Monday, June 11, 2007

A dangerous gambit

Tom Blackwell of CanWest has an interesting story in today's National Post, one that outlines just how difficult it is for Canada's pointy-end soldiers to identify their enemy before engaging him:

It seems typical of the ghost war being waged in Zhari district, the main battleground for Canadian troops these days, and a place where identifying Taliban among the local population is almost half the fight.

Sometimes, the insurgents quickly remove bodies and even shell casings from battle sites to try to erase any evidence that they had fought and lost comrades, the Canadians say.


And on at least one occasion, they know that people who insisted their village was free of Taliban were lying. In firefights later, the troops found those same locals among the dead combatants.

As Capt Shepperd says "There is no doubt that counter insurgency is the most difficult type of warfare."

Having said that, one detail from the article caught my attention and started my Spidey-sense tingling:

At first the local elders insist there are no insurgents, then suggest the militants march through occasionally, then say no one actually sees the fighters because they move only at night.

In fact, intelligence has indicated that as many as 30 insurgents operate out of the area. And, the Canadian soldiers say, such conversations often end with someone shooting at them.

"If we are attacked," threatens Maj. Quick, the youthful-looking commander of the Royal Canadian Regiment's India Company, "I'll mark this location and we'll bring a bomb down on it."

Capt. Shepperd throws out his own challenge to the crowd. "If any of these men are Taliban, I invite them to take a shot at me, and I'll take his head off."


That said, the Canadians say they would not really order the bombing of a village that had harboured Taliban. The tough talk is meant to show the soldiers know when they are being misled, and to draw out useful information.

This tactic is a high-risk one in my admittedly non-professional opinion.

If the villagers are in fact fighting you tooth and nail behind your back, the posturing and threats can be productive in the short term. In the longer term, though, if there's never any follow through on those threats, the insurgents will learn they can lie without consequences and will take that as a sign of weakness, not strength. In this, your parents' childhood admonition holds true: always keep your promises.

But if the villagers aren't cooperating with the Taliban - a less likely possibility, but a real one nonetheless - then your distrust and belligerence do nothing to win local hearts and minds.

By any reasonable assessment, this is a long-odds play.

Humping a ruck through fifty-degree heat in bad-guy-country and never knowing where the next bullet is coming from are undoubtedly strong motivators when it comes to gathering intelligence and intimidating the enemy. But Capt Shepperd's insight about how difficult counter-insurgency warfare can be is accurate precisely because of dilemmas such as this one, where there's no easy answer.

Of course, I'm not the one with my ass on the line. Your mileage may vary.


Blogger John of Argghhh! said...

It's also part and parcel of the game of bluff and counter-bluff, where talking large is expected.

One of the things about dealing with Arabs in particular (which the Taliban are not, though there are Arabs among them) is that they get surprised when we take their hyperbole at face value - and they're even more surprised that we take what they perceive as our hyperbole seriously, too - as in dropping the bomb we said we'd drop. Where we said we'd drop it.

It's certainly a clash of cultures.

4:06 p.m., June 12, 2007  
Blogger ODIN said...

its a big problem i think. the west has made all sorts of threats and innuendo and followed through very little from a global perspective.

what i like about that article is that it makes clear there is still an opening to "impress" the locals.

12:20 p.m., June 13, 2007  

Post a Comment

<< Home