Gordon Campbell on our training efforts against fundamentalism

As New Zealand scopes out the training role that we’re likely to play in Iraq next year against Islamic State, we should perhaps be keeping in mind the last time our troops got involved in a training and support role against Islamic extremists. That would be in Afghanistan. Over a year ago, Afghan forces stepped up to take over the leading role in the fight against the Taliban. How’s that been going? Not so well, US commanders recently conceded. In fact…the current casualty rate among the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) cannot be sustained, according to a top US officer within the international coalition.

Since the beginning of 2013, the ANSF have suffered almost 9,000 fatalities, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday. In comparison, the U.S. has lost 2,346 troops in Operation Enduring Freedom since the war began in 2001.

The number of troops going AWOL, her added, is also of concern.

“Their first priority right now is to get their recruiting back up,” [Anderson] said. He also mentioned counter-IED, medevac, and medical treatment as areas where the ANSF need to get better. “All those things have to continue to improve to reduce those [casualty] numbers, because those numbers are not sustainable in the long term,” he said.

The US has already spent $50 billion and thousands of US and NATO lives in Afghanistan since 2001, let alone the casualties among the civilian population. The US troops currently in the country will be halved next year, and the US military presence will be almost entirely gone by the end of 2016. As the US and British forces have withdrawn from perennial trouble spots such as Helmand province – where 453 British troops have died since 2006 – the Taliban have continued to advance, and they now dominate the province’s booming drug trade.

For the British forces, Helmand was the centerpiece of a multiyear counter-narcotics effort that largely failed to stem poppy cultivation. The province, which is home to more than 80 percent of the nation’s opium production, remains the heart of the illicit drug trade. According to a United Nations report, 2013 saw more land used to cultivate the crop than any year since the international community began recording the figure…

Perhaps more worrisome are the trends that developed in northern Helmand over the last five months. Unlike years past, the Taliban massed in large groups to contest government forces, a previously unthinkable dynamic.

Faced with the unhappy precedent that Afghanistan provides for the battle against IS, the Americans have clearly decided that no news is good news – and so, they’ve now thrown a blanket of security over the issuing of further information about Afghanistan. For its part, New Zealand barely thinks about Afghanistan these days, or about the troops that lost their lives there. Quite some ago, we said “Good job ” to ourselves and moved on. Yet as the cliché goes, history will repeat itself among those who forget its lessons.

Putin, Redux
With justification, a few readers have taken me to task for a column this week that had cited Vladimir Putin’s ‘imperial’ adventures in the Ukraine. The column was actually focussed on the impacts on economic policy and political factionalism within Russia that Western sanctions are having. Yet I had meant to put quote marks around ‘imperial’ – in order to convey that this was largely a Western perception. As I’d argued in a couple of columns in March, Putin’s actions in the Ukraine had – initially at least – been mainly defensive in nature. See here for the politico historical background and also here as well. As I wrote back in March:

Obviously, much will depend on whether the pro-Russian annexation process extends out beyond the Crimea. As mentioned in earlier Scoop columns, the recent elections in the Ukraine split the country right down the middle, electorally speaking. Kiev can count on the western Ukraine and on half the centre; the other half of central Ukraine, the east of the country and the Crimea were solidly pro Russian, and solidly pro-Yanukovych. It would not take much in the way of stimulation from Moscow to set Donetsk ablaze

Furthermore, one of these columns had concluded:

In this respect, the media coverage of this crisis in the West has been oddly skewed. In depicting the annexation as imperial expansionism on Putin’s part – and by demonising Putin in the process – the enthusiasm of the majority of the population in eastern Ukraine and in the Crimea for this process has been downplayed, and seems almost inexplicable. More importantly, the extent to which the annexations are seen in Russia as being a defensive necessity has been almost entirely overlooked. Yet from Russia’s POV, the Ukraine is an essential strategic buffer. On this point, much of the CNN/BBC coverage of the Crimean crisis has been a bit like covering the Cuban Missile Crisis without mentioning American sensitivities about Soviet missiles being stationed 90 miles from Miami…

Having said that, Putin cannot now escape the realpolitik of the situation, or evade his share of responsibility for the brutal proxy war that he – and the West – are engaged in on Ukrainian territory.

Boys and Their Mysterious Ways
For a genre usually discussed in terms of its rawness and sensuality, 1960s soul music could also have a piercing innocence about it at times. Carla Thomas is usually a more worldly singer – think of tracks like “B-A-B-Y” – but here she is doing a wonderful, painfully wistful song that the great Wendy Rene also once recorded. “Do Boys Keep Diaries?” What are boys really like…deep down, in their unknowable hearts?