Conceding Territory, and What It Means

by Joshua Foust on 5/4/2009 · 6 comments

Canada has decided to withdraw a permanent presence from Panjwai, a hard-won district to the west of Kandahar. It’s not quite the same as “conceding territory,” at least in the way the National Post headline puts it, but it’s close. No matter how often the Canadians will be able to patrol there, it still won’t be as much as if they had a permanent network of bases in the area. The reasoning behind the decision is worrisome:

The dismantling of a police substation in Mushan village signals the start of a new strategy that will see Canadian Forces troops move closer to Kandahar City…

In a briefing Sunday with reporters at Kandahar Air Field, Canadian officers explained that the 64 Afghans stationed inside the fortress, with a rotation of eight Canadian military mentors, were not able to disrupt insurgent activity in the area.

The village is about 40 kilometres west of Kandahar Air Field.

It is now under Taliban control, the officers said, as is much of the Panjwaii peninsula, an area of some 160 square kilometres where poppy is a major cash crop for insurgents.

The Canadian officers deny that Canada has abandoned the local population.

It is hoped that Canadian soldiers and their Afghan National Army counterparts can have greater effect by focusing on security in and around provincial capital, where the vast majority of Kandaharis live.

Maybe David Kilcullen is rubbing off on them, as well. In all seriousness, though, this indicates two things about the fight in RC-South:

  • There is widespread frustration amongst both Afghans and Westerners that current methods have been ineffective;
  • There are insufficient troops to provide adequate security.
  • Someone up the chain has decided that Kandahar City is more important than the outlying districts, where the insurgency resides;
  • The Canadian military is unable to sell this in a way other than it ultimately helps the Taliban.

Okay, that was four. Anyway, those four things are, in a word, disastrous. But what if it could be done properly? This is not, after all, the first time a district has been conceded. Under different circumstances, the British abandoned Musa Qala District in Helmand—just west of Panjwai. Looking at what happened there, considering the prominent (and failed) role local militias, partnering with elders, and reconciliation with the Taliban played in tossing the entire district into chaos, could offer important lessons for Panjwai.

For starters, Musa Qala is, like Panjwai, an area with strategic importance. It sits along the Helmand river just south and west of the Kajakai dam, and is one of the few gateways north into Uruzgan. Heavy fighting in Musa Qala in 2006 led to the deaths of several government leaders and several British soldiers. On February 2, 2006, Musa Qala District Sub-Governor Abdul Quddus, along with 27 other people, died during a large scale gunfight near the district capital. Amir Jan, the governor of neighboring Sangin Province, died when fighting erupted near his vacation home in Musa Qala less than a month later. By August 2006, the British military had become so fatigued of the near-constant heavy combat at remote outposts that they negotiated through a tribal council a secret deal with some Taliban militants to concede control of the province in exchange for a reduction in militancy. The deal required local elders to raise their own tribal militias to provide security.

Many Afghan newspapers lauded the arrangement, saying they “benefit our people.”

Based on the agreement with tribal leaders in Musa Qala, NATO forces evacuated that district one month ago and the tribal elders promised to ensure security in the district. Although some ill-informed or opposition circles tried, for various reasons, to exploit this for propaganda purposes, the fact is that such decisions benefit our people. In any district where people reach such an accord with NATO, they ensure many benefits for themselves. The first benefit is that the nation supports the government. When the nation and tribal leaders establish such strong relations with the government that they even guarantee security, what else could the Afghan authorities and the international community want? (Weesa, Kabul. “NATO on course for mutual understanding with tribal leaders.” BBC Monitoring South Asia, 02 November 2006.)

