What does success look like in Helmand?

by Sailani on 2/22/2010 · 14 comments

We’ve now been told that the current operation in Helmand is but the “opening salvo” in a new strategy to seize and hold areas under insurgent control, and that Kandahar is most-likely going to be next on the list.  Before we start looking at that horrendous undertaking (I use the word with a hint of irony here) I can’t help but pause and consider what will happen in Helmand after the military mops up the few holdouts that stayed to fight them there.

What does success look like for Operation Moshtarak, and more importantly when will we know whether it has been achieved?  We have heard much about the kinetic side of things, and much less about what is to follow.  A district governor has been recruited and will fly in sometime soon, and a bunch of police are going to be deployed as well.

If the insurgents are smart, and they have shown that they can be, then they will wait until US forces lift their heavy footprint from the vast farmlands of Marjeh (home to a large number of people perhaps, but in a very dispersed and hard-to-police setting) before they start to put the population and the security forces there under pressure once more.  If one looks at the terrain there and the incentives for the insurgents to wreak havoc, then it seems obvious that the area is not going to be pacified anytime soon.  In any case it will at least be late Summer before we know the impact of current efforts in Helmand.

After spending a reasonable amount of time getting to know the Pashtuns and the issues that are of greatest concern to them, I have come to believe that until we crack down on corruption at all levels, REALLY crack down, then we are all wasting our time here.  The reporting about the head of Kabul Bank in the WaPo yesterday is only one strong example of the sorts of things that undermine all popular support for what is a kleptocratic government.

A tribal elder once told me, “we had security when the Taliban were in charge, but we had nothing else.  That is not enough, we need development, schools, clinics, and a functioning economy.  So their rule was a dead end for Afghanistan“. Reasoning along the same lines I would say that if we focus on security, but allow corruption to flourish, we lose.

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DePetris February 22, 2010 at 2:36 pm

The ironic thing about this whole mission is that the U.S. policy in Afghanistan is now colliding. The goal of clearing the Taliban out of Marjah is one aspect of the new strategy, but the operation will quickly go south if the second part of the policy- professional Afghan policemen- is inadequate. And by all accounts, the Afghan Police Force is in no shape to take over a major city in Taliban country. We talk about the need to limit corruption, yet the institution we are relying upon to get the job done (the police force) is the most corrupt entity in Afghanistan today.

It seems like putting some Afghan Army boots on the ground- who are much more professional compared to the Afghan Police Force- is a better alternative.

Sailani February 22, 2010 at 2:38 pm

And it’s even more complex in Marjeh I suppose since it’s not an urban area in any way shape or form (despite all the confusing reporting). It’s irrigated farmland, each family living in its own little “mini fortress”, that is a nightmare to police even with competent police forces.

Farhad February 22, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Yes, your right, corruption is a major issue for Afghans.

We have to remember that Karzai’s friend Abdul Rahman Jan, the former police chief in Helmand, used to run Marjah, and the population was scared of his men. Here is the story from the: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/20/AR2010022002331_pf.html

You may say Karzai doesn’t matter because we are going to work at the local level. However, Karzai’s connections will not rest until they get a piece of the pie. And Karzai will allow that to happen because he doesn’t run Afghanistan as a president, he is runs Afghanistan as a tribal leader, where clan members and close friends can get away with anything and everything. And as the locals say, “We never get any help from the government, they only help their friends.”

By the way, who is Haji Zahir, the new appointed mayor of Marjah?

From a few reports, it reads that he is returning from Germany after 15 years and is connected with the Karzai appointed Helmand governor, Mangal. Should we be worried or will the few US advisers to the new mayor will be enough?

And what does racking down on corruption really mean? I think it means justice, which is not present in the current Afghan government. When someone is arrested, they are freed because of their connections. And the cycle repeats.

Ransom Weaver February 22, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Poppy == money == corruption.

What is the plan to deal with the poppy crop, that’s what I want to know. Eradication (temporarily) removes the money tree, but drives the population into the arms of the enemy.

Is anyone on record saying what the game plan is? “Government in a box” doesn’t really cut it.

I’d say buy the crop and destroy it, while you figure out how to wean the political order off the drug money.

RScott February 22, 2010 at 3:11 pm

There is also apparently “an army of civilian foreign experts waiting to rush in to start “development” work” that seems to be focused on girls schools and clinics for this area of cash-cropping double-cropping farmers that have been waiting for the promised “Marshal Plan” level of development work since 2001, focused on the ECONOMY. Given the millions we have spent so far in Helmand on irrelevant (irrelevant to the farmers) projects, we probably have not accomplished (for the farmers) much more that what the Taliban accomplished. We did build a new airport, an ag industrial park, had ag fairs, built a cobblestone road out to a pre-war tourist site etc etc. But we have not attempted to compete with the opium poppy industry, which the farmers consider an evil crop but a living. We have not been able to establish a basic ag credit system in 8 years, which the opium industry has. And we have done virtually nothing to support any of the area’s traditional cash crops like cotton (with a functioning cotton gin) vegetables, early vegetables, peanuts, melons etc etc. Wheat seed was widely distributed at bargain basement prices this past fall but I have seen no evaluation on what happened to this seed in an area of wheat farmers. And opium continues to be the basis of the local economy.

