Helmand (Avoidably) Teeters

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by Joshua Foust on 9/1/2009 · 17 comments

Last November, when Michael Yon wrote his story about the ++successful top secret delivery of some turbines to the Kajakai Dam in northern Helmand, I wondered:

But the fundamental objection to it remains: is it smart to build an expensive, borderline indefensible power station when you cannot provide basic security and services to the nearby villagers? This turbine camp represents, along with all the hope and sunshine, an enormous, juicy target for militants or drug lords seeking a way to poison the entire southern effort. …

The south faces enormous challenges, among them basic security and economics. Kajaki has been considered too dangerous for development work for many years at this point. Other places in Helmand—Lashkar Gah, for example—have far bigger needs than a few more hours of electricity per day. Yet an enormous amount of money, troops, and equipment is being expended to complete a construction project that will inspire prayer for every day it isn’t fatally undermined.

Am I alone in thinking we could be spending our time, money, resources, and (most importantly) manpower in a much better way?

Yon filed another dispatch today. It’s juicy.

The leadership tells us that the Taliban and associated groups control only small parts of the country. Yet enemy influence is growing, and so far, despite that we have made progress on some fronts, our own influence is diminishing… The latest ground resupply effort from Camp Bastion resulted in much fighting. The troops up at Kajaki Dam are surrounded by the enemy, which has dug itself into actual “FLETs.” FLET is military-speak for “Forward Line of Enemy Troops.” In other words, the enemy is not hiding, but they are in trenches, bunkers and fighting positions that extend into depth. The enemy owns the terrain.

The British are protecting Kajaki Dam but otherwise it’s just a big fight and no progress is being made. The turbine delivery to the dam, which I wrote about last year, was a tremendous success. Efforts to get the turbine online have been an equally tremendous failure. Bottom line: the project to restore the electrical capacity from Kajaki Dam is failing and likely will require multi-national intervention to bring it online and to push back the enemy…

The Taliban is in complete and uncontested control of the nearby power station. We don’t even have enough soldiers to take and hold the power station, and so the enemy controls the on/off switch, and they charge locals for power. While we generate electricity up at Kajaki, the Taliban makes money off it. It’s no wonder why the Taliban laugh at the idea of negotiating

It sounds like we spent all our time and money focusing on that damned dam—a grand infrastructure project to point to and boast of how much development money we’ve spent—instead of laying the fundamental groundwork to make the dam even viable in the first place.

This isn’t to gloat about being right that installing the dam last year was a bad idea that would make things worse off—in fact, I don’t like being right about that. But this is part of a bigger concern I’ve had that the entire campaign in Helmand was ill-advised from the start: it had no plan, no consideration for the land as it is, and no real strategy beyond perpetuating the failed and destructive counternarcotics campaign. From Yon’s last post, it’s sinking in that many of those men and women are fighting bravely for something no one can define.

It is past time for a bottom-up re-evaluation of the operations we are conducting in Afghanistan (the top-down reviews seem to generate only more confusion). Almost to a T, operations in Afghanistan lack strategic considerations, demonstrate not even basic (I mean really basic) IPB diligence, or thought of any exogenous or cultural factors that might mitigate an operation’s impact. If I may be provocative: it is just lazy planning. It is why I wonder openly if we are deliberately trying to lose, since we show no indication that we actually want to win.

Yon thinks we can bridge most of these gaps with more troops; considering the enormous influx of troops into Helmand has been accompanied by a rapid deterioration in that province’s security, I wonder—just what exactly will those extra troops be used for? We are badly misusing the ones we have now; why will misusing more troops fix the war?

Photo: Ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles at the Kajakai Dam in Helmand Province, courtesy the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.


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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 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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{ 17 comments }

Brian September 1, 2009 at 1:15 pm

Soooo I’m new to reading your work regularly Josh, but I’m wondering, can you posit a potential strategy(ies) that *might* help and how we might put them in place?

