain's leading supermarkets  

What's the point of paying for service if you then have to do the work yourself?

Jane Merrick
 

Our limited generosity is being wasted on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Tom Peck
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment