obama's war
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The Push into Helmand Province

Gen. Stanley McChrystal Commander, ISAF

The Washington Times said the other day that you've cleared Helmand three times, never held it.

Yeah. And once you clear something and don't hold it, you probably didn't really clear it. It has no staying power. In fact, I would argue that it's worse, because you create an expectation and then you dash it. So I think that you're almost better to have not gone there at all.

Why should the people down there believe that this time you're going to stay?

We have to convince them of that ... through our actions. If I was a villager, I would be very cautious. I would wait for concrete evidence. …

In Helmand, for instance, we were down there on patrols and saw a little bit of action. But what was clear was that the troops couldn't go into an area and then establish a presence. They had to retreat to the COP [combat outpost]. With the amount that they have down there, there's only so far they can go, and there's still 100 miles between where you have Marines at the furthest southern outpost and the Pakistan border. Do you have enough troops?

In the "oil-slick" technique, as you know, you go where you can -- the highest value areas, typically population centers and whatnot -- and then you go out from there. And we're going to have to do that in accordance with our priorities.

But the ink-spot approach seems to work fast when you have population centers. In the Helmand River valley, there's no population center. They're just sort of spread evenly and thinly across the whole stretch in that valley.

I disagree. I think the Helmand River valley ... it doesn't look like a city, but it is a long population center. ...

But that's spread out and more challenging to hold unless you have more troops. Are you requesting new troops to come in?

... What we do is we take those forces that we have, particularly mating them with the Afghan National Army [ANA] and Afghan National Police [ANP], and try to grow from there, with the troops that we have trying to maintain enough security in each area. We hope that over time the force requirements in the latter parts of hold-and-build will go down, and in fact will shift to just the police.

But it takes a long time. Could be months, could be years in some areas before you could go all the way down to typical status quo security.

We saw very little presence of the Afghan army or police in Helmand.

They're not as big as they need to be, and they're not as big as they will be. ... So, although you don't see them in the numbers that you want yet, particularly in very difficult areas, they are out there paying a price every day. ...

Lt. Col. John Nagl (Ret.) Fmr. Adviser to Gen. Petraeus

What's behind the push into Helmand?

... There have not been sufficient troops in Helmand to secure the population. The British army, which had primary responsibility for Helmand, was, frankly, forced into a strategy of what the troops call "mowing the lawn." They would clear and leave. The insurgents would scatter, go the hills. Then when the British troops left, they'd come back down and terrorize the population again.

So the determination was made that it was finally time to clear and hold Helmand, to put enough troops there so that we could chase the insurgents out and keep them out.

Why is Helmand important?

It's the largest single source of opium poppies in Afghanistan, which means it's the largest single source of opium in the world. The analysis was done that the poppies grown in Helmand were a major funding source for the insurgency for the Taliban. I'm not convinced that that analysis was correct.

But we have cleared Helmand now, and we are holding Helmand. We are also finally starting to push into Kandahar, the neighboring province, the capital of the south, and, frankly, the initial home base of the Taliban, what I consider to be the most important city in southern Afghanistan.

I was in Helmand with the Marines, and we were at the southernmost point of their insertion. We were still 100 miles from the border with Pakistan. I was told by the captain there there weren't enough troops available to go any farther than that. You say we're clearing and holding Helmand, but, in fact, we're only --

We're clearing and holding part of Helmand. We're re-clearing and holding more of Helmand than we have previously.

Is that enough?

It is not enough. And since there aren't enough Afghan forces, since there aren't enough American and international forces, we've got to make hard decisions about what we're going to clear and hold in Afghanistan and what we're not.

And this is what people criticize. They say: "Look, we can have a counterinsurgency strategy, or we can use counterinsurgency tactics. But if you don't do it whole hog, you're not doing yourself a favor. You either do it or you don't."

Classic counterinsurgency strategy recognizes that the counterinsurgent at least initially won't have enough forces to clear and hold everywhere, to be strong everywhere.