I’ve probably missed an earlier post you’ve made on this topic, but right now it seems you are doing an awesome job explaining why the current strategy won’t work, but not providing much in the way of what can be done next.

Would love to put our heads together privately on this if that makes sense to you.

I’d posit:

1. fund the Pentagon/ISAF/NATO to do HOLD work and little/nothing else, use the leftovers of that 97 billion acquisition to further supplement the meager 4.4 billion budget USAID has for Afghanistan AND Pakistan combined.
2. build collaborations between local leaders and foreign professionals, put local afghans to work where possible participating in the construction (i purposefully dont say reconstruction here) and development of the region.
3. bring the various players i the region to a negotiating table, we need multipartite talks dedicated to stabilizing Afghanistan rather than using it as a lesser southwest asia version of the DRC, where various States can play out their proxy wars/training on Afghan territory.
4. throw everyone involved in fraud in jail and out of the electoral process
5. consider recognizing that whether or not we are “legally” an occupation, we are “actually” an occupation, and investigate how it may affect the situation on the ground if we return to acting like an occupation authority, taking responsibility for security(not necessarily with our own troops, but certainly at a minimum overseeing local troops), and taking responsibility for the defragmentation of the country and establishment of solidarity networks that can be woven together to create something resembling a nation/state.
6. recognize that Afghans are no different from Germans and that perhaps there is more to learn from the occupation of Japan than the occupation of Germany and the Marshall Plan.

This is just initial thinking, i expect to get wide critique, but please understand this is a “comment” and not a well-thought/well-constructed “treatise” etc.

AJK September 1, 2009 at 8:47 pm

oh cool, small world news!
I’m not going to go point-by-point, and I’m not Josh, but I know he’s mentioned micro-hydro-power in the past. MHP actually makes a good deal of sense; it’s cheap and replacable, it’s easy to train locals to operate/maintain a plant, and they work really well in Afghanistan’s environment (less so in the flatter south…but at least rivers don’t freeze as much there). I expounded a bit on it myself…it’s not a bad plan. Just not sexy.

Also, Josh’s “++successful” makes me think of cuteoverload.com, which is not entirely a bad thing.

Steve Connors September 1, 2009 at 1:21 pm

““FLETs.” FLET is military-speak for “Forward Line of Enemy Troops.” In other words, the enemy is not hiding, but they are in trenches, bunkers and fighting positions that extend into depth. The enemy owns the terrain.”

Dubious! Or this bunch of “guerrilla’s” has missed out in the Afghan gene pool stakes. Or taken leave of its collective senses. Or both.

Péter September 1, 2009 at 2:08 pm

It’s not dubious, in fact. There are FLETs all over the place that one can approximately mark on maps – in some cases because there are trenches even, yes. And no, the insurgents are not stupid – to the contrary. They know British troops won’t be so foolish, after years’ of experience, as to attack everywhere, and then try to hold ground everywhere, all at once. They know that the British know how much of the terrain they can safely hold.
Josh: drawing the conclusion that the troop injection into Helmand brought a “rapid deterioration of security” is, I think, rushing judgment a little. I am not surprised that as troops enter terrain that they need to take, it brings about more fighting.
The real problem is, simpifying it: if the Taliban would somehow be pushed out of entire Afghanistan (and not only out of the next village over the hill where the former FLET used to be), but they could still regroup and hold out across the border in Baluchistan and in the FATA, then, self-evidently, a non-everlasting troop presence may bring only temporary benefits. In the absence of other steps.

Joshua Foust September 1, 2009 at 3:39 pm

Péter, since 2007, when the troops in Helmand province began rising noticeably each year, there has been a marked deterioration in security—and not just because there are more of them. Though, that in and of itself would need to be examined, if the mere presence of troops is enough to increase the number of attacks, then surely they should be deployed or postured in a way that those attacks will eventually be minimized?

