Operation Dragon Strike and the Taliban in Kandahar

BY Herschel Smith
10 years, 10 months ago

From NPR:

In an operation called Dragon Strike launched more than two months ago, the U.S. military has been hunting the Taliban in the fields and vineyards outside Kandahar, birthplace of the Taliban.

The operation, now winding down, has included artillery barrages, strafing runs and helicopter assaults in the dead of night.

“The last couple of months after we started our clearance ops, it’s completely emptied out. And we haven’t seen any activity,” says Capt. Brant Auge, a company commander with the 101st Airborne Division operating just west of the city of Kandahar.

But there have been unintended consequences. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of refugees are fleeing into the city. Taliban fighters are streaming there, too, and now are stepping up a terrorism campaign.

A group of men standing in central Kandahar are among the displaced from Arghandab and Zhari districts outside the city. They refuse to share their names, but they tell stories of the war ruining their farmland and prompting them to flee.

One man says the Taliban filled the orchards and roads with land mines and booby traps. When an American convoy would hit one of the massive bombs, U.S. helicopters and jets would rocket the area. Explosions destroyed his vineyard and his water pump, he says. After he lost a son and nephew, the man packed up his family for the city.

Now, he says he takes work as a laborer when he can get it and is paid about $4 a day.

Others tell similar stories. They seem to fear the Americans and the Taliban equally. Reconstruction aid is going only to the cronies of the government, they say.

But these poor men looking for day work are not the only newcomers on Kandahar’s streets.

Taliban fighters are here, too.

The Taliban has found plenty of support in Kandahar, which allows its operatives to slip in amid the civilian population. Young men have been encouraged to wage jihad against foreign forces in Afghanistan by preachers in the mosques and via popular cell phone videos.

The sound of motorcycles has become more frightening with a wave of assassins on motorbikes. Abdulrizak Palwal, a Kandahari writer, says no one feels safe. “The writers do not express themselves quite openly because they are afraid. Even the religious people, they are shot in the mosques — inside — if they say anything against the Taliban,” he says.

[ … ]

Now that the military operation outside the city is nearing an end, the U.S. military plans to spend the winter building up local governments and providing jobs and services to the people as a way to blunt the insurgency.

Analysis & Commentary

This is an interesting report on several levels.  First of all, it isn’t clear why the U.S. Army would be performing clearing operations anywhere – including outside the city – when the insurgency merely relocates to another place (in this case, down town Kandahar).  The tools we have learned via such hard and costly efforts in Iraq appear to have been learned to no avail.  In order to have made this push successful, heavy, around-the-clock, and ubiquitous patrolling, gated communities, census and biometrics should have been implemented.  The U.S. Army needs to know who everyone is in and around Kandahar.  The insurgency isn’t some amorphous, faceless entity.  It consists of people.  We need to know who they are.  A Battalion of Marines accomplished this in Fallujah in 2007.  Kandahar is larger than Fallujah – and the U.S. Army presence in Kandahar is much larger than a Battalion.  There is no reason that this approach cannot work.  None.

Second, it’s remarkable, isn’t it, how we still treat this as a classical insurgency, viz. Algeria and David Galula.  It’s all about providing jobs for the young folk, and given enough largesse and representation in local government, the insurgency will just evaporate.  Presto.

But it isn’t that simple when religious motivation is involved.  It’s also not that simple when a neighboring country harbors the very insurgency we seek to eliminate, all the while calling us friend.  Citing Michael O’Hanlon and others, Michael Hughes observes:

The Pakistan army consists of 500,000 active duty troops and another 500,000 on reserve. If Pakistan truly wanted to capture the Haqqani Network they would be able to drag them out of their caves by their beards within a few days.

Pakistan worries that President Barack Obama’s promise to start reducing U.S. troops in Afghanistan come July will lead to anarchy and civil conflict next door, and it is retaining proxies that it can use to ensure that its top goal in Afghanistan — keeping India out — can be accomplished come what may.

Pakistan would rather have the Taliban and the Haqqanis back in power, especially in the country’s south and east, than any group like the former Northern Alliance, which it views as too close to New Delhi.

It is this strategic calculation, more than constrained Pakistani resources, that constitutes Obama’s main challenge in Afghanistan. And it could cost him the war.

