Of “Battle Fatigue” and National Caveats

by Joshua Foust on 5/20/2008 · 2 comments

It appears NATO is feeling “battle fatigue” after six years of combat. I feel for them, I really do—and it would be impossible for me to criticize the stance since I have never been in combat. But why, then, is the notion that Afghans just might be too exhausted to fight any more so alien to western thinking? That some may not be as actively battling off Taliban and associated militants with sleepless fervor as they could because they’re just too exhausted?

The most battle-hardened U.S. troops in Afghanistan will have been there for a total of perhaps five years (this is an educated guess; it could be either more or less). After so much time fearing for one’s life, feeling utterly fatigued is perfectly natural. And the political desire to end the expense of such a sustained conflict is also perfectly natural and understandable.

Most Afghans, however, cannot remember a time without warfare. With a median age of only 17.6 years, the vast majority of Afghans simply were not alive during a period without active warfare in their country—warfare that will, in about 19 months, reach its 30th anniversary.

I would say the Afghans are rather more resilient than we are. But NATO’s fecklessness certainly doesn’t help. The revelation that German special forces allowed the Baghlan bomber to escape because they were not authorized to use lethal force—they were only permitted to capture him, not kill him—drives this point further home. Many NATO countries are simply not acting as if they want to win. Only five of the 26 countries currently operating in Afghanistan—the U.S., the UK, Canada, Denmark, and Netherlands—can behave like a normal army. The rest have their operations crippled by restrictive caveats, some of which now can be shown to be actively aiding the insurgency.

The threat to the international relief workers and the ISAF soldiers stationed in the north may now be even greater than it was before. Warned of ISAF’s activities and intent on taking revenge, the man and his network are active once again. Over 2,500 Germans are stationed between Faryab and Badakhshan, along with Hungarian, Norwegian and Swedish troops.

The case has caused disquiet at the headquarters of the ISAF peacekeeping force in Kabul. The current strategy for fighting the enemy is to buy as many Taliban sympathizers as possible, to at least win them over for a while — and to “eliminate” the hardliners through targeted assassinations.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The German KSK is actually a highly respected, highly capable force. They were able to track the bomber down, observe him for weeks without him realizing it, and even close almost to capture before they were discovered. But they were just not permitted to behave like any other SOF or even police unit would: kill a dangerous man if he looks ready to escape.

And this strategy of purchasing Taliban sympathizers is the height of folly: it is precisely what the British tried during their disastrous invasion in 1838. When the money ran out some years later, those Afghans they had bribed didn’t walk home thankful to have received British gold, they rose up in murderous fury at the foreign invader who now didn’t even have money to placate their wounded pride. Refusing to fight while spreading Euros like Nutella on toast might work for a little bit. But, as Der Spiegel has documented, it will also fatally undermine what had been one of the great successes of the war.

I’m sure hanging out in Feyzabad and getting fat is really tiring, but honestly, bitte, stop undermining everyone else.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 2 comments }

Shohmurod May 20, 2008 at 1:04 pm

One may observe, ease of communication in a common (English) language might have something to do with who fights the war in the South (Canada, Britain, Netherlands – big English speakers) and who keeps the peace in the North (Germans, Italians, Spanish.). When you have seconds to call in an air strike, you can’t be blabbering looking for the right words to describe the Taliban position, I suppose.

Also, if Germans did not have to go along by NATO, they may have run things differently…WWII is not too distant a memory for some NATO members.

Joshua Foust May 20, 2008 at 1:45 pm

Shohmurod, you’re absolutely right about that: the German press has been filled with self-reflective pieces about whether or not they should be able to engage in battle, precisely because of WWII. At the same time, it has been carried to a ridiculous extreme. They need to either behave like a proper army, or stop taking up space. Right now they are not helping the solution.

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