A Tale of Two Offensives, About the Same Offensive

by Joshua Foust on 7/1/2009 · 8 comments

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Washington Post:

Thousands of U.S. Marines descended upon the volatile Helmand River valley in helicopters and armored convoys early Thursday morning, mounting an operation that represents the first large-scale test of the U.S. military’s new counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan…

Once Marine units arrive in their designated towns and villages, they have been instructed to build and live in small outposts among the local population. The brigade’s commander, Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, said his Marines will focus their efforts on protecting civilians from the Taliban, and on restoring Afghan government services, instead of a series of hunt-and-kill missions against the insurgents.


U.S. troops have launched a “major operation” against Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan, U.S. military officials announced in Afghanistan early Thursday.

About 4,000 Americans, mostly from the Marines, and 650 Afghan soldiers and police launched Operation Khanjar — “strike of the sword” — in the Helmand River valley, the U.S. command in Kabul announced.

The push is the largest since the Pentagon began moving additional troops into the conflict this year, and it follows a British-led operation launched last week in the same region, the Marines said.

Well, I can say that Chandrasekaran’s offensive sounds like it has tremendous promise, while the CNN one does not. They’re talking about the same thing, though. It takes CNN.com a while to mention the very salient point that the Marines are not in fact “going after the Taliban” but trying to do what they did in Iraq some years ago: get off the FOBs and get into the communities to protect the people where they actually live. Chandrasekaran’s account is interesting for another reason, as well:

The U.S. strategy here is predicated on the belief that a majority of people in Helmand do not favor the Taliban, which enforces a strict brand of Islam that includes an eye-for-an-eye justice and strict limits on personal behavior. Instead, U.S. officials believe, residents would rather have the Afghan government in control, but they have been cowed into supporting the Taliban because there was nobody to protect them.

I’m not certain they have that right. The challenges of an area like Helmand have almost as much to do with severe government corruption (and a perceived non-corruption in the Taliban) as it does the government just not governing well. Protection is one thing; governance is another. Helmand used to be a pretty okay place to be; since 2005 or so, though, it’s gone down the toilet. The government “not protecting” the population is only one part of that much bigger story.

Then again, the Marines are saying their focus is “getting the government back on its feet.” Okay. That’s been our focus since 2002. What are they doing about that now that is any different? And can the Marines do that without a significant amount of civilian support?

I’ll also be interested to see how the grander political side of this plays out. Chandrasekaran has filed previous reports about the aggressive “Americanization” of the war; and in Helmand in particular there is a (tiny) growing contention that the British continue to muck things up and the Marines have to come fix them. The British have tried doing something similar last week, with their ostentatious mega air assault.

In Kandahar, the Canadians are trying their own fanning-into-the-villages thing under the “key villages” program. As milnews.ca points out, the problem is that they’re doing that to try to “protect” Kandahar.

I wonder if the Taliban is spinning this approach with messaging to the rural areas something like, “you get to fight and die to keep the big cities safe” yet?

I wonder the same thing myself. Chandrasekaran has recorded the Marines saying all the right things, and even most of the above concerns. In the absence of any Afghan soldiers (Chandrasekaran says 500, CNN says 650, for an 11,000-Marine group), State, or USAID personnel, they’ve sent 50 Civil Affairs types to the area. Doing development work like this is not the Corps’ natural mission, but they’ve been itching to take over the south. And now they have.

Good luck to them. They certainly will need it.

Conceding Territory, and What It Means

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

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 Registan.net. 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

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


Kathleen Cook July 2, 2009 at 6:34 am

I am the mother of one of those 20 yr. old Marines, and you could sound a bit more supportive of our guys over there, don’t you think? Are you an American? Or are you a transplant????????

Joshua Foust July 2, 2009 at 6:37 am

Pardon me? Did it suddenly become 2002 again?

Nathan July 2, 2009 at 7:31 am

I am hard pressed to find out what was so unsupportive in this post.

BruceR July 2, 2009 at 8:09 am

Not sure the Canadian experience is comparable. They have always been focussed on the rural population. What’s been happening now is they’ve been trading unmanageable isolated posts, farther from the city, to concentrate more resources on currently more peaceful areas closer to the city. It’s more like a fire-break strategy: to keep the fire from the city you first have to get out in front of it, etc.

It’s a shame for those farther from the city we thought we could protect and now can’t, but I’m not sure we had much in the way of an alternative. Population-wise in Kandahar Province, the city is the whole ballgame, with the density gradient fanning out from it: farther away means fewer people. It follows that, whether you’re trying to inkblot or not, you simply have to reestablish dominance in the “suburbs” to it before you can safely re-dedicate resources to those less-populated regions farther away. Helmand, with multiple medium-sized population centres as opposed to one large one, is a different game in that respect.

tequila July 2, 2009 at 8:11 am

Good God, I wish I was with them.

Alan July 2, 2009 at 9:04 am

I dont like the expression “British Mucking things up and the Marines having to fix it..” We British are having men and women killed and injured almost daily in Afghanestand and we are fighting alonside our American Counsins.

You seem to have forgotten – after 9/11 it was Britain who sent combat troops to Afghanestine and Iraq – you were attacked and we supported you. What did our so called NATO allies do? Unlike Britain they forgot that an attack on one members is an attack on us all.

Joshua Foust July 2, 2009 at 9:09 am


I am sorry for the confusion. I was referring to the attitude amongst many U.S. troops, not any sort of objective analysis of British contributions and sacrifices to the overall effort.

Michael July 2, 2009 at 11:14 am

Sending our troops in and not going after the Taliban and eliminating as much of the threat as possible sounds like a mistake. Our boys are going to be there in the small outposts they build and it won’t be long before the Taliban strategically targets them one by one. I fear this new, less aggresive strategy will cost more American lives than necessary for this operation.

Previous post:

Next post: