Tricky Logic

by Joshua Foust on 2/15/2011 · 10 comments

Marine Corps Major General Richard Mills has some excellent news:

Coalition forces in Afghanistan have beaten the insurgency in an important stronghold of Taliban fighters, though pockets of resistance remain, a U.S. commander said Monday in an interview with USA TODAY.

“This is really the heart of the insurgency,” Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills said of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. “I believe they have been beaten.”

The province is among the first targets of a surge of 30,000 U.S. servicemembers ordered into Afghanistan by President Obama in December 2009. The first Marines associated with the surge began arriving in the province shortly afterward.

At the time, the Taliban had control over Marjah, a center of the country’s opium trafficking industry that the insurgents had used to pay for its fighters and supplies, according to the Pentagon. The Marines pushed the Taliban out of Marjah soon after and for months after moved into outlying areas, some of which saw heavy fighting.

The progress in Helmand province “shows you the momentum is shifting,” said James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Loosening the Taliban’s grip on the drug trade “could have a cascading effect in the years ahead,” he said.

Ignore the fact that just about everything he’s saying is wrong (starting with calling Helmand “the heart of the insurgency,” which not even General McChrystal was willing to say, as he considered Helmand only important as it related to Kandahar). By this logic—momentum is decisively shifting to favor us—we should therefore be contemplating a negotiated settlement with the defeated Taliban and a substantial withdrawal of our victorious Surge troops in July of this year, as promised at the start of the surge in 2009.

Of course, nothing of the sort will actually happen. Victory is justification for more presence, not less (just as defeat is justification for more presence, not less). Increased violence means we’re winning, so therefore we must stay to ensure the win (even though decreased violence would mean we’re winning, so therefore we must stay to ensure violence continues to decrease). We cannot negotiate with pure evil Talibal Qaeda, no matter their status, because some guys just need a good killin’ to fix the problem. And so on.

I do like the added bit at the end, that we won’t know for years if all of this progress and momentum will actually matter. Naturally, we must keep 140,000 troops in the country to make sure we can measure it properly; actually behaving as if this is real victory and not invented victory meant to satiate an apathetic public that will never think twice about is totally off the table. So, we’ll stay there forever, no matter what, because how could you possibly want defeat?


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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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M Shannon February 15, 2011 at 1:37 pm

If the USMC had been sent to Badakshan instead of Helmand that would be the “heart of the insurgency”. USMC officers don’t become USMC generals without knowing how to root for the home team.

Even if you are deluded enough to believe that Afghanistan is vital for western security, apart from Lashkar Gah and Hwy 1 there is nothing in Helmand worth fighting for. The Marines are merrily tramping around Helmand while the Kandahar ANP HQ is taken out and a campaign to drive foreign civilians out of Kabul is underway.

Will Fraser February 15, 2011 at 6:32 pm

Mr or MS Shannon (as the case may be).
First I wanted to thank you for your brilliant expose
on tactics and strategy in Afghanistan. Your superior knowledge of conditions and the situation on the battlefireld is amazing.
Secondly, since you have been following the
fighting in Marjah and Sangin closely no doubt,
I’m sure you are aware that in fact the Taliban have
inflicted more casualties , set off more IED’s, extorted more
money from poppy growers, and shipped more opium from Helmand than any area in Afghanistan. Of course you know all that, I can tell from your knowledgeable post.
Since you have so cleverly arm chair generaled us from your living room couch, perhaps you
could share with the rest of us mortals, your thoughts on what
will be occurring in Afghanistan in the coming years. Could those thoughts be perhaps somehow aligned with what you thought was going to happen in Iraq, when you were bemoaning THAT effort five years ago?
I think if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen Shannon, becuase you don’t know anything.
I can’t wait..Regards, Will Fraser

Steve C February 15, 2011 at 9:54 pm


M. Shannon has been a consistently well informed poster here for a couple of years. His comments may not appeal to some readers but they have displayed a level of knowledge that tends to indicate that s/he has spent a good deal of time studying Afghanistan from inside the country but outside the wire. You would do well to listen and learn.