So it recommends that the counterinsurgent make hard choices, do triage and decide, what are the cities that absolutely must be held? What are the population centers that are most important? Clear and hold them first and then create "oil spots" of security that spread outward and ultimately link up with other oil spots of security, with the spreading oil being host-nation security forces who are simultaneously being trained and equipped and sent out to secure the countryside.

I don't think we've done a good job to date of doing that triage. Of deciding what the most important places are in Afghanistan, ... Kabul would be first. Number two would be Kandahar, would be the capital of the south.

So you say we've got the best people in charge and we're not making the right decisions?

I'm saying that the decision to clear and hold Helmand was not made by the current team. ... It is not clear to me that that was the right decision. ...

The plan is to send these Marines into Helmand. McChrystal comes in at short notice. The plan is ready to go. What decision does he make? Frankly, it's not clear to me that he'd had the time to do the analysis and stop that attack and switch it to the Kandahar.

And it's also not clear to me that there were sufficient resources -- and I haven't done the troop-to-population ratios -- because Kandahar is the biggest, most important city in the south.

The Taliban capital.

And the Taliban capital.

Seth Jones Author, The Graveyard of Empires

Seth Jones

Helmand is critical for a range of regions. First, really the center of gravity for the Taliban insurgency has historically been, and is, in southern Afghanistan. It's in provinces like Kandahar and Helmand and Uruzgan and Zabul.

There is a steady flow of fighters moving from both Pakistan and Iran into an area of northern Helmand, northern Kandahar and Uruzgan province.

And there had been very little NATO pushback in central and southern Helmand. So a critical province. And entire swaths of rural Helmand have been completely lost to insurgents.

As you've seen the operation unfold, do you see the tenets of counterinsurgency being applied?

The Marines increased foot patrols. They limited close air support. There are very serious concerns about killing civilians, because they had isolated and alienated a number of local Afghans.

So, in many ways, the Marine presence did try and avoid problems that had beset the British in northern Helmand ... and have tried to focus on protecting the local population. Key counterinsurgency tenets.

On the other hand, we've seen a range of problems. There aren't enough Marine forces to actually hold a lot of territory. And there aren't enough Afghan national security forces to hold territory either, which puts the Marines in a very difficult long-term situation. They do not have enough forces and enough competent Afghan national security forces to hold territory.

We're still understaffed, after all these years.

It's not that the U.S. and Afghan forces are understaffed. It's that, in my view, they haven't understood the lessons from the stable periods of Afghanistan's history.

Roughly between 1929 and 1978, ... a range of the Musahibans who ran Afghanistan created a strong central government for urban areas. But in rural areas, they cut deals with local tribes, sub-tribes and clans.

The biggest challenge that the Afghans and the Americans face is that they have adapted no bottom-up strategy. They have not dealt with tribes, sub-tribes and clans. That's the area, I think, that is the missing part of this puzzle right now, because that provides some answer to current shortfalls in security forces.

It doesn't sound like a military issue. It sounds like it's governance.

Dealing with a range of tribes, sub-tribes, clans and other local actors is more a political issue than it is a military issue.

In fact, it's something that has been honed quite well by Taliban forces operating in the south. They have developed a very sophisticated tribal engagement policy. The U.S. and Afghans really have developed nothing.

David Kilcullen Adviser to Gen. McChyrstal

David Kilcullen

The Marines who have gone into Helmand have basically tripled the number of forces that are present. There were about 8,000 British forces in the central part of Helmand until recently. They are still there, but we've now added two Marine brigades who are fighting in other parts of the province. So there's a substantial number of troops now in Helmand.

There's not a lot of fighting going on against the Taliban. The Taliban have tended to melt away -- dispersed to areas where they've got tribal cousins they can go and be with. They've basically moved out of the way of the military offensive. That's typical Taliban behavior.

I don't think they believe that we're going to stay there for any length of time. I don't think the local population believes that yet, and so they're basically waiting us out. They've moved out of the way. They're letting us come in.

And they've messaged the population before leaving, they've said: "Yep, look the Americans are coming in, they're going to ask you to work with them. If you work with them we're going to come back and we're going to kill you."