Just to be clear, while I oppose almost every decision Mr. Obama has made since taking office, this isn’t Obama’s war.  This is America’s war.  If we lose it, it will be America’s loss.  We need to do a bit better than throwing jobs at the locals to even begin to make a serious dent in the problem.  Local tactics, techniques and procedures need to reflect what we learned in Iraq, while our regional approach needs to deal much more harshly with Pakistan.  Both of these changes require the will and motivation to win.  I don’t currently see that in this administration.


Comments

  1. On November 11, 2010 at 1:04 pm, TS Alfabet said:

    The Captain’s commentary points to one of the most dispiriting aspects of the Afghan campaign: our seeming failure to learn from and apply the lessons of the victory in Iraq to Afghanistan. (Yes, I will call Iraq a “victory” in the same sense as D-Day 1944 was a victory, the ejection of Saddam from Kuwait was a victory..i.e., a specific, military challenge that was resolved decisively in our favor. Speaking of “victory” in the larger sense of WWII or the Cold War can only be pronounced post-conflict, so, in that sense, the War against Islamofascism will only be declared a victory at some future date and any gains until that time are always subject to change — the victory of the invasion of Iraq giving way to the Al Qaeda insurgency– or sqandering — the victory of the 2007 Iraq Surge being squandered by the 2008 SOFA and the precipitous withdrawal and straitjacket of U.S. forces in Iraq).

    Back to A-stan. We can concede that A-stan is not Iraq; the two are not identical in any sense. Nonetheless, the sort of tactics that the Captain cites in his commentary– population control, weeding out the bad guys, etc…– were found to be highly effective in Iraq and no one has shown that those same tactics would be any less so in Kandahar than Fallujah or Ramadi.

    And to add to this seeming reinvention of the wheel in A-stan is the fact that it is Petraeus who is presiding over it! This may be the last straw for me. Either Petraeus is wayyyy over-rated for the Iraq successes or he has some, more brilliant plan that no one can guess and he has chosen not to share with anyone just yet.

    Back in the dark days of Iraq, in 2005 and 2006, I could at least take some comfort from the posts of people like Michael Yon that the bad guys were getting hammered and things were not so hopeless as the press and politicians pretended. But A-stan seems to be a different story, literally. As Tim Lynch points out on his blog, Free Range International, you can read optimistic reports on page one of The Washington Post and a dire report on page two of the very same paper. Where is the truth? Yon, for whatever reason, has not been able to get nearly the same access in A-stan as he got in Iraq.

    My heart, however, tells me that the Captain’s comments are hitting at a fundamental reality that does not bode well. I can read the more optimistic reports and think that Petraeus and the U.S. military might pull out another miracle, but when the U.S. is not doing the fundamental things that have been shown to break and smother an insurgency, I have to conclude that the optimistic reports are rubbish or, at best, myopic irrelevancy.

    And the saddest thing of all is that we are wasting precious opportunities and resources– our finest youth and strength– to what purpose? If we will not do what it takes to win, how can we justify this?

  2. On November 11, 2010 at 8:50 pm, ArmyMom said:

    I currently read everything from the Captain and follow Michael Jon both on Facebook and Twitter as well as a few others but what I listen to is my son who was part of Operation Dragon Strike and it isn’t the same with what I am reading! (also there was another operation at the same time called Operation Eagle’s Claw, I haven’t heard or read anything on that).

  3. On November 11, 2010 at 9:30 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    Then please feel free to weigh in with your own perspective, along with your son’s perspective.

  4. On November 15, 2010 at 10:14 am, Sonja said:

    Hello Mr. Smith,

    This is my first time reading your blog, and I thank you for your perspective and all the further resources you have listed.

    I have a question for you that is still incredibly ambiguous in my view. I am not sure if you would be able to answer it, but I would appreciate your opinion:

    What constitutes winning this war? What are our main objectives, and how are we to attain them?

    My concern is that we are not putting ourselves in the shoes of the Afghani citizen who is a member of a tribe, not beholden to any central government, but rather beholden to their family, and they are only doing what any one of us would do if a member of our family were killed unjustly. Am I wrong? When was the last time an Afghani killed one of our citizens – I am not speaking of armed soldiers here? Why do they deserve to be caught in the crossfire, and isn’t there another way to go about this?

