Proliferation of Bad Analysis on Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
12 years, 9 months ago

Readers should beware of bad analysis work on Afghanistan.  There is an increasing frequency of it, so many analyses that I do not have the time to catalog them all.  I will mention only two such examples.

First, Rajiv Chandrasekaran writing at The Washington Post outlines a supposedly successful villagers’ revolt against the Taliban in Southern Afghanistan.  Christian Bleuer writing at Registan is duly sarcastic, and if you want to read about the ZZ Top beards you will have to drop by Registan and read Christian’s prose.

Ian comments that the reason this has people salivating is that it resembles the Anbar pattern.  Let me state in the clearest possible way I know how.  NO . IT . DOES . NOT. The Anbar pattern had to do with force projection at the beginning of the campaign by the Marines, force projection by Marines during the middle phase of the campaign, and force projection by the Marines near the end of the campaign.  Let me also be especially clear on this next point.  Had it not been for the U.S. Marines, the tribal awakening in Ramadi would have failed.  They simply weren’t strong enough, well equipped enough, supplied well enough, or numerous enough to defeat the AQI, Ansar al Sunna, and the other bad actors in Ramadi.  Furthermore, in places like Fallujah it had nothing whatsoever to do with tribes or any awakening.

By the way, the SOF does look especially stupid in their ZZ Top beards, and since they are focused on kinetics rather than embedding with the population, the beards serve no useful purpose other than to make them look stupid.  But I digress.

Next, let’s deal with a piece by Stephen Grey at Foreign Policy as he takes on the British campaign in Helmand.  Copious quotes are reproduced below, but the reader is advised to read his entire essay.

As painfully described in an investigation published last week by the Times of London, the charge against military top brass, and those like Stirrup who talked endlessly of constant progress on the ground, is of filtering complaints from field commanders and junior soldiers so that politicians under the previous Labour administration got spared the full picture of how badly things were going in Helmand and the many shortfalls, for example, of war-winning military equipment and in basic welfare for the troops and their injured. Britain went into Helmand, the article described, with its “eyes shut and fingers crossed.”

Adam Holloway, a former Guards officer and now backbench Tory MP, added in the Sunday Times: “There was a tendency under the Labour government to promote ‘politicians in uniform’ rather than officers willing to give frank advice about the strategic drift in Afghanistan.”

As Holloway implies, some of the criticism of senior commanders like Stirrup for failing to “back our boys,” rather misses the point. While the insufficiency of resources like helicopters, bomb technicians, and mine-protected vehicles was arguably a betrayal of the “military covenant” that a nation owes an armed forces bearing so much sacrifice, none of these deficiencies go far to explaining why the war has been going so badly.

So what did go wrong with British leadership in Helmand? What part did the U.K. play in the transformation of what was a quiet backwater of the country in 2006 into this violent quagmire which now requires a garrison of 20,000 foreign troops (twice what the Soviets deployed to the province)?

The British had deployed in 2006 with an original plan for Helmand that echoed key elements of what was to become Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy. Its mission was to avoid combat and concentrate on protecting the population by providing basic security and fostering development in a narrow zone of central Helmand.

But the plan was not followed. As rebellion spread, the force of 3,300 personnel, representing an initial combat strength at first of little more nine platoons, were scattered across the district centers of northern Helmand. Pinned down in small Alamo-style outposts, their presence served as a magnet for the Taliban and an inspiration for general revolt. And, forced to defend themselves, they resorted to air strikes and heavy weapons that rubble-ized the centers of towns like Sangin and Musa Qala, and forced out the populations of Garmsir, Kajaki and Now Zad.

Now committed to defending a vast geographical area (and persuaded by President Karzai that any withdrawal would hand the Taliban a major victory), over successive years, Britain’s Task Force Helmand tripled in size but, despite reinforcement by Danes, Estonians and American units, was always outstretched by the spreading rebellion. British troops and their Afghan partners have never been in sufficient strength in any one place to dominate the ground effectively and provide the kind of basic security required to implement the central elements of an effective counterinsurgency approach, like reform of local government or meaningful development work. While the U.K. trumpeted its “comprehensive approach” — the unified application of both civil and military power — the slogan was a parody of reality.

The population of Helmand is highly-dispersed, scattered among the compounds that dot the “Green Zone,” as the irrigated land on either side of the Helmand River and its tributaries is called. While the British-led Task Force could cling on to the major towns like Sangin, Gereshk, and Lashkah Gah, real population security depended on securing the land that stretches between them.

Wedded at first to a conventional mindset, British operations initially sought to break the back of the Taliban revolt with endless and bloody “sweeps” up and down the Green Zone. The Taliban got suppressed for a few weeks or months and then came back. Troops came to refer to this disparagingly as “mowing the lawn.”

The sweeps got followed by another approach of “ribbon security” — an aspiration of constructing a chain of Forward Operating Bases up and down the Green Zone to provide a more extensive enduring presence — up the Helmand from Gereshk to Sangin and then ultimately upstream as far as the strategic hydroelectric dam at Kajaki.

The approach was flawed. There were never enough troops for such ambition. And the overstretch got worse by the fall of 2008, when the revolt started spreading to previously relatively-quiet central Helmand and the gates of the provincial capital, Lashkah Gah. In the assaults that began in July 2009, the British drained resources from Sangin and pushed troops into the central Babaji and Malgir districts west of Lashkah Gah. They were joined now by U.S. Marines who took over Garmsir, Nawa, and the southern Helmand district of Khan Neshin. The U.S. Marine presence has been expanding ever since, leading to today’s change-of-command.

This analysis is incorrect in a number of places, and misses the point in many others.  First off, let’s grant Mr. Grey the point about lack of adequate forces.  I have harped on this deficiency for four years, and will continue to do so.  But the analysis veers off into logically unrelated and largely irrelevant memes.  For example, Marine presence hasn’t increased steadily for years in Helmand.  The Marines (24th MEU, coverage found in category Marines in Helmand from 2008) entered Garmsir in 2004 and engaged in heavy kinetic operations, killing some 400 Taliban fighters and in fact having to pay out compensation for damage to homes in Garmsir.  Rather than alienating the population, the hard tactics caused the population to demand that they stay and ensure security.

Rather than staying, they turned over to British forces who then proceeded to pursue the same soft tactics they had in the balance of the Helmand Province, only to lose Garmsir in 2009 with the Marines having to retake it in 2010.  Bombing and shelling (“rubble-izing” as Stephen puts it) places like Musa Qala is quite irrelevant.  For an analysis of the horrible deal we made with Mullah Abdul Salaam in Musa Qala and the harm that it did to the campaign, see my category on Musa Qala.  The British were entirely responsible for that fiasco, and rather than being hated for shelling the city, they were hated for installing a stupid, corrupt coward to rule the city and for actually believing that he would protect the population and drive out the Taliban.

I won’t go on, but suffice it to say, there is a proliferation of analysis at the moment that simply doesn’t make the grade.  They are from those coming late to the campaign, or those who cannot jettison their population-centric COIN dogma, or for whatever reason.  Read everything you can, but be careful what you believe.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,British Army,Marines in Helmand and was published June 21st, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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