As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, July 02, 2009

All Of A Sudden, 25 Years In Afghanistan?

The US military has begun essentially its first large-scale mission in Afghanistan in many years, an effort to retake Helmand province from Taliban insurgents and remain in the area to "clear, hold and build".

Almost 4,000 United States Marines, backed by helicopter gunships, pushed into the volatile Helmand River valley in southwestern Afghanistan early Thursday morning to try to take back the region from Taliban fighters whose control of poppy harvests and opium smuggling in Helmand provides major financing for the Afghan insurgency.

The Marine Expeditionary Brigade leading the operation represents a large number of the 21,000 additional troops that President Obama ordered to Afghanistan earlier this year amid rising violence and the Taliban’s increasing domination in much of the country. The operation is described as the first major push in southern Afghanistan by the newly bolstered American force [...]

The Marines say their new mission, called Operation Khanjar, will include more troops and resources than ever before, as well as a commitment by the troops to live and patrol near population centers to ensure that residents are protected. More than 600 Afghan soldiers and police officers are also involved.

“What makes Operation Khanjar different from those that have occurred before is the massive size of the force introduced, the speed at which it will insert, and the fact that where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces,” the Marine commander in Helmand Province, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, said in a statement released after the operation began.

Whatever you think of this strategy, it should be mentioned that it's different from the stated goal of the President from back in March, which was more a decapitation strategy to capture and kill Taliban and deny Al Qaeda safe havens. This is a counter-insurgency strategy to "drink lots of tea," "eat lots of goat", and win the hearts and minds of the population. I understand how denying the Taliban freedom to operate in Helmand and denying them safe havens dovetail. But this sounds a lot like nation-building to me:

“Our focus is not the Taliban,” Nicholson told his officers. “Our focus must be on getting this government back up on its feet.”

I keep hearing that economic development is the key to success in Afghanistan, and not the military. But a COIN strategy in this fractured country that has practically never known a central government seems really flimsy. Especially when the civilian surge hasn't materialized, meaning that troops are being turned into psychologists and economic development experts.

Counter-insurgency operations are long-term and take large numbers of troops. Shouldn't we have a public debate about such a change in strategy rather than springing it on the public without discussion? I don't want to keep adding troops into a black hole, and the White House has appeared to draw the line on that, but their new strategy cuts against that policy. It's another version of war on the cheap to make it politically palatable.

Meanwhile, a Marine has been captured by the Taliban, and let's hope he can be returned safely.

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