What we must do to win Kandahar

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 11 months ago

Joshua Foust, writing for PBS, gives us an interesting analysis of the upcoming battle for Kandahar.  The entire analysis is highly recommended, but several quotes will be reproduced below.

The current plan to “retake” Kandahar from the Taliban is loosely modeled after this year’s earlier operation in Marjeh, in neighboring Helmand Province. While in Marjeh the campaign began with a massive incursion of military forces, followed by a small cadre of civilian reconstruction specialists, in Kandahar there is a concerted effort to make the push more political and less militarized — General McChrystal calls it a “process” now instead of an “offensive.” Part of the campaign involves warning citizens of Kandahar that they need to report Taliban activity, or, if they can, flee the areas most likely to be mined or bombed, thus sparing innocent casualties.

To this end, there have been a series of low-key Special Forces raids into the city proper, attempting to identify and either capture or kill known Taliban commanders. To supplement this push into the city, hundreds of troops are being arrayed in the vast farming areas around Kandahar in an attempt to “choke off” the Taliban’s supply lines. At the same time, General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of all NATO forces in Afghanistan, has been meeting with local elders and politicians in an attempt to gin up popular support for the coming offensive.

[ ... ]

ISAF faces a number of political challenges as well. A majority of Afghan watchers point to Ahmed Wali Karzai as one of the biggest barriers to smooth operations in the city—he demands a cut of most commerce that takes place in the area, and the DEA alleges he has ties to the illegal narcotics industry. However, because he is the President’s brother, there is no chance of removing him from power. Similarly, Kandahar is, in effect, run by a group of families organized into mafia-style crime rings. They skim profits off almost all reconstruction projects in the city, and have developed a lucrative trade ripping off ISAF initiatives. They sometimes violently clash with each other.

Finally, the Taliban: in part because of the miserable performance of the government, and ISAF’s inability to stem the growing insecurity around the city, the Taliban have been steadily building support. It is likely they will enjoy a lot of popularity when the big troops push finally arrives, even if it is grudging — it’s probably a safe bet that Kandaharis don’t especially like the Taliban, they just happen to be a safer, more reliable bet than the Coalition. Judging by the way all the initial meetings about the Battle for Kandahar have shaped up so far, ISAF hasn’t yet figured out how to address the concerns of regular people or present the campaign in a relatable way.

There are reports that the rules of engagement in place in Afghanistan has given the insurgents enough space to operate that they have been seen laying down their weapons, walking to another location (where a weapons cache is located), picking up another weapon, and then firing again.  There are even reports that Taliban fighters have been seen forcing women and children to carry their weapons to the next fighting location, all the while peering at U.S. troops without fear because they know that they cannot be fired upon due to the ROE.  The Strategy Page explains why the ROE has not lead to decreased casualties.

The majority of civilian combat deaths are at the hands of the Taliban or drug gangs, and the local media plays those down (or else). It’s a sweet deal for the bad guys, and a powerful battlefield tool. The civilians appreciate the attention, but the ROE doesn’t reduce overall civilian deaths, because the longer the Taliban have control of civilians in a combat situations, the more they kill. The Taliban often use civilians as human shields, and kill those who refuse, or are suspected of disloyalty.

Our view towards substantiation of the national political authority as part of the COIN effort causes us to work for the legitimization of the local authorities as part of that framework.  But rather than being the solution, it is part of the problem.

In order to win Kandahar, we must not run from fights; we must destroy the drug rings (not the local farmers), and especially destroy the crime families, including killing the heads of the crime families; we must make it so uncomfortable for people to give them cuts of their money that they fear us more than they fear Karzai’s criminal brother; we must make it so dangerous to be associated with crime rings, criminal organizations, and insurgents that no one wants even to be remotely associated with them; and we must marginalize Karzai’s brother.

I am (as a perusal of my posts will show) opposed to the special operations forces driven high value target campaign as being ineffective.  Anyone associated with drug rings, criminal activity or the insurgency must be a target, from the highest to the lowest levels of the organization, and this without mercy.  Completely without mercy.  There should be no knee-jerk reversion to prisons, because the corrupt judicial system in Afghanistan will only release the worst actors to perpetrate the worst on their opponents.  This robust force projection must be conducted by not only the SOF, but so-called general purpose forces (GPF).  The population needs to see the very same people conducting patrols and talking with locals that they see killing criminals and insurgents.  This is imperative.  This is imperative.

We can revert to the softer side of counterinsurgency if all of this seems too barbaric.  We can run from fights with the insurgents, we can continue to pour tens of millions of dollars into a failing and corrupt system, and we can continue to prop up a parasitic government.  But in the end, we must count the costs in lives, lost limbs, lost reputation, and national wealth.

Mark my words, do it clearly, and do it now.  We will go in and stay in as the strong horse, and we will force the conclusion that suits our interest, or we will lose the campaign.  If this is too brutal for some, then withdraw, but don’t send our warriors on a fool’s errand.  The leftist web sites will call me a war mongering, barbaric brute and sociopath who wants our Soldiers to violate the rules of war.  All manner of venom may come my way.  I don’t care.  I really don’t care.

Rarely are things so clear cut and measurable by metrics as this.  Again, count the costs.  Start now, and keep the data.  Count the men who die, the men who lose arms, legs, hearing and brain function due to IEDs, and take measure of the situation in Kandahar in the future (how “legitimate” is the government after our costly efforts in Kandahar?).  I will be proven right or wrong, but the best thing about putting prose down on paper is that it can be judged in the future.



  • TSAlfabet

    Rarely have I read anything so right, Captain.

    And, of course, so completely incapable of being implemented.

    As you say, the good thing about prose is that it can be judged in the future. You have been a consistent voice for the measured and adaptable application of force for more than a few years now (at least since I have been regularly following your posts). How ironic it is, now, that the very tactics that the U.S. used so successfully to defeat the insurgents in Iraq are now completely verboten in A-stan.

    I renew my call from early 2009 to bring our troops home from A-stan.

    If I thought that there was any chance that the Captain’s approach would be implemented, I would say let’s slug it out. But all of us know darn well that this Administration is not going to do the necessary soul-searching to make a radical change of strategy (as we did in Iraq). As it is, alot of precious men and women are going to die and be maimed so that this President can appear to look tough on the Taliban while we lose ground each and every day.

    Someone explain to me how McCrystal is going to convince anyone with any brains in Kandahar to side with us when the C-in-C has already said that the troops will start coming home in 2011? This is where reality meets up with theory.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,Kandahar and was published May 5th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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