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West repeating mistakes of the past in Afghanistan says ex-commander

Western forces attempting to defeat the Taliban and bring peace and stability to Afghanistan are making the same mistakes made by armies throughout history, according to a former British Army commander.

Face-covered militants who they say are Talibans pose with an RPG in Zabul province, southern of Kabul, Afghanistan

Western forces have failed to adapt to the Taliban threat

Major-General Andrew Mackay, who led British troops in southern Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008 and who resigned his post in September, said earlier this week that the armed forces engaged in the fight for Afghanistan had failed to understand the culture and motivations of the Afghan people and had failed to adapt to modern conflict.

Mackay, writing in an article coauthored by Royal Navy Commander Steve Tatham and published by the British Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) Defense Academy, called for fresh thinking on the battlefield and highlighted a need for more focus on "behaviorist" strategy when dealing with the complex structure of Afghan society.

He added that the military "consistently failed" to understand the motivations of local Afghans which was undermining Western efforts while strengthening the resistance, saying that Western efforts had to focus on understanding the culture, economy and psychology of the Taliban if allied forces were to be truly successful in battle.

"Many of the choices that are currently presented are too stark: poppy bad/wheat good; Taliban evil/ISAF good and so on," Mackay wrote. "The reality is that we have consistently failed to understand that what seems to us as irrational behavior is entirely rational to the individual facing tough choices."

"We have sought to advance the idea that alongside kinetic power there is potentially a more behaviorist approach which, we believe, can affect the enemy's will and be as, or arguably more, effective than kinetic power in future conflict," Mackay added.

Ignoring the mistakes of the past

A German soldier, center, is on patrol in a street in Kabul while other soldiers follow him on an open jeep

Mackay believes more local understanding is required

Samina Ahmed, the project director for the South Asia department of the International Crisis Group in Islamabad, says that while Western knowledge of Afghanistan was shaped largely by the anti-Soviet jihad and hence unrelated to current day Afghan dynamics, other factors have proved more costly.

"It is less the lack of knowledge about Afghanistan that has contributed to instability and an ineffectual military campaign as a propensity to repeatedly seek short cuts that have backfired, instead of a focus on institution building that would pay long term dividends and the failure, when the ground was ripe, to provide adequate military and economic resources," she told Deutsche Welle.

Ahmed also pointed out that when the Taliban were ousted, the Afghan people fully supported the intervention in the hope that the Western presence would restore and underwrite peace and help to rebuild their war-torn land. Instead, she claimed, the West and its allies failed to understand the need then to buttress institutions, instead of relying on individuals, including warlords, and providing the economic goods.

"If the Taliban are to be deprived of support, then the West must shun short-cuts that will only undercut political stability, for instance by supporting selected warlords and their militias, instead of building a professional military as well as a police force that is capable of protecting the citizen," she said. "In short, a state that is capable of protecting the lives of its citizens and providing basic services is the only way in which violent extremism can be defeated in Afghanistan."

West accused of stagnation in face of evolving conflict

Afghan Police inspect a damaged vehicle of an aid organization after it hit a road side bomb in Kunduz

Roadside bombs have proved to be an effective weapon

Mackay also accused senior military officers of being "institutionally incapable of keeping pace with rapid change and the associated willingness to adapt - and quickly - at the same time."

Western efforts in dealing with the counter-insurgency, he said, had a sense of "making it up as we go along" and that there was a serious lack of clear direction from senior officers. He also suggested that military planners had been educated by a system designed for a previous age and could not adapt to current and future challenges.

Giles Merritt, the director of the Security & Defence Agenda think-tank in Brussels, agrees that Western forces are suffering from a lack of clear direction.

"We are losing but we're not losing for military reasons not for strategic reasons," Merritt told Deutsche Welle. "We don't have a clear plan, we don't know how to assess if we're winning or losing except in terms of body count, and we don't have a big picture. You hold a bit of ground here, we reduce the level of instability there but we're not really working towards a clearly defined goal."

Merritt does not believe, however, that military planners are incapable of adapting to the conflict in Afghanistan - mainly becaue the tactics and the approach of the Taliban has changed little since coalition forces invaded in 2001.

"The Taliban haven't actually changed since the 1930's," Merritt said. "They're incredibly patient. They wait to see what the weaknesses are, what the chinks in the armor are and then they exploit them. I don't think there has been an enormous change in the Taliban's tactics at all and the West have certainly not been surprised by them. So they fight a war of attrition with roadside bombs and ambushes. This was to be expected."

Time to talk to the Taliban?

Taliban fighters

The US would be suspicious of any Taliban settlement offer

The growing concern over the Western approach in Afghanistan and the alleged failure by allied forces to get a grip on the methods employed by the Taliban in its counter-insurgency has given rise to cautious suggestions that direct negotiations may be the only way to end the war.

Government sources in the US refused to confirm or deny whether Washington would deal with the Taliban but Defense Secretary Robert Gates was quoted as saying that he believed the Taliban would only contemplate an agreement if they had first been forced into believing they would lose the war.

"The Taliban leadership is currently disinclined to negotiate because it believes the West hasn't the will to stay on in Afghanistan," Samina Ahmed said. "Until the Taliban are willing to negotiate, there is no question of defining terms or demands. However, should such an opportunity arise, then the minimum demands should include acceptance of the Afghan constitution and a willingness to give up arms."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge

DW.DE