    I really am interested in your view, as it sounds as if you are well-read and connected.

    Thank you so much,
    Sonja

  5. On November 15, 2010 at 4:04 pm, anan said:

    Sonja, many of us have a different definition of the mission and victory.

    Pretty sure I disagree with the good captain.

    I would define Afghan victory as being when the regional and international powers [read Pakistan and the Arabs] believe that the long run victory by the GIRoA and ANSF over the Taliban is inevitable and change their behavior accordingly.

    Afghan victory isn’t the same as victory against the international Taliban and Al Qaeda movement since the heart of the Taliban and Al Qaeda are not in Afghanistan.

    I think we [ISAF, UNAMA, international community] achieve this by strenghtening the ANSF and by fighting through the ANSF much as other powers are fighting through the Taliban [by providing commanding officers, embedded combat advisors, funding, equipment and logistics]. Part of the reason why I feel we should do this is that it is far cheaper to fight through the ANSF, and because I don’t think the backers of the Taliban will stop supporting them unless they see long term ANSF victory as inevitable. The regional influencers do not believe that the international community will stay in Afghanistan in large numbers for long, and are more influenced by percieved ANSF capacity than by percieved ISAF capacity.

    In practice this means far more funding and resourcing for ANA Training Command, ANP Training command . . . enabling both of them to train several times as many ANSF at any given time. It also means more NTM-A trainers, more ISAF embedded combat advisors, or when necessary embedded partered ISAF combat units.

    “What are our main objectives, and how are we to attain them?” If you mean the US, perhaps you can answer your own question. ;-) One answer might be to deliver a signficant defeat to the global AQ linked Takfiri network in the expectation that this would result in less terrorism against global civilian population centers, including American population centers. What is your answer?

    “My concern is that we are not putting ourselves in the shoes of the Afghani citizen who is a member of a tribe, not beholden to any central government, but rather beholden to their family, and they are only doing what any one of us would do if a member of our family were killed unjustly. Am I wrong?”

    As you know every Afghan province and every district in every province is different, so maybe it is more useful to ask this same question by Afghan district.

    According to the UN Assistance Mission Afghanistan [UNAMA], in the first six months of 2010 total pro GIRoA forces [Gov of International Republic of Afghanistan + ANSF + ISAF + other allied forces] were responsible for 13% of all Afghan civilian casualties. The Taliban were confirmed to be responsible for 76% of Afghan civilian casualties. The rest being undetermined.

    You are right that there is anger at the GIRoA, ANSF and ISAF when they cause casualties and anger at the Taliban when they cause casualties; but this is only one of many dynamics and not necessarily the most important one.

    One important dynamic is that Afghans blame the ANSF, GIRoA and ISAF for Taliban caused casualties because civilians believe that it is the responsiblity of the GIRoA/ANSF/ISAF to protect them from the Taliban.

    If you are referring only to Afghan perceptions of ISAF [the about 60 coalition countries], perhaps the largest PR challenge ISAF confronts is the widely held conspiracy theory that ISAF backs the Taliban/AQ against the GIRoA/ANSF and Afghans. Even educated ANA officers talk about these conspiracy theories. Even Karzai darkly hints at it without actually saying it.

    “When was the last time an Afghani killed one of our citizens – I am not speaking of armed soldiers here? Why do they deserve to be caught in the crossfire, and isn’t there another way to go about this?” By “our” do you mean American? If so, many Taliban groups have tried to facilitate or directly conduct terrorist attacks against America, Europe, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Iran, China, Stans, Iraq, Thailand, Indonesia, the list goes on and on.

    You might correctly respond by saying that most Taliban are not Afghans. True. Sure something like 90% of Afghans oppose the Taliban, and more than 80% of Afghans very strongly oppose the Taliban. But Afghan Taliban are involved with international terrorist attacks none the less. Sirajuddin Haqqani, an Afghan, sits on the primary Al Qaeda Shura with Osama Bin Laden and talks about global ambitions.

