The Strategic Disaster of Helmand

by Joshua Foust on 9/3/2009 · 4 comments

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The on-going saga of operations in Helmand, which have lacked strategic or historical coherence, is a somewhat old story for readers of this blog. However, Prospect Magazine has one of the strongest condemnations of the campaign I’ve yet seen:

Under siege that first summer (of 2006), the British defended their ramparts with heavy weapons and air power. The fighting reduced parts of Sangin to rubble, destroyed Musa Qala’s mosque, and drove the population out of other towns. Almost no meaningful reconstruction was carried out. The base at Musa Qala was eventually abandoned in a truce with the Taliban, but during the winter of 2006-07 the British clung on elsewhere. General David Richards, then Nato commander in Kabul (and now incoming head of the army), later told me that hanging on to these outposts had little strategic impact beyond helping to save face with the Afghans…

Did it work? Not entirely. The military did its bit, taking the town with minimal civilian casualties. But even with President Hamid Karzai kept informed and large subsidies available, the civilian agencies, including Britain’s foreign office and development department, and the Afghan government came nowhere near to doing their part. Promised aid arrived at a trickle and the Afghan military provided too few troops. As Mackay would later reflect, a counterinsurgency campaign could separate insurgents from the population only with unity of military and civilian effort. But this was hardly an easy task with a mostly illiterate Afghan bureaucracy, and with little money trickling down to make people believe the Afghan government was a force for good.

Indeed, the entire essay is difficult to summarize. For once, I’m reading a description of Michael Semple’s activities in Helmand that actually makes sense, rather than trying to cover up Hamid Karzai’s assumption that he was undermining the government’s authority. I’m still curious why he expected these men to negotiate in good faith, but this is the first time his efforts didn’t seem sinister in some way.

It’s also interesting that the British are claiming ignorance of the pervasiveness of the drug trade there—when I first began studying Afghan counternarcotics in early 2006, it was clear in the literature what was going on; did they just not do their homework? (Sadly, it seems, the answer is “yes.”)

To frame things by the current debate, the US and British Special Forces attempts to “decapitate” the leadership of various competing factions—the counter-terrorism mission many of the de-escalation types want us to revert back to—seem to have actually undermined any chances for a negotiated end to the fighting (that is, and here’s where I still doubt Semple’s utility as a negotiator, if anyone planned on keeping their promises).

“Musa Qala showed,” Steven Grey writes, “that there is little point winning ground for an Afghan government regarded as corrupt and unable to deliver basic security.” Well, that’s very true. But the certainty with which both Grey and Semple want the rely on “tribal compromise” leaves me deeply worried that they’re going to force a chance from military missteps to political ones. No matter what Semple says, he does not know the intricacies of tribal relationships in Helmand if he lives on a farm on the outskirts of Islamabad. And he will be played for a fool, and played very hard and very skilfully.

Those sorts of blunders might actually be harder to undo at the end of the day. As Grey says, there is a risk to everything—fighting, the (apparently not?) discarded concept of “masterly inactivity,” and even attempts at negotiated settlement.

So while Grey is deft at portraying the missteps we’ve made, he still doesn’t seem to have his head wrapped around the “what next” anymore than the rest of us.

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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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Anthony September 3, 2009 at 2:56 pm

From a British perspective, I think it’s a very good article, simply because Grey has been willing to look at things from angles that a great many journalists on this side of the pond have largely ignored notably the “Helmandshire” complex and the fact that the Army’s own hands are not clean when it comes to examining the sources of British failure.. I agree that on the issue of negotiations, there’s a lot of meat to be put on the bones. There are lots of areas I’d like to see more detail on. But as a journalistic magazine piece, I think it’s very good indeed.

Paul C September 4, 2009 at 6:25 am

“No matter what Semple says, he does not know the intricacies of tribal relationships in Helmand if he lives on a farm on the outskirts of Islamabad. And he will be played for a fool, and played very hard and very skilfully.”

I didn’t get on with Mike Semple when I worked with him in Afghanistan, but there are few other westerners with the same length and breadth of experience of working in Afghanistan (including the south) and Pakistan; and he’s definitely not a fool. So if anybody knows the intricacies of those relationships, and is in a position to act as a mediator, it would be him.

Dafydd September 4, 2009 at 7:59 am

If we are ever to negotiate with the Taliban, we need them to have an experienced, older leadership.

20 & 30 something year olds will not negotiate in the same way as someone the other side of forty who has been moving house every six weeks for the last so many years.

David M September 4, 2009 at 9:31 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/04/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

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