Deciding when you’ve won a battle is hard enough. Once upon a time, this was decided by Heralds from both sides, who argued it out then the combatants’ leaders agreed to the decision. If a King is killed, that’s a definite result, which might decide who wins the actual war.
These days it’s not so simple… especially when an enemy like the Taliban makes a point of never fighting ‘proper’ battles. The battle ground is just as much in the hearts and minds of the people, as it is about holding ground or destroying the chain of command, headquarters, radio and television stations, supply dumps and enemy leaders.
If the enemy doesn’t have any of these fixed points, then not even the medieval Corps of Heralds could tell you definitively that you’ve won the hearts and minds of the people… And which people are we talking about anyway?
We’ve been told for some time now that the War in Afghanistan is being won. December 2014 is the deadline for remaining US troops, and the British contingent will be out before then. At least that’s the plan.
The Afghan President is being even more of a pain than usual, and seems to have assumed that we’re all going to stay on regardless. Why?
Mr Kharsi assumes that after more than a decade and the expenditure of much blood and treasure, the USA dare not risk his government falling to the Taliban. He’s carrying on as usual, assuming his protectors will too. But he hasn’t been paying attention.
For more than a year, the USA has been defining what “winning” in Afghanistan means. This ever-changing definition will fit the situation (whatever it might be) this coming autumn. The withdrawal will be rapid and irreversible; and even if Mr Kharsi is toppled before Christmas, that will be his loss, and nothing to do with the USA.
“Winning” this war will be a window-dressing exercise for the benefit of the press in Washington DC, and consumers of US media. It will have nothing to do with anything military; and the fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan will continue as it always has.
There are few winners in any war. Asymmetric wars favour the underdog, provided he’s prepared to sacrifice his own defenceless civilian population for The Cause. Mostly, therefore, there are many losers. Including the USA and Britain, which should never have been there in the first place.
But there is a war we could have a go at winning – to rescue the thousands of soldiers with serious psychological problems. Much of this is likely to have been caused by blows to the heads and explosions.
Neuroscience is now capable of teasing out the differences between the previously undetectable micro-injuries which get labelled “mild traumatic brain injury mTBI”, and stress-induced PTSD. As warfare is a devastating combination of extreme environmental factors including actual trauma to the head, and relentless high stress plus exposure to life-threatening situations and dreadful injuries, treating these conditions has to be a combination of psychological and neurological interventions.
The battle we should now address is the neurology of these problems, which will save huge amounts of money – apart from lessening the huge amount of suffering caused by these conditions.
This battle is winnable. But it must start right now.