LONDON – Behind stepped-up commitments from the United States and Britain, stark differences are emerging between the two biggest powers operating in Afghanistan about how best to tackle the Taliban and al-Qaeda threat.
On the face of it, there’s joint action: the United States is sending 3,200 more troops and a British politician is to be named as the new, high-profile envoy to Afghanistan.
But analysts say the squabble is symptomatic of uncertainty over how to deal with Afghanistan, which is emerging as a more complex and nuanced battleground than Iraq, and a desire to show who is in the lead under the NATO umbrella.
The dispute has focused on Britain’s proposal to use untrained neighborhood defense teams — known as ‘arbakai’ — to help improve security in the volatile south were it operates.
In unusually frank and public criticism, U.S. officials and military commanders have said the idea will not work, could fuel fighting and that Britain doesn’t understand counter-insurgency.
The dispute began after Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a speech to parliament last month saying he wanted to see a shift in strategy towards “hard-headed realism” that worked “with the grain of Afghan tradition”.
“One way forward is to increase our support for community defense initiatives, where local volunteers are recruited to defend homes and families modeled on traditional Afghan arbakai,” he said.
Immediately afterwards, Washington began speaking against the plan, even though similar tactics have been employed by U.S. forces to quell the Sunni-led insurgency in western Iraq.
General Dan McNeill, the commander of NATO’s International Security and Assistance Force, told the Financial Times flatly that the idea would not work and could fuel insurgency.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates took the criticism a step further on Wednesday, telling the Los Angeles Times that Britain and other forces operating in southern Afghanistan didn’t seem to know how to combat a guerrilla insurgency.
“Most of the European forces, NATO forces, are not trained in counter-insurgency,” Gates said.
“I’m worried we’re deploying (military advisers) that are not properly trained and I’m worried we have some military forces that don’t know how to do counter-insurgency operations.”
The criticism is particularly harsh given that a month ago Britain hosted a meeting of defense ministers from key nations operating in Afghanistan and everyone emerged smiling, saying they were unifying their vision for the coming 3-5 years.
It is also rare for the United States to be so openly critical of a major ally that has given it staunch backing with the invasions and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.
Regional experts say failure to address the differences soon will set back the coordination of security and reconstruction. They argue that a new, joint Afghanistan strategy may be needed.
“This has been one of the problems in Afghanistan since day one,” said Maria Kuusisto, an Afghanistan expert at the Eurasia Group, a think-tank.
“There’s very little coordination and joined-up thinking. At this stage there needs to be a comprehensive review that comes up with a better joint strategy.”
Britain’s Ministry of Defence plays down any differences in tactics and says that on proposals such as the arbakai militias, no formal decision has yet been taken. “It’s just a possibility, we might not go ahead with it,” a spokesman said.
On the ground, there are signs U.S. forces, which operate in eastern Afghanistan, are having sustained success. They have also ditched some tactics, such as heavy bombing raids, that produced high casualties and stirred up local anger.
British commanders, who have also had some recent successes, notably taking the former Taliban stronghold of Musa Qala, quietly acknowledge that U.S. counter-insurgency techniques may be better and they are adopting them in parts.
But still the criticism comes.
In the corridors of the Pentagon, U.S. officials whisper that things are better in eastern Afghanistan because the Americans are there. British forces don’t know how to do counter-insurgency and don’t trust Afghan troops, they say. British troops don’t coordinate with civil operations.
The upshot may be that Britain and the United States will sit down and discuss their differences behind closed doors, rather than airing their disagreements in public. But they may also have to agree to disagree on some key initiatives.
“The bottom line is that while there are some operational disagreements in terms of approach, strategically the United States and UK cannot afford to be at loggerheads over Afghanistan,” said Alexander Neill, the head of the Asia security program at the Royal United Services Institute.
“It’s creating fallout in the Afghanistan theatre.”