True the Taliban only brought security to this region, which was an accomplishment in itself. They did not understand what was necessary for the economy. They were mullahs, not trained or experienced for the jobs they held. They knew this and stated it clearly in 97/98/99 at the time we had the first central Helmand irrigation system rehabilitation project started. (see my final project report at: http://www.scottshelmandvalleyarchives.org) They were asking for help with the irrigation system and the economy, orally and in writing at the time but our policy was primarily one of isolation not dialogue.

So whats to come? The farmers continue to see the government as corrupt, and that we support it. We continue to see the governor in very positive terms. Is there a contradiction here?

Farhad February 22, 2010 at 3:49 pm

@RScott Excellent input. You must have remembered a different Helmand and Afghanistan.

The contradiction is when the Sen. John Kerry says, “Now this may sound totally comical to you, but there are, good warlords and bad warlords.” (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120142880)

It isn’t “comical” to the Afghans who have lived under these warlords (aka “mujaheddin”/”freedom fighters”) better known to Afghans as thieves, rapists, pedophiles and killers.

And when Afghans see these people supported both politically militarily by US, what do you think their reaction is?

For most Afghans, the only way to have stability is to 1) get rid of all the corrupt people (including warlords) from the Afghan government and 2) stop Pakistan from supporting the Afghan Taliban.

One #2, we can see the US is trying. But on #1, it is hard to see what has been achieved.

Sailani February 23, 2010 at 3:12 am

Some really good inputs there that I can’t disagree with.

Basically it looks like Afghanistan has not gotten the “reboot” it was promised. In fact as early as 2002 it was clear the US was happy to come to terms with warlords who were busy carving the country up once more. Mohammed Atta is still ensconced up North and even if the parliament rejected Ishmail Khan, Karzai went ahead and appointed him anyways. Don’t even get me started on Fahim and Dostum …

Dafydd February 23, 2010 at 4:51 am

If we don’t get rid of corruption, sure, we lose.

More fundamentally than that, there is any amount of hunger amongst the people displaced by the Marjeh campaign, that will be a major barrier to success. Refugees resort to militancy pretty damn quickly.

Asia Times reported (yesterday) complaints of hunger from the people still there.

“They also say the fighting has caused hunger because people cannot leave their homes to fetch food. Helmand provincial governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal visited the area on the fifth day of the operation to see for himself. “People asked me to provide them with food … ”

I’m not sure that looks too helpful.

Baildog February 23, 2010 at 7:46 am

You are absolutely right, corruption is the “game changer.” Not Marine boots on the ground, or even ANA/ANP boots on the ground; not kill/capture ops in PAK. GIRoA legitimacy at the local level is “what success looks like” — not just in Helmand — and the single biggest impediment to that is corruption.

By the way, anyone know where I could get some Ugg boots cheap? ???

M Shannon February 23, 2010 at 10:02 pm

“If we don’t get rid of corruption, sure, we lose.”

I suggest that the bigger corruption problems lie in Washington and London than Kabul.

Baildog February 24, 2010 at 12:32 am

While it’s true that 40% of donor aid is earmarked to flow directly back to the donor country, I really don’ t think that is the issue that “is of greatest concern to the Pashtuns.” I think it’s the fact that an estimated one-quarter of GDP per head in Afghanistan goes to internal corruption.

Sure, it’s funand easy to bash Washington and London, but do you really believe that fixing their corruption problems so that more money flowed into corrupt pockets in Kabul would lead to success in Afghanistan?

anan February 24, 2010 at 12:15 am

Shannon, with you about Washington; however you exaggerate London’s “importance.”

Why leave out Japan? Japan just pledged another $5 billion in grants over 5 years; much more than Britain. Japan is deeply involved with training and standing up the MoI.

I wonder how much of India’s $2 billion in grants have been tied up in corruption (India will almost certainly announce additional grants.) South Korea’s, Germany’s, EU’s, France’s, Italy’s and Canada’s contribution to corruption?

Let’s not forget China. China is Afghanistan’s largest investor and trading partner. What is Iran’s contribution to corruption?

UNAMA? IMF? World Bank? Asian Development Bank?

The global NGO industrial complex?

The UK really isn’t that large an aid contributor compared to other institutions. 😉

Dafydd February 24, 2010 at 6:03 am


you are right, UK just doesn’t have the cash, and we can’t be sure it would go to Afghanistan if it did.

Shannon, the problems are, so far as I see it, definitely in Afghanistan. That they are very significantly amongst the international personell based there is another point.

M Shannon February 24, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Sorry..I wasn’t talking about corruption in Washington and London in their dealing with the Afghan government. I meant general corruption. The reason Afghanistan is such strategic folly is the need to pay for it with borrowed money. The need to borrow is caused by corrupt systems that happily run billion or even trillion dollar tabs.

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