But that hasn’t happened. I think because they’ve gone in without really having a plan, they’ve seen their total environment become worse off. It’s not that outlandish a causation to draw, even if it is not fully supported and remains in the realm of speculation.

Péter September 1, 2009 at 4:14 pm

Ok, but then you’re referring to more long-term effects, and not the direct effects of the current operations in and of themselves.
Otherwise this point is entirely legit to address, of course. Being on the “rim” of the space where ISAF or whoever is present possibly means being air-strike-d as we know. Plus one’s poppy harvest is less safe as well. Sure that could provoke some violence.
And sure if there wouldn’t be a single ISAF and other foreign soldier in Helmand, there would be peace in a Taliban sort of way. But that’s not what one would want to be manoeuvring at I guess.
Living in more stably ISAF-controlled areas, rather than on the edge of them, could be better, possibly, but even there one shouldn’t underestimate the effect of IEDs going off, and patrols returning fire and calling in CAS if they are engaged. Not to mention that some of the people certainly do not welcome the foreign troops, and especially do not welcome them if they are there to stay.
But even so, for the majority of people, I’d risk saying, the most important thing is for fighting in their area to end. So they can attend their fields (and whatever they grow there). You know my position: it’s a sin when such areas are not protected – only swept clear and then left behind on numerous occasions – where the key local leaders would not be supportive of the Taliban.

Steve Connors September 1, 2009 at 2:22 pm

“The real problem is, simpifying it: if the Taliban would somehow be pushed out of entire Afghanistan (and not only out of the next village over the hill where the former FLET used to be), but they could still regroup and hold out across the border in Baluchistan and in the FATA, then, self-evidently, a non-everlasting troop presence may bring only temporary benefits. In the absence of other steps.”

Peter, are you saying here that a FLET is really a village? If so, are at least some of the “Taliban” villagers? And is the Yon piece bemoaning the inability to use air strikes against the FLET’s?

Péter September 1, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Well, how to begin to answer? Not so easy in fact.
A FLET is not really a FLET in fact. FLET is effectively just milspeak for something that will sometimes truly be a line of trenches and obstacles. In other places it will be an irrigation ditch running past a nearby village, a village that is thus beyond the “FLET.” It varies from place to place. A clearer FLET is set up in areas where the insurgents know the other side is not going to make a move soon. But still they watch out carefully for any kind of movement, with their spotters who are ideally positioned to give early warning of troops leaving base, for example.
The really problematic thing is that there could as well be no one where the FLET is supposed to be. No point in just pounding a location with air strikes. But it may also be that once you stick out your head from behind a mud wall, bullets start flying around you.
That’s my reading of the situation, not having done this myself.
Still elsewhere the FLET will be just a line beyond which there is increased danger according to experience. More chance of encountering an IED, say. FLET is an abstraction that you constantly need to operationalise (and revise accordingly). Soldiers are pragmatic people, and you can’t just throw concepts such as “360-degree battlefield” at them. They will want to know where their place is there, on it.
As to the Kajaki area, to my knowledge you often have artificial caves set up there in places. Naturally adequate firing positions on high ground elsewhere. Sometimes a patrol would find them and try to render them useless, blowing up stuff. But it’s a never-ending game for now.
There is no point in stretching over the FLET area (taking it) if one doesn’t have the troops to stably hold ground there, and one’s supply lines just become more complicated as a result.

Péter September 1, 2009 at 4:00 pm

Oh, and there was the question whether some of the villagers are Taliban. It could very well be, of course. But it makes a difference whether they are beyond the FLET or not. For example, as far as their motivation is concerned. Will they keep on working with the insurgents once ISAF is in town? (And not for just two days or three weeks, ideally…) Will they have the same opportunities to do that? The answer varies here as well, depending on lots of variables.

Steve Connors September 1, 2009 at 4:20 pm

Thanks for the clarification Pieter. You see I am naturally suspicious when I see the words “insurgent positions”. They’re words that don’t fit together except for a brief spell – usually an ambush setup.