The euphoria over the deal was short lived. Taliban commanders quickly hailed the withdrawal of 120 British troops as a “victory,” and within three months had full control of the District Center and most of the District. On February 2, 2007, a group of several hundred Taliban fighters “overran” Musa Qala town, prompting a wave of U.S. air strikes that killed many civilians and at least one suspected militant leader. The Musa Qala elders begged for help, but neither the government nor the British responded. Some newspapers in Kabul noted the “lessons to be learned” from the incident:

About three weeks have passed since Musa Qala district was captured by insurgents, but the government has not yet adopted any serious measures relating to this. Interior Ministry spokesperson Zmarai Bashari said yesterday that a plan for recapturing Musa Qala district had been worked out and that they were waiting for an order from senior authorities. He also said that law-enforcement is the police’s duty, but the police cannot enforce the law just through using AK-47s.

Zmarai Bashari’s words are entirely true, because the international community has not really helped our police or army as expected and in the way deemed necessary. But we could also say that the law can be enforced through police presence. So, if there are no police, insurgents can easily capture districts one after the other and keep them under control. (Cheragh, Kabul. “The continuous collapse of districts is a matter of surprise.” BBC Monitoring South Asia, 21 February 2007)

One benefit of the British withdrawal from Musa Qala was the reassignment of military assets to other areas. Shortly after leaving Musa Qala, the British focused on securing the Kajaki Dam in neighboring Kajaki District. The dam is of enormous value to southern Afghanistan, as it can potentially supply steady electricity to millions of people. In 2006, repair work on the 1960s era American-built dam had been halted because of a wave of attacks from a nearby Taliban base. The British, freed of their commitments in Musa Qala, destroyed the base in early January of 2007, and engineers began a much-publicized project to restore the dam to full capacity.

For much of 2007, Musa Qala languished under Taliban control. Scattered reports indicated the widespread house arrest of tribal leaders who had attempted to raise their own police force. Several men the Taliban accused of spying for ISAF were hanged. The Taliban launched more than one offensive from captured territory in Musa Qala to establish control of nearby areas. According to several accounts, they imposed harsh taxes and shut down both boys’ and girls’ schools. However, few of these attacks were directed at British troops.

In 2007, American forces occasionally violated the terms of the British-Taliban ceasefire through air strikes and limited troop incursions. After six months of occupation, the Taliban had lost several commanders and several hundred fighters to combat, but still saw little more than fighter jets overhead or occasional columns of armored vehicles on patrols intended to “disrupt and confuse” the militants. However, these violations were ineffective in affecting the makeup of the insurgent forces holding the area. Even so, by the end of 2007 widespread rumors of an impending Western offensive to retake the District Center caused residents to flee the area en masse.

The effort to retake the district center was notable for how it involved enlisting a tribal elder who had defected, and during those negotiations the two lead British agents were deported, but that is beyond the scope of this post. The significant thing is, digging the Taliban back out during the December 2007 battles in Helmand proved difficult, and much more dangerous than normal battles against Taliban militants. The year they were in power was a year they had to establish safe havens, build caches, and terrorize the locals.

In other words, while there may be some sore of strategic calculus in abandoning entire swaths of territory to the Taliban, in the end it actually makes everyone worse off.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 6 comments } May 5, 2009 at 9:26 am

The Commander of Canada’s Expeditionary Command telegraphed this in an interview at the end of 2008:
““….We will continue to separate the insurgents from the people (in 2009), but our broader focus has to be on the population — stabilizing in Kandahar City and building a stronger sense of security in the populated approaches to the city, while we support Afghan solutions and build their capacity to protect and look after their people. This will be the essence of our focus: where most Kandaharis live and sleep….”

Joshua Foust May 5, 2009 at 9:41 am

Milnews, I get how they’re selling it. Buried underneath all this talk is the silliness of assuming the majority of Kandaharis live in Kandahar City. It is simply not true. Kandahar is a concentration of Afghan citizens — one of the biggest in the country. But the equivalent is pretending that because Kabul has five million people, that’s where “the vast majority” of Afghans live.

