The Battle for Kandahar and Helmand

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 3 months ago

Our friend Michael Yon has penned a must read at the Small Wars Journal entitled Arghandab and the Battle for Kandahar.  Myra MacDonald of Reuters picks up on Michael’s assessment and makes a salient point.

… let’s assume for the purposes of argument that Pakistan does not drop its resistance to tackling Afghan militants in its border regions. (Pakistan argues it cannot tackle everyone at once and has its hands full fighting the Pakistani Taliban; its critics say it is hedging its bets ahead of any eventual U.S. withdrawal, when it might want to use groups like the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan.)

At that point, a major U.S. military success in Afghanistan could be the only way to break the stalemate. An in that light, Yon’s focus on the Arghandab River Valley becomes essential reading.

We’ll return to Myra’s point momentarily.  Michael performs far-reaching analysis, from use of the Russian experience in Afghanistan (The Bear Went Over the Mountain) to the revised tactical directive issued by General McChrystal (ROE).  Michael doesn’t weigh in himself on the ROE.  He does honestly point out that the ROE will cause additional casualties.  Petraeus also confesses that Afghanistan will get bloodier than it is now.  It will so for more reasons than simply adding more troops (or better said, it could be less bloody than it is going to be).

The question is not whether there is ROE.  Michael points out that the Russian ROE turned the population completely against them because they essentially had no ROE.  We do, we did, and we will in the future.  The question is more nuanced than that.  I am aware from a number of sources the nature of combat and other operations in Fallujah in 2007 (and at other points in the campaign for Anbar), and the ROE were more robust than currently in place in Afghanistan; or in other words, McChrystal’s tactical directive is more restrictive than the ROE in effect while the Anbar Province was being won by the U.S. Marine Corps.  In order to believe that the revised tactical directive is beneficial to the campaign one must believe that the ensuing casualties for which it is at least a contributing cause will be less in the long run than if a more robust ROE were in place with its accompanying increased force protection.  We’ll see.  Troop morale and public opinion mean everything to the campaign.

Michael continues by pointing out that the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is fictitious.  Taliban cross with impunity through this imaginary border, and the coming battle will be for Afghanistan’s South.

In Helmand, the fight is serious, and friendly troops are spread far too thinly. Some experts believe that focusing on Helmand before securing Kandahar was a strategic error. Most districts in Kandahar are said to be under Taliban control or heavy influence. Some areas of the south are under complete, uncontested Taliban control …

The Taliban want Kandahar and are in a good position to get it. The year 2010 likely will mark a true Battle for Kandahar, though it probably will not be punctuated by the sort of pitched battles we saw in places like Mosul and Baghdad. This remains unknown.

Armies from at least three countries have ventured into the Arghandab River Valley: British, followed by Soviets, and more recently Canadians; all were unsuccessful.

Michael compares and contrasts the Russian campaign with the coming U.S. and ISAF operations, and then rehearses a bit of recent history for us.

The enemy is not defeated, but our people were now operating among them. U.S. casualties continued during the next three months but there are indications that the enemy is today in disarray. The enemy became afraid to sleep indoors where they might be killed by an airstrike—or by U.S. soldiers, who have a tendency to burst in during periods of maximum REM sleep. The Taliban were terrorized and began sleeping in the orchards at night, rigging homes with explosives, which they arm at night. (I’ve heard similar reports from Pakistan. Pakistanis have said that drone strikes are demoralizing and terrorizing the Taliban, and though drone strikes are controversial, some Pakistanis want to see the strikes increased.)

And so we have a dilemma even in Michael’s account.  These episodes of bursting in by U.S. Soldiers came to an end with McChrystal’s tactical directive, and the drone strikes into Pakistan which have so disheartened the Taliban don’t have an analogy with the ROE in use by Soldiers and Marines in Helmand and elsewhere in Afghanistan.

But Michael points out that fresh troops are indeed on the way, and that’s good.  More force projection is needed.  But I have titled this the battle for Kandahar and Helmand because the fight cannot be disentangled from Helmand any more than it can be from Pakistan.  Population centric COIN doctrine has driven us to Kandahar, but leaving Helmand alone is not an acceptable solution given that the Taliban train there, raise their support there, and take refuge in its scattered towns.