I spent a lot of time in Afghanistan and most of the Muj types I met along the way would have laughed heartily at the idea of expending so much time and energy digging defensive entrenchments. It’s a very Western idea.

Péter September 1, 2009 at 5:14 pm

Believe me, trenches were dug many times during Afghanistan’s wars. Especially relevant post-2001 examples include relatively bigger battles in Zhari and Panjwai districts where they were extensively employed. I heard of trenches left behind in the Baluchi valley, in Uruzgan, when that valley was cleared in late 2007. And so on. Trenches are dug where they are needed because they make perfect sense in addition to the maze of irrigation ditches that are available in many places.
As to even more serious defensive complexes, Osama bin Laden made a name for himself by contributing to the building of one such complex, and then even taking part in defending it, in Jaji, back in the 1980s.

Steve Connors September 2, 2009 at 7:55 am

Peter,
I’m not trying to be argumentative, really, but what you’re talking about here are hastily dug fire-trenches or – more commonly – the utilization of other works that have been dug for another purpose; often irrigation.

Michael Yon’s piece gives another impression; of an army dug in, within spitting distance of Nato troops who find themselves in the dignity destroying position of being unable to do anything about it. That’s what I challenge.

BruceR September 2, 2009 at 8:37 am

Um, you don’t need trenches in Zhari-Panjwaii. Between the grapehuts, the inter-field walls, the grape rows themselves, and the berms around the irrigation ditches, there’s more than enough cover from direct fire.

In Z-P was you saw all those “natural” barriers improved upon by the insurgents if you gave them the time (ie, with shell scrapes or fire positions dug into the side of an irrigation ditch, or tunnels dug under houses), not formal trenchlines. I suspect it’s much the same in Helmand, if only because NATO still has more than enough air power to kill anything hostile found in a fixed position isolated from the local population there. I agree with Steve that Yon’s using a bit of hyperbole here. To say they’re “dug in and entrenched” in their positions is not to say they have “trench lines” per se.

Péter September 3, 2009 at 1:23 pm

When I’m saying that, borrowing Steve’s exact words from above, “hastily-dug fire-trenches,” were used at times, including in Panjway and Zhari, I am relying on open sources that sometimes claim more than that.
As it was reported during Operation Medusa: “The combat – involving deep trenches, insurgents buried in bunkers and sniper positions in deserted buildings – was in many ways old school. ‘It was Normandy invasion-style tactics,” said Col Williams, speaking beside a field of marijuana plants. “Call it world war Pashmul.'”
(see here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/sep/25/afghanistan.declanwalsh)
Sure there are many natural barriers as you will know this much better than me – and the sort of defence that was put up in “Z-P” then was not typical of course (I didn’t say it was typical).

Péter September 3, 2009 at 4:30 pm

I have commented on this already, but since I included a link, it ended up waiting in the moderation queue. Nathan, Josh, feel free to delete it from there. For the sake of reacting within a reasonable amount of time, I’m posting essentially the same thing without the link this time:
“When I’m saying that, borrowing Steve’s exact words from above, “hastily-dug fire-trenches,” were used at times, including in Panjway and Zhari, I am relying on open sources that sometimes claim more than that.
As it was reported by several sources during Operation Medusa: “The combat – involving deep trenches, insurgents buried in bunkers and sniper positions in deserted buildings – was in many ways old school.” (This quote is from the Guardian.)
Sure there are many natural barriers in Afghanistan, as you will know this much better than me – and the sort of defence that was put up in “Z-P” then was not typical of course (and I didn’t say it was typical).”

Njarl September 2, 2009 at 11:58 am

A good analysis of how things stand in Helmand right now – and the lack of a real strategy:
http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2009/08/cracking-on-in-helmand/

Joshua Foust September 3, 2009 at 12:03 pm

I did see that, and I’m working on a post about it. Thanks!

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