Garmsir, Again

by Joshua Foust on 7/20/2009 · 1 comment

garmsir_bazaar
One of the only non-military photos of the Garmsir bazaar out there.

On July 17, 2006, the Taliban stormed the main bazaar and town in Garmser District of Helmand province, claiming full control of the entire area. In doing so, the militants “struck a deal” with the 20 or so policemen besieged in the District Center, basically trading their lives in return for not returning.

Garmsir was one of two districts in Helmand captured by the Taliban that week. The other was Nawa—the site of the new USMC offensive to “retake” the province. Again. The day of Garmsir’s fall to the Taliban, the Afghan government claimed it had managed to “retake” Nawa after heavy fighting.

Both district captures happened toward the end of the rather pneumatic-sounding Operation Mountain Thrust, an 11,000-man British-led offensive to quell the insurgency in Uruzgan, Helmand, and Kandahar that had begun in mid-May after control of Helmand transferred to the UK. After over a thousand dead Taliban… nothing changed. And at the end of this three-month long, 11,000-man push to clear the Taliban from Southern Afghanistan, they were still occupying entire districts.

Garmsir was retaken from the Taliban, only to fall under their control again a few weeks later. Garmsir was reoccupied yet again in early September, 2006, though even then the Taliban claimed they still controlled events within the area.

For nearly eighteen months, neither side could say conclusively whether they controlled it or not—the government or NATO would claim to have a presence, the Taliban would operate openly in some towns and bazaars. The main road going through the district split it in half, with the British Army in the northern part (mostly Gurkhas) occupying an old fortress they built the last time they were there a hundred years ago, and the Taliban further south. Neither side—NATO or the Taliban—could establish a decisive advantage.

In 2008, when the U.S. Marine Corps was deployed to Helmand, they, too, tried to retake Garmsir. After being sent on a quick, three-day mission to clear the area, they found instead that they’d need to stay there for months to achieve any good. And the Marines were talking all sorts of COIN-y goodness: the need to be among and secure the people, the need to hold the ground they’ve cleared, the need to bring tangible benefits from good governance. They had everything they needed.

Only, as Ann Scott Tyson reports today in the Washington Post, the Marines are still fighting in Garmsir.

Insurgents at times showed unexpected boldness as they used machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades to fight the advancing Marine forces. Although the Marines overpowered the Taliban with more sophisticated weapons, including attack helicopters, the clashes also indicated that the drive by about 4,500 Marines to dislodge the Taliban from its heartland in Helmand is running up against logistical hurdles.

The firefights erupted a day after the Marines raided Lakari Bazaar in Garmsir district, a market that the Taliban has long used to store and make weapons and drugs, as well as to levy taxes on civilians. The Taliban until now had free rein in the area because there had been virtually no Western or Afghan government presence.

We’ve been down this road, and the Marines so far are showing no indication they’ve learned from the previous three years of unsuccessfully countering the Taliban in this area. While they made a big flashy show of tossing grenades into stores they believed were fronts for Taliban weapon and drug smuggling, they didn’t have any assets in the air—helicopters, drones, anything—to track the militants as they ran away. What’s worse, they’ve stretched themselves so far they’re not certain they can “hold” the area, or if they should withdraw to their previous position and allow the Taliban to filter in.

And so it goes, on and on and on—each year a new grand master plan, each time the exact same as the old grand master plan. And the Taliban have wised up to it, and they’re effective at melting away when they need to. I’m worried sick now that Helmand will be immeasurably worse off when the surge wears off and the USMC realizes it is still not set up to support even a relatively meager 4,000 troops forward deployed to secure the relatively small communities along the Helmand River Valley. And every single local who risked his neck to help them will be in grave danger as a result.


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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 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

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{ 1 comment }

David M July 21, 2009 at 8:55 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 07/21/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

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