3 years, 8 months ago
In Helmand is a Sideshow – Or Not I addressed the charge that had been leveled in a WSJ article that Helmand was a sideshow to the real fight. Summarizing, the author said:
American forces have been waging a major offensive in the neighboring southern province of Helmand, the center of Afghanistan’s drug trade. Some U.S. military officials believe the Taliban have taken advantage of the American preoccupation with Helmand to infiltrate Kandahar and set up shadow local governments and courts throughout the city.
“Helmand is a sideshow,” said the senior military official briefed on the analysis. “Kandahar is the capital of the south [and] that’s why they want it.”
The Helmand Province is the home of the indigenous insurgency, the Afghanistan Taliban, and its capital is Lashkar Gah. Without hitting the Taliban’s recruiting grounds, fund raising and revenue development, training grounds, and logistical supply lines, the campaign cannot be won. Focusing on the population centers is a loser strategy, doomed to sure failure. Controlling the cities as some sort of prison while the roads are all controlled by Taliban is just what the Russians did, only to withdraw in ignominy. The Marines are in Helmand because just like Anbar, Iraq at the time, it is the worst place on earth.
But the narrative won’t go away, and even seems to be gaining momentum. Joe Klein weighs in with the next installment.
The U.S. military does not move in mysterious ways. It plods, it plans, it plots out every logistical detail before launching an initiative. Things take time. For example: not all of the 21,000 additional forces that President Obama authorized for Afghanistan last winter have even arrived in the country yet. For another example: the battle plan those troops were asked to execute was devised primarily by General David McKiernan, who was replaced about the time the troops started arriving. McKiernan’s plan reflected his experience in conventional warfare: he chose to deploy the troops where the bad guys were — largely in Helmand province on the Pakistani border, home of nearly 60% of the world’s opium crop, a place that was firmly in Taliban control. But pursuing conventional warfare in Afghanistan is about as effective as using a football in a tennis match. The Army’s new counterinsurgency doctrine says you go where the people are concentrated and protect them, then gradually move into the sectors the bad guys control. That is not what we’re doing in Afghanistan. In addition to all the other problems we’re facing — the corruption of the Karzai government, the election chaos, the porous Pakistani border — it has become apparent that we’re pursuing the wrong military strategy in this frustrating war.
Note how the narrative has graduated to the strategy being implemented was McKiernan’s, not McChrystal’s, and McChrystal had no choice in the matter due to logistical inertia. Continuing with the “McChrystal is powerless to change things” meme:
Upon his arrival in Afghanistan as McKiernan’s replacement last June, General Stanley McChrystal was pretty much presented with a fait accompli: the troops were arriving in Helmand. “The ship was moving in that direction,” a military expert told me, “and it would have been difficult to turn it around.” Indeed, it would have taken months of planning to change course. The additional troops were needed immediately to blunt the momentum of the Taliban and also to provide security for the Afghan elections. The trouble was, the troops would have been better deployed in Helmand’s neighbor to the east — Kandahar province, especially in Kandahar city and its suburbs. “Kandahar is the center of gravity in this insurgency,” says John Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel who helped write the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine. “It is as important now as Fallujah was in Iraq in 2004.”
Kandahar is the capital city of Afghanistan’s Pashtun majority, home of both the Karzai family and Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban. It is where the Taliban began. It has been run, in a staggeringly corrupt manner, by Hamid Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai — who, according to U.S. investigators, has extensive links to the opium trade. As the Karzai government has grown more unpopular, the situation in Kandahar has deteriorated. The Taliban own the night, slipping death threats under the doors of those who would cooperate with the government. In Iraq the military’s counterinsurgency strategy turned around a similarly bleak urban situation — notably in Baghdad, where U.S. troops helped the Iraqis regain control of neighborhoods by setting up and staffing joint security stations. But the troops who should be securing Kandahar are fighting an elusive enemy in Helmand.
Following Clausewitz into a single center of gravity for a campaign is the reason behind Center of Gravity Versus Lines of Effort in COIN, and I still continue to believe that nothing so easy and clear will present itself as a single focal point for our efforts. But the statement concerning Fallujah in 2004 is odd.
Kandahar doesn’t seem anything like Fallujah in 2004. The security situation in Kandahar may be degrading, but in Fallujah it was so bad that at the beginning of al Fajr the city was free of noncombatants and only fighters were left behind, many or most of whom were high on epinephrine and morphine. The campaign in Anbar saw more than 1000 U.S. Marines perish, way more than have died in Operation Enduring Freedom between all branches of the service. Fallujah saw continued operations into 2007 with Operation Alljah, but during the fight for Anbar Marines were also deployed to Haditha, al Qaim, Hit, the Syrian border and other rural areas.
The argument to control the streets of Kandahar makes sense if that argument doesn’t also hinge upon removing the Marines from Helmand where the fighters recruit, train, raise their support, and get ingress to and egress from Afghanistan. In Now Zad Taliban fighters have been so unmolested that they have used that area for R&R. The city of Now Zad – with an erstwhile population of 30,000+ civilians – is deserted with only insurgents remaining to terrorize the area so that inhabitants don’t return. The Marines are so under-resourced that they can only fight the Taliban to a standstill. It is so dangerous in Now Zad that the Marines deployed there are the only ones to bring two trauma doctors with them.
It is a strange argument indeed that sends Marines to Kandahar while the insurgents in Now Zad have separated themselves off from civilians and invited a fight. So send more Marines to Kandahar to control the streets. The Taliban bullying will stop once a Regimental Combat Team arrives. This should not be too difficult to pull off. As I have said before, there are so many Marines at Camp Lejeune that some units are not even in the same barracks, and more barracks are being built. Not since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom has the Corps been so large with so many Marines garrisoned in the states. Furthermore, if they aren’t in the states they are on board amphibious assault docks doing nothing. Entire Battalions of Marine infantry – doing nothing for nine months.
But if the resources to control Kandahar are there, the argument to remove them from Helmand is not. Whether the sources for the WSJ and Joe Klein’s article are wishing for the narrative to gain traction or there is in reality a sense that Helmand is a sideshow is irrelevant. The strategists need to sense the reality that Helmand is not a sideshow, and that it is a very real line of effort in the campaign. Without hitting the insurgents where they live we will follow the Russians out of Afghanistan.