The Afghan whirlwind

The United States’s long-term operations in Helmand and elsewhere in Afghanistan face acute military and political pressures.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
26 February 2010

The Moshtarak operation in central Helmand province is now into its third week and is expected to last another two months. British troops appear to have met relatively little resistance in their area of operations but United States forces have been held up by innumerable improvised-explosive devices (IEDs) and the wider use of snipers by Taliban elements (see “Afghanistan: what it’s like”, 18 February 2010). Meanwhile, with all the media attention on Helmand, little notice has been taken of a surge in the use of armed drones in western Pakistan, with four attacks in the five days up to 18 February 2010; a blitz followed by a further drone assault near Miramshah on 24 February (see Bill Roggio, “US hits Haqqani Network in North Waziristan..”, Long War Journal, 24 February 2010). 

These US raids in Pakistan, along with the detention of senior Taliban figures and Operation Moshtarak, are evidence of a determined effort by the American forces and their coalition partners to gain superiority over the Taliban in Afghanistan. The military “surge” agreed by President Obama, as argued in earlier columns in this series, be similar to the plans of the George W Bush administration (see “Afghanistan: new strategy, old problem”, 3 December 2009). But there is also a crucial difference, namely the new recognition that a military defeat of the Taliban is not possible and that there a degree of negotiation is necessary to end the war. This could even involve a Taliban role in Afghan governance, an outcome that would have been unthinkable for an  administration led by Obama’s rival candidate for the presidency John McCain.

The enduring search

In pursuing its new strategy, however, the most important issue for Washington relates less to short-term developments in Afghanistan and more to maintaining (or building) support for the war - in the form both of domestic backing in the homeland and of institutional support among key Nato partner-states. In this regard, it is important to emphasise that the role of many of the Nato contingents in Afghanistan concern peacekeeping and stabilisation rather than combat-operations. In fact, apart from the US itself only three states have substantial forces directly involved in armed combat: Britain (the second largest such contingent) and smaller forces from Canada and the Netherlands.

The issue of sustaining public support for the coalition effort in Afghanistan may underlie the decision to focus current operations on the town of Marjah rather than mount a sustained military operation to expel Taliban paramilitaries from the far more significant city of Kandahar (see Gareth Porter, “Marjah push aimed to shape US opinion”, Asia Times, 24 February 2010).  

Marjah, a town of around 50,000 people, is one of a number of centres in an interconnected web of settlements in central Helmand that are involved in the cultivation of opium for subsequent refining into heroin and morphine. This industry involves a range of diverse activities: most of the cultivation is done by small farmers (many of them in debt to the buyers), while the refining is completed in numerous small facilities scattered across the province and beyond. The Marjah district is just one component of this wider pattern. The city of Kandahar, with a population of around 470,000, has by contrast long been far more important as a centre of Taliban political and military power.

In this respect, Moshtarak may be seen as a larger-scale version of the Kajaki dam operation of 2008 (see “Afghanistan: propaganda of the deed”, 11 February 2010). The latter - involving the transfer by armed convoy across hostile territory and installation of a huge new turbine - was focused very heavily on convincing a doubting British public of the value of the British commitment to the war. The project was initially successful, but the impossibility of guaranteeing longer-term security meant that it had to be abandoned.

The fate of Moshtarak could be different: the very size of the forces deployed, amid a strong intention to maintain a post-conflict presence and implement new development programmes, could ensure a more favourable outcome. But in any event, even this large-scale operation is still confined to a relatively small area in the context of the whole Afghan campaign. True, the US forces see it as but the start of a number of similar major operations that the arrival of additional contingents of the 30,000 extra troops will make possible; part of a longer process of trying to gain control of much of Afghanistan, which even in an optimistic scenario could last until 2012-13.

The overall emphasis of this extended effort is to secure Afghanistan’s urban areas. That the project is bound to be difficult - even in is one of the world's least urbanised countries - is indicated by the Taliban’s repeated ability to stage attacks in the very heart of Kabul. The suicide-bombing on 26 February 2010 killed at least seventeen people and injured over thirty, resembles its predecessors in targeting buildings where non-Afghans work or live (in this case a hotel housing foreign workers); this tactic is designed both to damage morale among the foreign community in the capital and by proxy to damage support for the war in their own countries.

