Rage, Boredom, Misplaced Offensives

by Joshua Foust on 2/3/2010 · 12 comments

The old saying that war is boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror is very much relevant to the fight in Helmand. Over the summer, when the Marines were advertising their latest “surge” into Helmand (at least the third Marine Surge and at least the fifth misfocused ISAF surge into the province), many expressed surprise at the Taliban’s propensity to “melt away” from a fight—that, rather than facing certain death with the Marines, they’ll just slink away to cause trouble elsewhere.

This isn’t a new thing—the Taliban have been doing it since, oh, let’s go with 2001—but the Marine Corps nevertheless seemed surprised by it. And it is indeed a bizarre, frustrating thing to deal with an enemy that generally won’t fight “fairly,” choosing instead to rely on roadside bombs and mortars (the unfairness of such an idea—as if the American reliance on overwhelming air power was any less terrifying to the Taliban—is probably best left for another post). It would be understandable, even easy to find the Marines are running out of patience trying to fight a counterinsurgency while their opponents are not.

And so we have Bouhammer.

Anger, frustration and a hunger for revenge are running high among U.S. Marines as casualties mount on the frontline of the battle against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.

On a base near Marjah, a Taliban stronghold in Helmand province, Marines are grieving the deaths of a sergeant and corporal killed by the remote-controlled bombs that have become the scourge of the long-running conflict.

Commanders try to keep the men’s rage in check, aware that winning over an Afghan public wary of the foreign military presence and furious about mounting civilian casualties is as crucial as any battlefield success.

As usual, it’s nice to see the Marine officers exercise leadership (not sarcasm: I genuinely respect the Marine officer corps). In a way, I almost see this mounting frustration as being directed not against the Taliban itself, but rather what they are doing with the Taliban: despite universal insistence to the contrary, there is little evidence that sparsely-populated Helmand is strategically important. In fact, the military command explicitly said so:

“Helmand is a sideshow,” said the senior military official briefed on the analysis. “Kandahar is the capital of the south [and] that’s why they want it.”

And there is some logic to the focus on Kandahar. It isn’t the most important city evar (after all, the Taliban would have stopped there in 1994 if it were), but the city does have a lot of significance, if only because most Kandaharis are pissed off at our mismanagement of the place. So why do we have such a laser-focus on Helmand? Why spend all the time, resources, money, and most importantly lives to secure something no one in charge can describe as important apart from assertion?

I fear the real answer is opium. After a promising start, in which the Marines realized that attacking the opium trade was tantamount to attacking the provincial economy, the grunts have gone back to hunting bagel toppings. Apart from the myth that opium funds the Taliban, there isn’t much reason to address Helmand’s drug industry with such vigor (or repeat the claim, as most news agencies do, that the insurgency has always been focused on the south when violence in the East was much worse until late 2008 or so).

So, while it is heartbreaking to see the Marines get frustrated over their inability to, as one officer put it, “go crazy and start shooting at everything,” it is almost more heartbreaking to see their efforts being wasted on a battle that is so tangential to the broader war. We owe them far better than this.

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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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Stephen Pampinella February 3, 2010 at 11:13 am

Could there be more economic motives to this? In that if we control Helmand and then pacify Kanhadar, the city and the countryside could create demand for each other’s products (high-value agriculture and manufactured goods). Not to mention the Kajaki Dam, which might be used to provide power to city. Just trying to think more in terms of development, although I have no indication that ISAF is thinking in this way (fingers-crossed that they are).

Joshua Foust February 3, 2010 at 11:30 am

I’m not aware of any context in which the Kajakai dam is considered a success.

Nathan February 3, 2010 at 3:35 pm

Having just returned from a quick mission to the area around the Kajaki Dam, I can say that the locals there think that the security of the dam itself is key to the area’s future. Not sayint they’re right, but that’s what they think.

Joshua Foust February 3, 2010 at 3:37 pm

I actually don’t dispute that the dam is important. I’m just saying I don’t know anyone who considers our efforts there to be a success. Starting with when we bombed it in 2001.

Nathan February 3, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Agreed. The most common complaint I heard was that ISAF/UN/US/USAID, etc. had not done enough to bring the dam up to full operating capacity. Although most of them don’t understand the complexities of hydro-electric power (neither do I), they knew that the third turbine was not in place. The locals couldn’t understand why the international forces (which they consider to be all-powerful and surpassingly rich) were not able to accomplish this feat of engineering.

Joshua Foust February 3, 2010 at 4:21 pm

Well, and I’d look at it from a higher strategic perspective. The Brits devoted resources from dealing with the Musa Qala disaster to protect Kajaki. Thanks to our inability to really control the roads for so long, the Taliban were in essence taxing any power it generated… which kind of defeated the purpose anyway. And for a couple of years, we needed a full battalion just to keep it from being overrun.

While Kajakai is important in the long run, I just don’t see how the resources it has eaten up can be considered well spent.

Jeff February 3, 2010 at 5:10 pm

What’s odd about this piece is that you don’t tell us what area(s) in Afghanistan ARE vital…

If not Helmand, then where?

Luke February 4, 2010 at 8:42 am

@Jeff – that’s just one of the many perks of being a snarky sharpshooter spouting vitriol from half a world away – you never have to give any right answers, you just have to explain (of course in as hip and sarcastic a way as possible) how wrong the other guy is based on your own manufactured sense of authority.

M Shannon February 3, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Nothing in Afghanistan is vital to us. Kabul and Jalalabad are vital to the Afghan gov. Mazar, Kunduz and Herat are very important. Kandahar is a nice to have which is why our Afghan allies have put so little effort into pacifying it. Helmand is not important at all which makes our pouring troops into it such a tactical success for the Taliban as they move north to attack the important targets of Herat, Mazar and Kunduz.

Capt. Monkey February 4, 2010 at 12:45 am

Maybe I’m not the guy to chime in since I think of Southern Nuristan and central Kunar (considered to be hinterland terrority, not populated densly enough to warrant any effort) as being strategically important. I also think that in the valleys, where the people are concentrated as densly as anywhere else in Afghanistan, warrant an effort by our forces… but hey, I’m just a dumb nug…

Jeff February 5, 2010 at 1:58 pm

I wish Joshua would tell us what areas he considers vital and why.

Joel Hafvenstein February 15, 2010 at 8:41 am

Josh – last time I checked in December, the US had given up on fixing Kajaki:


While I agree with you that Helmand shouldn’t soak as much of our effort as it does, Kajaki was legitimately important. Reliable electricity is key to supporting economic growth in the South, and the lack of it is (as Nathan says) a significant source of discontent. Since 2003, we’ve been promising to provide it from Kajaki, and have highlighted repeatedly how many resources we’ve put into the effort (notably “the British army’s largest route-clearance operation since World War II”).

The fact that we’ve apparently given up on Kajaki after so many wasted lives (not just foreign soldiers; accurately or not, Helmandis speak of 200 Afghan civilian lives lost in the big British operation to get the turbine in there) and hundreds of millions of dollars is a huge propaganda victory for the Taliban across the South. I can’t think of another single project that has failed so spectacularly.

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