What they've chosen to do, instead of fighting the coalition directly, is to slow down the coalition offensive by the use of IEDs [improvised explosive devices], roadside bombs. ... And they're just making us fight for every inch of movement based on the need to clear yard after yard of road because of the IEDs. So that's the technique that they've adopted.

Further to the east, in Kandahar, they're running basically a war ... of intimidation and terror and trying to basically convince people that: "Yeah, look the coalition may be moving into Helmand, but here in Kandahar ... we can hurt you. And if you cross us we'll kill you." And so there's that campaign of assassination, beatings, intimidation, terrorist acts going on in the big population centers. And that's something which we're not really addressing by shifting all these combat troops to Helmand. It's a different kind of a problem.

Is the south the key?

Yeah. The key. Kandahar and Uruzgan are home turf of the Taliban, where they got started. They were the capital of Afghanistan under the Taliban, not Kabul. Kandahar is the Pashtun capital. ...

Helmand is a stronghold as the source of a lot of the narcotics revenue, as a base of operations, as a distraction to draw us away from Kandahar. ...

They're not trying to displace us by force of arms. There's not going to be a big Taliban column advancing on Kabul and trying to capture the capital city. That's not what's going to happen. What they're focusing on is trying to make the place ungovernable and just too difficult for us to sustain, so that we say: "What's the point? Let's just give up and go somewhere else." And I think that's the strategy they've been pushing for some time.

So in the coming months, is it the south where we'll see the new strategy really fully take shape first?

I think there'll be a balance between the south and east. But I think for people tracking the war in Afghanistan, watching what happens in Helmand and Kandahar, and to a lesser extent in Uruzgan, just north of Kandahar, and in Zabul, just to the east -- those four basic areas will give you the bellwether of what's going on.

And I would say the districts around Kandahar city are kind of the canary in the coal mine. You'll know how the overall campaign is going based on what's happening in those areas.

Rory Stewart Author, The Places in Between

What are we doing in Helmand province?

[Here is a] snapshot of Helmand. … In the beginning of 2005 there were about 200 [foreign] soldiers. … U.S. Special Forces [were] sitting in a base in the Lashkar Gah. Broadly speaking, internationals could move around that province. …

The objective then had nothing to do with the Taliban. It was just about the fact the economy wasn't functioning and there wasn't enough security and the governor seemed to be in league with the drug lords. The troop deployments initially were all about dealing with those things, trying to improve the government for Afghan people.

But what then happened is we found ourselves facing an insurgency. It's a matter of debate whether deploying those troops caused that insurgency, provoked that insurgency, or whether it was just a coincidence.

The bottom line is we've gone from 200 troops in 2005 to nearly 20,000 today and there has been no improvement in governance. There's been no improvement in economic development. There's no improvement in security. The people of Helmand are worse off in 2009 than they were in 2005. And in addition to no improvement in those governance factors, we're now facing a Taliban insurgency.

4,000 Marines recently went [into southern Helmand province]. Their orders are to establish bases, reconnect with the population, begin the clear, hold and build cycle. … Aren't we asking a great deal of the soldiers on the ground at this point?

I think you're asking the impossible. You potentially might be able to clear and hold an urban area like Baghdad. But you can't clear and hold … a country the size of Texas with 20,000 villages. It's inconceivable. …

Karl Eikenberry U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan

Karl W. Eikenberry

Your question is -- how long can we stay in Helmand?

Well, what we need to do and what our strategy is, we stay as long as necessary before the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police will absolutely stay. ... Then being developed behind that is a coherent, respected Afghan government presence that's able to provide a set of services to the people.

How long is that going to be? How long is that going to take?

You can never put a time against that. What I could say is it's realistic. We can see over the next several years, I think, that we can anticipate there will be areas of Aghanistan in which Afghan national security forces, their army and police, are responsible for leading security operations, [but] still needing some assistance from NATO or U.S. forces.

The reason I asked the question is that the soldiers on the ground are promising that we're going to stay. But do the American people know these promises are being made and ... just how long that will take? They're asking how long, how much is this going to cost.