    What other way do you propose to go about this? Are you saying that the ANA, ANP and ISAF should practice sathya graha nonviolence against the Taliban? If so, what are your specific proposals for operationalizing this? To be clear, I think nonviolence would work; but the Afghans and international community will have to accept large numbers of dead for it to work, including many more terrorist attacks against civilian population centers. Do you think all of us are ready for that type of sacrifice?

    Herschel Smith disagrees with me on some of the above. He favors more direct US lead operations in Afghansitan where the ANSF and GIRoA agree to US OPCON in the more dangerous parts of Afghanistan.

    TS Alfabet wrote “victory of the 2007 Iraq Surge being squandered by the 2008 SOFA and the precipitous withdrawal and straitjacket of U.S. forces in Iraq).” Couldn’t disagree with you more. September and October 2010 had the lowest two month average level of violence in Iraq since the begining of 2003, down 95% from 4 years ago. The surge in the capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces was the largest victory in Iraq and Iraq remains a victory.

    We should remember that the 2007 victory was achieved by the combined surge in operations by the MNF-I and ISF [Iraqi Security Forces]. It was a shared victory that the ISF keep building upon.

  6. On November 15, 2010 at 6:36 pm, Sonja said:

    Hello Anan,

    I am really grateful for your thoughtful and thought-provoking response. I need to put some considerable reflection into my answers to your questions, but I really appreciate the many ways that you have enumerated the complexity of these issues.

    Thank you again. I’ll return my comment soon.
    Sonja

  7. On November 15, 2010 at 11:02 pm, anan said:

    “Afghani citizen who is a member of a tribe, not beholden to any central government, but rather beholden to their family”

    Sonja, there is a fair bit of Afghan nationalism. How else do you explain the 91% positive views of the ANA in the most recent national poll that came out a few days ago? The ANA is quite popular among Afghan Pashtuns. The ANA is 42% Pashtun, comparable to the percentage of Afghans who are Pashtuns. I would guess that many Afghan Pashtun Taliban admire the ANA they are fighting as well. Often different members of the same Afghan Pashtun families fight on opposite sides in this war.

    Have you read Afghan history? Afghanistan has been allied to either South Asian, Iranian, or Mongol confederacies for most of the last 5 thousand years. Afghanistan was part of South Asia [Mongol Seljik Turk Moghul empire that ruled all of Bangladesh, Pakistan and most of India] until about 1700 and part of Iran 1700-1747. In 1747 when the Iranian Nadir Shah died, Iran was partitioned into western Iran and eastern Iran. Eastern Iran was renamed “Afghanistan.” At that time Afghanistan included part of the former USSR, all of Pakistan, much of Northern India, part of Eastern Iran.

    After 263 years, Afghanistan now has more nationalism than your comments imply.

    Since you are asking generic questions about Afghanistan in general, you might consider asking questions on the following two blogs:
    Registan.net
    http://blog.freerangeinternational.com/

    Captain, you might want to check out Baba Tim Lynch’s last two posts from Helmand:
    http://freerangeinternational.com/blog/?p=3734
    http://freerangeinternational.com/blog/?p=3731

    Breakdown of TB / AGE incidents by Regions:

    1. South-eastern Region (140 incidents – 36% of countrywide incidents)
    2. Southern Region (125 incidents – 32%)
    3. Eastern Region (36 incidents – 9%)
    4. Central Region (34 incidents – 9%)
    5. Western Region (21 incidents – 5%)
    6. North-eastern Region (21 incidents – 5%)
    7. Northern Region (16 incidents – 4%)
    8. Central Highlands (0 incidents)

    Helmand still represents almost 36% of total Afghan violence [technically Nimruz + Helmand, but Nimruz is pretty quiet.] This is despite the Marines performing very well, and significant improvements in 215th ANA Corps [by my count 10 ANA combat infantry battalion HQs and 36 combat infantry maneuver companies] and ANCOP; and ISAF/GIRoA throwing everything they have at Helmand.

    The good news is the Mullah Omar centric QST has been defeated in Marjah. But they are far from beaten in Sangin and many parts of Northern and Southern Helmand.

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You are currently reading "Operation Dragon Strike and the Taliban in Kandahar", entry #5737 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,Pakistan and was published November 11th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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