Then there is the larger issue: are the people of Kandahar better served by hunkering down in defensive crouches around KAF? Or are they better served by having an expeditionary force out in places like Panjwai (which isn’t a “penninsula” since it’s nowhere near a major body of water) stopping the insurgents before they ever get there.

Indeed, the biggest issue with this policy — which, as you point out, is not new — is that it reeks of assuming the old Soviet approach of focusing on the cities and assuming the countryside will take care of itself. Sending the message to rural Kandaharis that troops will leave if the going gets too hard is a pretty good way to undermine whatever small amounts of support we have been building there. May 5, 2009 at 9:55 am

As for the silliness of assuming most Kandaharis live in town, I wonder how much of this is part of the mindset of those planning the ops? I don’t mean the in-theatre planners – when the worst of centralist bureaucrats plan, how much of their “central control of assets in big centres is the best way” attitude seeps into the planning?

How about a more optimistic view/spin: with all these other surge troops coming in, and (in the case of Canada’s announced “end of the military mission” by 2011), the Afghans and the surgers can deal with the outrider districts now.

I like the idea of more out in the hinterland, but the problems with the “platoon house” idea of having troops all over the countryside include:
1) you need LOTS of troops to sustain the model;
2) you need a longish timeframe (both in deployments and overall commitment) to make it keep working; and
3) you still need some honkin’ assembly of troops as QRF if the troops in the boonies are at risk of being overrun.

I agree on the “you can’t keep the place safe from a few big fortresses” idea – Dien Bien Phu anyone?

Joshua Foust May 5, 2009 at 10:12 am

It very easily could be. I don’t know, to be honest. But the link to Kilcullen above I think gets at a common misperception that many in government circles has, namely that the structure and geography of the country lend themselves to concrete, easily definable solutions.

I think you lay out the limitations of forward outposts pretty well. The thing is, I look at that and see the urgent need to have more of them, deployed to more choke points; RC-South, it seems, sees that and thinks it should try something much more limited in scope.

Which brings us back to the mega-fortress problem. May 8, 2009 at 9:40 pm

Re: “I think you lay out the limitations of forward outposts pretty well. The thing is, I look at that and see the urgent need to have more of them, deployed to more choke points; RC-South, it seems, sees that and thinks it should try something much more limited in scope.” Is it RC-South limiting how it’s done, or Canada deciding to suck back, hunker down and wait for (at last word) the “combat mission” to end in 2011? Where are all the surge troops going? Into battle as opposed to into platoon houses, I suppose.

Also, the latest rationale for the pull-out from Panjwai, from Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff, courtesy of CanWest News Service:
“Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk told Canwest News Service in an interview this week the Mushan strong point did not have its intended effect, which was to help clear the area of Taliban. Instead, the installation drew insurgents to Mushan like moths to a flame. “The Taliban hate our guts,” noted Natynczyk. “So if we’re in there, the Taliban will come. You have the Taliban who can move into some areas and intimidate people, which makes it very hard on them. The folks out there are really on the edge. I mean, I think they’ve been banged up a lot by the Taliban.”….”
More here: June 30, 2009 at 9:32 pm

More rationale details on the new approach, from Canadian Forces PRT members writing for Canada’s Afghanistan Mission web page.

“…. In Kandahar Province, stabilization teams, or “stab teams”, are deployed into the villages along the key routes into Kandahar City to secure and stabilize them. The result will be to deny the insurgents the use of their traditional staging, resting and transiting areas, thus ensuring a more secure environment in Kandahar City ….” (More here: )

“…. Dand District is one of the areas where my unit, the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team (KPRT), is introducing the “Key Village Approach” to counter-insurgency operations. The idea is to secure and stabilize the villages near Kandahar City to make them better places to live, and much less accessible to the insurgents who use them as staging areas for operations in Kandahar City ….” (More here: )

( A single .pdf of both articles also available here: )

I wonder how many of those in rural areas, some of whom may not already like the foreign presence, have already started thinking, “I get it – they fight here to keep the big city safe”?

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