As to your comparison with Iraq: that was probably not a good example for comparison.

Steve C February 15, 2011 at 10:21 pm

And, BTW, (and I’m willing to be corrected on this) M. Shannon has been outside that wire unarmed, unprotected and without recourse to artillery and air support.


Dishonesty? February 15, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Marine victory in Marja?Maybe.But Sayedabad,Village in british zone is Taliban stronghold.

‘Black Winter’ is the latest in a series of successful operations designed to clear insurgents from the former Taliban stronghold of Sayedabad to the south of Nad ‘Ali.

Operations started in June last year with Operation TOR SHEZADA (Black Prince) which successfully cleared insurgents from Sayedabad and prevented them from being able to use the area as a base from which to launch attacks against UK and Afghan forces as well as locals.

Over recent weeks up to 500 British and Afghan troops at a time were involved with 22 enemy attacks on checkpoints, 22 improvised explosive device finds and 113 fire fights

Look at the Map.Probably 8km north east of Marja

M Shannon February 15, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Fraser: I was going to comment in some detail but then realized you didn’t understand my post. Thanks for using the old “I don’t know you but you’ve never been there” accusation. It helps clarifies things.

Johny Matrix February 15, 2011 at 9:36 pm

I don’t think Mr. Fraser is using the “man in the area approach”, but the fact of the matter is Helmand IS the heart of the insurgency…or at least the heart of the conflict. After being in Kunar and thinking I had it the worst, and then seeing the casualty rates of units in Kandahar / Helmand, I accepted the fact that I was wrong. However Shannon could be attempting to argue that there is simply no heart of the insurgency, any AO contested by the Taliban is just as important. That is the higher ground, I don’t think downing Marine O’s is really the way to go.

Steve Magribi February 16, 2011 at 12:28 am

Hello from Kandahar…lovely morning.

“Heart of the insurgency” vs “Casualties”

A. Well, I would prefer to call HKandahar as the heart of the counter insurgency, and the heart of the insurgent operations against 60% of our units via IED.

B. The reason that casualties have been so high in HK is that we have allowed them to be so high. Small mine teams combined with good local support and recon, have kept much larger ISAF units looking at the dirt and waiting for the daily medevac flight.

C. I would argue that Enemy Taliban unit strength in both Helmand and Kandahar is about the same as Kunar. However the enemy Taliban units in the South have approached the problem by simply surrounding Petraeus’s FOBs via mine, thus using precious time we do not have to clear areas, while the Taliban concentrate on expanding both in the East and in the North.

D. Strategically we are losing the war because of the decision to focus on two areas in a static occupy ground fashion as opposed to a country wide mobile focused counter insurgency.

We telegraphed that we were going to focus on Helmand Kandahar, allowed the enemy to prepare, and should not be surprised by the casualties because we gave them time to develop them and stock before hand.

E. The Marine General does not speak Pashtu, nor have long term relationships with Afghans. Their support of the Kabul Government(which is our REAL goal) is wavering at the moment throughout the region. Will we win the people or not is the question ie. Not which area is the heart of our casualties or of the insurgency…

F. The Taliban is expanding. Went through an ambush in Parwan where people used to drive freely last week. If they are expanding after the Surge, then our surge strategy failed and so did Petraeus and that is why is he is getting the hell out of here sooner rather than later. The rest of us are faced with a tough scenario from here on out.

Back to the Instant Coffee, will need more today…

Andres February 16, 2011 at 7:23 am

From The W News, network Colombia, we are looking for a way to contact you to invite your participation in our radio program. I’d appreciate If you can get back to me. Thanks!

M Shannon February 16, 2011 at 10:05 am

My point (which I think was obvious) was that wherever the Marines were in strength would be where a Marine general would say is the “heart of the insurgency” or “center of gravity” or whatever way you want to put it. If you don’t understand the institutional politics at play in Afghanistan you can’t begin to understand how we got into and stay in this mess.

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