In July, I noted that this was the fourth year in a row that ISAF troops had swept through Garmsir, Helmand. The fighting had been following a sadly familiar pattern: sweep through, get a few months of success, fail to fundamentally change ground conditions, repeat next year. The Marines seemed convinced that they had it right this time, but I wasn’t sure:
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…
[T]he 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.
It’s interesting to contrast that assessment with this Ian Pannell report on the BBC. There are children playing on Eid, a market teeming with motorcycles. The good Lieutenant-Colonel buys ice cream for the camera.
Here’s the thing: they’re saying all the right things. They did last year, and the Brits did the few years before that. Winning consent, holding and building, everything—we know the right things to say. But while Mr. Pannell ably showcases what the Marines can do when several hundred occupy a town, I didn’t see any indication of that local governance they mentioned so many times. Where were the Afghan police? I think I saw an Afghan general… where were his troops?
The Deputy District Sub-Governor says ISAF only controls 25% of the district, and even then they only hold it as long as the Marines keep an entire battalion stationed there. For such a relatively small area, that’s a pretty big commitment of troops. And again, missing in action here is the lesson of Musa Qala—if the government is absent or corrupt, there’s little point in winning ground for it.
In other words, there needs to be a permanent, civilian presence left behind that can establish the responsive local government COIN requires. And that just isn’t happening right now.