A Garmsir Retrospective

by Joshua Foust on 8/1/2011 · 6 comments

Rajiv Chandrasekaran writes a must-read article about Garmsir:

Garmser illuminates the trade-off facing top U.S. commanders as they struggle to fulfill President Obama’s recent order to remove 10,000 troops by the end of the year, and an additional 23,000 by the end of next summer, while also diverting more of the remaining 68,000 forces to eastern Afghanistan to confront a growing insurgency there. In doing so, they do not want to jeopardize the security gains that have been achieved in the south…

The commanders are betting that they can achieve their original goals — pummeling the Taliban, building up the Afghan government and security forces, and persuading low-level fighters to switch sides — before they have to send away large numbers of troops.

Rajiv describes Garmsir as a “backwater,” which it is. In fact, Helmand has almost no strategic value whatsoever, despite its “proximity” to Pakistan (as one Marine commander insisted, even though Garmsir does not border Pakistan). And the lessons Rajiv highlights there are very good lessons: namely that with tens of thousands of groundpounders and years of time to work, Marines can pacify almost any area they encounter. It’s kind of trite to point out but it’s true.

However, and this is where Rajiv’s piece becomes illuminating:

What has occurred in Garmser has taken significantly longer than the 18 to 24 months that top military officials promised Obama it would require. The counterinsurgency effort in this district of about 150,000 people has already stretched for three years and cost the United States about $3 billion.

“Anyone who said you can go from full-on combat to transition in two years wasn’t being realistic,” said a field-grade military officer in Afghanistan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his assessment contradicts those of his superiors. “The lesson is that these things are going to take a lot of time and a lot of treasure.”

This is the fundamental lesson of the wasted time we’ve spent in Helmand. By focusing on such a sparsely populated backwater—by sending 30,000 Marines into a province not even Afghans care about all that much—we bogged them down for years longer than was promised (unrealistically, as even the Colonels now say), and threw out billions of dollars.

And of course in the interim, the Marines’ magic favorite Afghan pet, the police chief, Omar Jan, is so corrupt they’re still worried he’ll undo all their progress the moment they leave. Which they, of course, cannot ever do, because despite all the hifalutin’ talk of security and police work, the very basic institutions of a working political system in Helmand are non-existent… after three years and three billion dollars. It will be interesting to see what Garmsir turns into over the next year or two, as the thousands of dollars a week in subsidy and bribes the Marines paid out for this peace dry up, the lavish over-spending by USAID drifts elsewhere, and the people of Garmsir have to deal with not being the darlings of a hugely damaging “reconstruction” money dump that makes their leaders very wealthy but doesn’t actually improve their economy.

If ever a stinging indictment of our capacity for creating a sustainable solution was written, I don’t know of one.

Previously:
How Do You Build in a Crashed Economy
Garmsir, Again (Again)


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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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{ 6 comments }

Theo August 1, 2011 at 8:33 am

Helmand is the Taliban’s wallet because of poppy. How is it strategically insignificant?

Joshua Foust August 1, 2011 at 8:39 am

Woah, who said most of the poppy profits go to the Taliban? We’ve managed to jack up the price of heroin, which benefits the Taliban but benefits far more Afghan government officials, including the Karzai brothers. Oh and it’s most of the local economy, so if you destroy poppy, you destroy the economy. Strategy!

Besides which, the problem of the Taliban is not that they have money, but that they’ve dramatically swelled their ranks in the last four years. That’s a political problem, not an economic one—and without solving the political side of the equation going after a few poppy farmers (the first few rotations of Marines had an explicit policy of NOT going after poppy anyway) won’t change a thing.

M Shannon August 1, 2011 at 11:00 am

Helmand is only important because the USMC are there. They went to 1) get away from US Army command and 2) to save the British, who ironically, had gone there to get their own province and prove post-Basra that they were an effective army.

The Marines have been quite successful in achieving their goals- which unintentionally have actually harmed the US by wasting ~ $ 30 billion per year.

BTW I doubt Garmsir has near 150,000 people. My guess is that it’s 1/5 that size although I’ve seen estimates as high as half. Population inflation is handy once critics start doing the math on “cost per Afghan”. See Marjah for the best example.

Dishonesty? August 10, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Garmsir ANSF progress!!!
http://www.stripes.com/news/afghan-forces-show-little-progress-as-security-handoff-nears-1.151510

Lance Cpl. Christopher Jeffers, 21, a squad leader from Remington, Ind., said over his shoulder, “Make sure you write this in your report: The ANA are garbage.”
——
Jamshid Nodrat, an interpreter from Kabul who has worked with coalition forces in Helmand for more than two years, said equipment isn’t what’s keeping the Afghan forces from taking a bigger role in security.
“The Afghans hate to work with the Marines because the Afghans are lazy and the Marines work hard,” he said.
He brought up the incident from earlier in the day, when an Afghan soldier refused to patrol and returned to base after falling in the mud.
“He couldn’t cross the muddy field. How can he fight the Taliban?” Nodrat said. “Mostly, ANA is useless.”
But, he said, “They’re going to get better if the coalition forces keep training these guys.” He estimated that it would take at least 12 years, probably closer to 20, to get the Army ready to work on its own.

M Shannon August 10, 2011 at 2:21 pm

You can’t train character or motivation in adults. At the back of every NATO trainer’s mind is probably the worry that if they push the ANSF too hard they’ll be the ones shot.

ANSF are not fixable in the numbers required to defeat the Taliban. The best course of action is to get our forces out and negotiate with the winners in a couple of years.

If you disagree about the ANSF potential then ponder how long before the first coup d’etat is launched after Kabul is devoid of NATO combat troops.

kabin August 11, 2011 at 3:53 am

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