The Marines left the operations in Now Zad improperly resourced and thus the Taliban fighters garrisoned there escaped.  Marja is next, and the Marines’ claim is that “We won’t leave anywhere else uncovered. We won’t go anywhere we can’t clear, we won’t clear anywhere we can’t stay and we won’t stay anywhere we can’t build.”  Helmand and Kandahar may be seen as coupled, with operations in one place affecting operations in the other.

True enough, Pakistani Army operations on the imaginary side of the border mean something.  Back to Ms. MacDonald’s point, I have previously said that:

The conversation on Pakistan versus Afghanistan presupposes that the Durand Line means anything, and that the Taliban and al Qaeda respect an imaginary boundary cut through the middle of the Hindu Kush.  It doesn’t and they don’t.  If our engagement of Pakistan is to mean anything, we must understand that they are taking their cue from us, and that our campaign is pressing the radicals from the Afghanistan side while their campaign is pressing them from the Pakistani side.

Advocating disengagement from Afghanistan is tantamount to suggesting that one front against the enemy would be better than two, and that one nation involved in the struggle would be better than two (assuming that Pakistan would keep up the fight in our total absence, an assumption for which I see no basis).  It’s tantamount to suggesting that it’s better to give the Taliban and al Qaeda safe haven in Afghanistan as Pakistan presses them from their side, or that it’s better to give them safe haven in Pakistan while we press them from our side.  Both suggestions are preposterous.

That there is an indigenous insurgency (the so-called ten dollar Taliban) that bootstraps to the real religiously motivated fighters is irrelevant.  We had to fight our way through this group in Iraq too, and it is the nature of these insurgencies.  Complaining about it is acceptable – but using it as an excuse to abandon the campaign is not.  That every contact isn’t with Arabic or Chechen or Uzbek jihadists is irrelevant.  That doesn’t mean that Afghanistan is not a central front in the transnational insurgency called Islamic Jihad.  The Taliban are important inasmuch as they gave and would continue to give safe haven to globalists.

For this reason the campaign in Afghanistan must be successful.  Pakistan will take their cue from us and follow our lead.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks


  1. On December 16, 2009 at 9:54 am, BruceR said:

    With all due respect to Mike Yon, he and his sources just got there. There’s been Canadians there a little longer.

    The enemy doesn’t sleep in orchards in Kandahar Province because they’re “terrorized”. They sleep there because the trees and the tall crops give just as good IR cover in the summer (the temperature’s quite comfortable at night) and because they know Western forces tend to over-focus on dwellings as targets for their nighttime kinetics. They didn’t start doing it this year, we saw the same thing last summer, and the summer before that. Ditto the booby-trapping of compound entrances: same reason. Some compounds in this area have been raided 3 or 4 times, it’s only sense to string a grenade for time #5. You can hear lots of Taliban reports along the lines of “man, we were out in the field and watched the SOF guys took down my house. Never looked in the field, though, and we all got away.” There’s nothing new here, and it’s certainly not by itself evidence of growing insurgent “terror.”

  2. On December 16, 2009 at 10:59 am, Warbucks said:

    Pakistan has not yet experienced nor faced its personal “push-comes-shove-moment,” as to being an ally “when the chips are down” to anyone since the country’s inception, past President Musharraf notwithstanding.

    The above report assumes Pakistan will take it’s lead from the US, as though some Pakistanian-Churchill has already stood forth and proclaimed “Never give up” sentiment of western values for liberty, freedom, and justice historically leading the country into the light of human liberty…. finally.

    I would argue instead that many great houses must first fall before we see such a Pakistan emerge. The grand level of corruption in both Pakistan and Afghanistan seems to hold its power through the great opiate fortunes as old and entrenched as the Silk Road. We in the west harbor half the culpability for this state of corruption.

    Catastrophe, such as the capture, or apparent capture, of nuclear weapons, brings clarity. Pakistan remains Muslim first until handed its personal 15-minutes of fame by sobered Western powers finding their point of unity around the prospects of dirty-bomb terrorism.

    Until western world public opinion of Pakistan faces catastrophe there will be no such thing as a reliable Pakistani ally.

  3. On December 28, 2009 at 2:18 pm, TSAlfabet said:

    And now (hat tip Power Line) we have this Administration still chasing its own tail about what strategy to pursue in A-stan!

    The U.S. under this POTUS is not going to lead Pakistan or anyone else anywhere because the Admin does not know, itself, where it is going or what to do.

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You are currently reading "The Battle for Kandahar and Helmand", entry #4340 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Kandahar,Marines in Helmand,Pakistan and was published December 16th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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