Belmont Club

Let a hundred choppers bloom

During the mid-1950s in Mao’s China power struggles were waged under the guise of innocuous names, such as the Hundred Flowers Movement.  It was began as an invitation by Mao for all the dissident elements of the Party to come forward: “let a hundred flowers blossom and hundred schools of thought contend”. But it finished as a political trap. By 1957 Mao knew who dissidents were because they had revealed themselves and the prisons were prepared for their reception. Political discourse is rarely about the actual subject of discourse. It is almost always about power.

Recently the top British commander in Afghanistan, General Sir Richard Dannatt has been inspecting his troops in an American Blackhawk, provocatively saying that “Self-evidently . . . if I moved in an American helicopter it’s because I haven’t got a British helicopter.” The leader of the Tories, David Cameron, joined the fray by accusing Gordon Brown of starving the troops of equipment. He claimed that US Marine units in Afghanistan, numerically equal to the British command, had 100 helicopters versus the British 30.  Channel 4 in Britain did a fact-check and found the numbers were rather worse.  “While the MoD will not confirm the number of helicopters deployed to Afghanistan (for security reasons), it is understood the total is around 23 or 24.” And an expert who Channel 4 interviewed claimed the Marines had “well over 100” helicopters at their disposal.  But going back to the Hundred Flowers analogy, it would be a mistake to think the debate was about helicopters. Helicopters are a proxy subject for the real matter of British war policy, and hence, elections, and hence, political power.

Chad Hunter, a photographer embedded in Afghanistan has a striking series of photographs taken while he accompanied 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment (Airborne), Geronimo Scouts on an operation in the eastern part of the country called Thunder 2. They are images of very small groups of men moving through vast desolate spaces but living on the edge of a great ocean of aviation and electronics. The ground commander is alerted when signals intelligence pick up enemy radio chatter: they have been spotted by the Taliban. The Geronimo Scouts maneuver accordingly to turn the tables. In the steep terrain, an airborne soldier falls 40 feet down a ravine and is moderately injured. He is evacuated by helicopter. Everywhere the Geronimo Scouts go they are accompanied by an unseen but powerful infrastructure, one which can see in the dark, pluck messages from the ether, spot threats on distant hillsides, and at need turn the quiet landscape into an inferno of molten supersonic metal.

Joe Pappalardo of Popular Mechanics called it the “helicopter war” and noticed, as he boarded a Chinook while accompanying it on operation, the disparity between the disciplined, well equipped American airborne troops and the relatively rag-tag Afghan National Army. But in reality Pappalardo’s “helicopter war” phrase is as deceiving as Mao’s Hundred Flowers slogan and David Cameron’s rotary wing inquiries. “Helicopter war” is a proxy term for one of the core debates in Afghanistan: whether the American way of battle, which goes beyond the possession of mere helicopters to encompass the electronic bubble, persistent networks, fire support, logistics that permit the Geronimo Scouts to patrol in the middle of Taliban country, apparently alone but in reality, the leading edge of an invisible field of force — whether all this — could be sustained by the Afghans, even if they had all the helicopters in the world. Joe Pappalardo, understands the mission he is witnessing is a search for a sustainable model of warfare, one which the Afghans can continue on their own. It’s only called the “helicopter war”, but it is really about something far larger.

In their own ways the British debate over helicopters and Joe Pappalardo’s “helicopter war” metaphor are proxies for the respective debates over Afghan strategies of the UK and the US. In the British context “helicopters” are about whether the UK truly believes that keeping Afghanistan — and Pakistan — out of Jihadi hands is worth fighting a war for. On the face of it, a secure Afghanistan is probably worth more to Britain than America. The links between the UK and Pakistan are now so tight that a Jihadi victory would pose an immediate threat to Britain via Britons of South Asian origin. The problem the British face is one of determining and sustaining war policy; not half-heartedly, as Brown is doing, but whole heartedly. Fish or cut bait. In the American context “helicopters” denote another problem. That of finding a low-cost, low-tech and sustainable mode of combat that the Afghans can be taught to wage after the US has drawn down.

Neither the British nor the American debate has been resolved. But let a hundred flowers bloom and hundred schools of thought contend.

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