... It's essential that we maintain a security shield behind which the Afghan government can grow. So that question is not how long will our forces stay there, the question is, how long will it be before the Afghan National Army and the police can step up and they can conduct their own security operations? They're really the ones that are providing the shield.

But the point at which we do that handoff is what Americans want to know. And perhaps the answer is that we don't know. I mean so much of this is experimental, I suppose. But I guess I'm doing the best I can to ask you what to say to Americans who want to know what we're in for here.

I'll start with first of all, what's the stakes? What's the threat? President Obama, in March of this year when he announced the new strategy, brought great clarity to the strategy when he said that what is a focus for the United States of America here in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the disruption, the dismantling and the defeat of Al Qaeda and their international terrorist confederates.

But they're not here.

They have influence into this area, but you're correct. They are not, in the main, inside of Afghanistan.

However, if we were to leave Afghanistan, Al Qaeda would come back here because we have not reached the point with our Afghan allies where Afghanistan has the strength and has the resilience yet that it could withstand the onslaught from Taliban and could hold firm against the return of Al Qaeda.

If Afghanistan does not have that strength, Al Qaeda will return here, and we could have a return to the days of Sept. 11, 2001. And so we have to get it right. Al Qaeda remains an existential threat to the United States of America. And until our strategy is successful -- and the president was clear on the strategy to disrupt, dismantle and eventually defeat Al Qaeda and to strengthen Afghanistan to the point that they cannot return to this country -- the United States of America will not be safe.

There's the alternative theory that I've heard even from folks within the Pentagon, within the American security establishment. And that is that we return to prior to 9/11 but with far greater emphasis on securing our population in the United States. That we can do a much better job of policing at much less cost than building nations abroad.

Al Qaeda will not leave the Pakistan-Afghanistan area unless they are dismantled. Al Qaeda will remain in this area because this is the area where modern jihad begins. Modern jihad begins in the 1980s in the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

If Al Qaeda is pushed out of this area, many people believe, and I believe, it would be a crushing ideological defeat for Al Qaeda. They have no really great options. This is their heartland. And the United States of America cannot be safe until it is dismantled and defeated in its heartland.

George Packer The New Yorker

George Packer

So in Helmand, what are the Marines, what are observers finding?

The Marines and the British are finding that the Taliban are learning urban guerilla warfare pretty quickly. They're very adaptive. One British civilian in Helmand told me that it's a mix here of Belfast and Beaucage. Beaucage was Normandy. It was the maze of hedge rows that confronted the allied troops who came up the cliffs at Omaha and the other beaches, and became ideal ambush sights.

And that's what the Marines and British forces in Helmand have been encountering, an enemy that's learned how to use walls and streets in the way that the Iraqi insurgents did in Fallujah.

So the Taliban, by every account, they are a very smart fighting force that what it lacks in weaponry it's made up for in tactics and in intelligence.

I was in Wardak Province in May [2009], embedded with the 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division. And I was seeing what counterinsurgency in Afghanistan looked like sort of in the early stages. And we were barreling down the really rotten roads of this country and kicking up a lot of dust in the eyes of villagers.

And our presence was known from miles away. And then the soldiers would spill out of these armored vehicles and heavily burdened with all their equipment. And it doesn't look like the Green Beret with his knife and his soft hat. You know? It looks like war.

But what I noticed was the better units -- and it really varies almost from company to company. That's something about counterinsurgency I've learned. It all depends on who's leading it. It's so fluid and improvised that you've just got to hope that this captain knows what he's doing.

I ran into a captain who I didn't think knew what he was doing. And they were kind of entrenched and in a position of, you know, "We're just keeping danger out and going in and looking for bad guys." And a few miles away another captain had built up a pretty good relationship with the district authorities, and when his men went out they actually walked out from their combat outpost down the street and could go into the district headquarters or to the local police station.

So we are an alien force here. We look weird. We have way too much equipment. We don't speak the language. We are big and clumsy.

But I think it's too dismissive to say that counterinsurgency is irrelevant or is impossible, because I've seen these young soldiers learn it and do it in a way that impresses Afghans. Whether it can be replicated across the country is a whole other thing that anyone would be right to be skeptical of.

posted october 13, 2009

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