It’s a Question of Focus

by Joshua Foust on 7/7/2009 · 3 comments

I’ve voiced my concerns about the big push into Helmand: it might be misfocused, it might miss the point, the leaders in charge might not fully understand the problem. But today Rajiv Chandrasekaran drove that home, probably unintentionally: in a story about the recent death toll from the war, he notes that there is very little fighting in Helmand.

Despite the violence elsewhere, the parts of southern Afghanistan that are the focus of a major Marine operation launched last week remained relatively quiet Monday. U.S. commanders believe many Taliban fighters have left areas of Helmand in which the Marines are operating because the insurgents were unprepared for the size of the mission, which involves about 4,000 U.S. troops.

With Nawa eerily calm — the almost daily attacks on the main patrol base in the town center stopped a week ago — the Marines are trying to translate the improved security into lasting changes in the community. They want to reopen the school and clinic here, and they want the police to take a more active role in providing security. The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, flew in by helicopter for a brief visit to the base Monday to reinforce that message.

I will repeat my sincere wish that their efforts permanently improve things. But think about the context of this quiet, huge offensive into “Taliban” territory: another IED in Kunduz kills four; three more die in bombings and gunfights in the Southeast; three more die in a suicide bombing at the gates of Kandahar Air Field.

By now, I thought it had become conventional wisdom that the Taliban learned they can never win on the conventional battlefield—that, rather than staging defiant but futile battles, as they did in the 2002 time frame, they instead slink away when there is a major operation, bide their time, and filter back in when the troops leave to intimidate, harass, and punish the collaborators NATO left behind. They’ve done across the country that since at least 2005, as I documented in an article about successive “waves” of major operations to “clear” insurgents from southern Kapisa province.

So here we have the Helmand insurgency behaving exactly as it does in other provinces, while safe provinces show increasing signs of fracture and violence under Germany’s not-so-benign neglect (see here, for example). Has it not sunk in that “business as usual” doesn’t really work? I’m not aware of anyone who suffers under the illusion that a 4,000-man push into central Helmand is sustainable for the years it will take to properly develop the areas institutions and remaining infrastructure—that is literally a massive investment on a time scale far behind the terrible 12-month window Barack Obama’s advisers have allowed.

So my question about Helmand is: are we missing the point? Does this course of action, right now, make sense when other, more permissive (or worse still, previously permissive) areas of the country are under such dire threat? One of the methods of doctrinal counterinsurgency is to start in the easy areas, make them models, and move into increasingly more difficult ones. The USMC, for some reason, has chosen to jump right into the hardest province in the country to manage—perhaps because they asked to “own” the south, perhaps because that’s the only place we could “surge” more troops, perhaps because of some other reason.

But what I don’t get is: are we really focusing our efforts where they could achieve the most good?

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– 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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Anthony July 7, 2009 at 11:38 am

I’m not sure. I do know, however, that there are a number of British strategists who are of the view that the focus on Helmand (which has resulted in a “Helmandshire” attitude within the British defence community) was misplaced even when it was just the main British focus of effort. The feeling was that it was too much to bite off, there wasn’t much there relating to essential centres of gravity and that a far better focus would have been for a serious Anglo-Canadian attempt to get Kandahar right first. Whether this would have worked out, I’m not sure. But there was certainly an element of “We’re here because we’re here” in what’s actually been happening.

Piotr X July 7, 2009 at 4:26 pm

“Are we really focusing our efforts where they could achieve the most good?”

That, Sir, is an excellent question. I will follow Your example and ask another one: What is the most good?

Is it the will of mothers of US marines? Blue eyed patriots who want to see their kids occupy a little piece of Afghanistan unharmed and believe anything that is fed to them by the media? Or is it the mothers of Pashtun insurgents? Caught in a restricting culture they would like to see their sons and daughters have a decent life in a country that was shaken by various conflicts so many times in the last centuries, only to be held by foreigh forces again.

Or maybe we should look at Zbigniew Brzezinski’s geo-strategic chessboard and state clearly what our elite is after and that we simply need to trample some lives to get there?

I pity every man and women who looses his life.

I was in Afghanistan in 2003 in a quite exceptional visit. I came there not a soldier, but as an express courier, without a Visa. I was still a student at this time and had to deliver some camere objectives for the second german television (ZDF). What I saw there in that short time let my heart freeze. I do not know what good we can do to those people after all the good we had them gulp in the last 20 years.

Fubar. July 7, 2009 at 8:45 pm

It appears a former US General is with you on this one:

“There is unlikely to be anything like a decisive result out of this operation, even in the local area in the short term. Marine commanders will talk up the operation because that is what you do, and the media, Congress and commentators will project their own hopes and desires onto the operation, and then castigate the Marines for not meeting them …. even if this operation goes perfectly it will merely establish small groups of Marines in a number of local areas. This is the right first step. It then requires the re-establishment of local governance, which will take years, and the replacement of the Marines with Afghan troops and police. Trust will only be built up in the eyes of a deeply suspicious local people by a protracted period of careful operations. US Marines are more than capable of doing this if given time, with some of the most successful counterinsurgent operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan behind them, and an intellectual and experienced leadership.”

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