Is Canada Asking for a War of the Flea?
Canadian forces in Afghanistan are boring deeper into Taliban territory than they ever have since they entered the country. On Saturday, they opened a new base, called Forward Operating Base Martello, some 200 kilometers away from the main base in Kandahar. According to the official line, the base will allow Canadian soldiers to guard the main highway that links Kandahar to the province of Oruzgan.
This, I fear, is an error the likes of which have been repeated innumerable times since guerrilla warfare entered the military lexicon. Every manual on the tactic, from Robert Taber’s The War of the Flea to Mao Zedong’s On Guerrilla Warfare, points out that the more islands you garrison, the weaker the whole of your forces becomes. It’s simple mathematics: in order to open the new base, you need to take some soldiers and materiel from the main one. Absent compensatory forces or reinforcement, you inherently weaken the main base. Instead of having, say, 2,300 soldiers to defend Kandahar, you now have 1,800.
Additional problems arise in ensuring communication and the supply route linking the main base with the forward one. As it is located deep inside Taliban territory, that line will be subject to roadside bombings and various kinds of attacks. Furthermore, aside for inviting attacks against it, the new base will be difficult to protect. After a while, maintaining the new base becomes an objective in itself (like counting the number of white beads you have on the Go board against your opponent’s black), and this regardless of whether the base provides a tactical or strategic advantage. Should this occur, more troops and materiel will be taken from the main base, further weakening the latter until it, too, becomes vulnerable. Instead of having one strong base, you end up with two ill-defended ones.
Guerrilla warfare is about patience and opportunity. The Taliban can afford to be patient, and they’ll have all the time in the world to assail the new base until holding the fort becomes untenable, at which point the Canadian forces—what’s left of them—will depart, with little gained. This is how guerrilla groups have defeated larger, stronger and better organized armies for centuries: they overstretch their adversary, attack and cut the supply routes that hold the whole together, and whittle it down, piece by piece. The more you divide the whole of your forces, the weaker all its constituent parts become—not only quantitatively, but also in terms of having to defend the supply routes that link them all together.
Unless the main highway that links Kandahar to Oruzgan is of such operational value as to warrant the risk that Canadian soldiers are taking, I doubt that this adventure deep in Taliban territory is a sound decision. Already, if you take a step back from the map of Afghanistan, the Coalition deployment looks like what I have just described above: pockets of relative stability, like Kabul, the capital, and Kandahar, and the rest. In no way has Afghanistan been “liberated,” “pacified,” or “neutralized” since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. In fact, so tenuous is the stability in the country that Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, is often derisively referred to as the president of Kabul.
I wonder why we would give the Taliban such an opportunity. Is Canada forgetting the spirit of the mandate under which its soldiers were deployed to Kandahar—as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team, or PRT? Increasingly, Canada’s actions in Afghanistan have begun to look like war-making, in that we are taking the fight directly to the Taliban. I do agree that Afghanistan will never be stable (as is defined by the Western powers, that is) unless the Taliban are spent as a fighting and political force. However, if the eradication of insurgents is now part of Canada’s mandate in Afghanistan, Canadians should not only be informed of this by the Minister of National Defense and the Prime Minister, but they should also prepare themselves for more casualties. I am not convinced that Canadians are ready to digest the level of casualties that, if we base ourselves on statistics from previous guerrilla wars, from Cuba to Vietnam, will result from this change in tactics. If there is one aspect of warfare that the Canadian public is little acquainted with or emotionally prepared for, it is this.
And one last thing: if Canadian forces become more aggressive in their anti-Taliban activities, those who disagree with what Canada is doing in Afghanistan will have more reasons to extend the fight to another vast country: Canada.