Indeed, the Pentagon and the lead generals involved in the Afghan military campaign - David H Petraeus and Stanley A McChrystal - are acutely aware of the political requirement to maintain domestic support for the war. Much will depend on how the Democrats fare in the mid-term elections to Congress in November 2010, and whether the results put pressure on Barack Obama to implement a major drawdown of forces a year ahead of the presidential election in 2012. The situation could be made more difficult if the US ends up having to keep larger-than-expected numbers of troops in Iraq (see Thomas E Ricks, “Extending Our Stay in Iraq”, New York Times, 25 February 2010; and Leila Fadel, “Just weeks before elections, specter of sectarian violence resurfaces in Iraq”, Washington Post, 17 February 2010).

The internal cost

The broader problems in Afghanistan that the coalition’s strategic effort has to face include two further increasingly significant factors: civilian deaths and government corruption. The deaths are remorseless, despite General McChrystal’s change of military tactics in an attempt to reduce the numbers killed. An air-raid killed at least twenty-seven people on 21 February were in Oruzgan province (where Dutch troops are deployed), taking the total in recent incidents to sixty-three. In addition, local sources in Marjah report anger at the deaths of a number of civilians that have not been acknowledged by Nato (see Aziz Ahmad Tassal & Mohammad Elyas Dayee, “New Civilian Death Claims in Helmand Sweep”, Institute for War & Peace Reporting [IWPR], 20 February 2010).

Nato has also now had to admit that a special-forces raid on a village in eastern Afghanistan in December 2009 was a tragic mistake; it resulted in the deaths of ten children and teenagers, including eight schoolboys from one family. (Jerome Starkey, “NATO admits that deaths of 8 boys were a mistake”, Times, 25 February 2010).

If the impact of Afghan civilian casualties on European public opinion is inevitably a worry for Washington, the charges of corruption against the Hamid Karzai regime are even more potent. The toxic current issues include the Afghan president’s planned exclusion of international officers from the election-scrutiny panel in advance of parliamentary elections due in September 2010; and the behaviour of Afghanistan's biggest private bank, whose head has been distributing “multimillion-dollar loans for the purchase of luxury villas in Dubai by members of President Hamid Karzai's family, his government and his supporters” (see Andrew Higgins, “In Afghanistan, signs of  crony capitalism”, Washington Post, 22 February 2010).

As the Post puts it:

“The close ties between Kabul Bank and Karzai's circle reflect a defining feature of the shaky post-Taliban order in which Washington has invested more than $40 billion and the lives of more than 900 U.S. service members: a crony capitalism that enriches politically connected insiders and dismays the Afghan populace.”

The political question

It is likely that endemic corruption and maladministration in Kabul will have a greater impact on public opinion in Nato member-states than the mounting Afghan civilian casualties. In any case it is becoming clear that public sentiment in several western countries is moving against participation in the Afghan war.

The most significant trend here is the collapse of the Dutch coalition government on 20 February 2010 and the likely withdrawal of Dutch forces by the end of 2010. That will leave only the Canadians and the British with substantial combat-forces, with the Canadians themselves now intending to cease all military operations by July 2011 (see Matthew Fisher, “Canada to pull out troops 'across the board' in 2011”, Vancouver Sun, 25 February)

An awareness over the attitude of Nato's European members is and concerning Washington. The US defence secretary, Robert M Gates, made unusually sharp criticisms earlier this week. In a speech delivered at the National Defense University in Washington at a Nato seminar on its new strategic concept, he remarked:

“The demilitarization of Europe - where large swathes of the general public and the political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it - has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security in the 21st… The resulting funding and capability shortfalls make it difficult to operate an fight together” (see Robert Burns, “Gates: Europe's demilitarization has gone too far”, Associated Press, 23 February 2010).

The likelihood of a Dutch withdrawal of their forces in 2010 and of a Canadian withdrawal in 2011 - and with other major  Nato contingents resolutely restricted to a stabilising role rather than offensive operations - it is becoming clearer that Britain is the only state with a military presence in Afghanistan that remains close to the US military posture. This condition is problematic for a country that faces a general election in May 2010 in whose aftermath a defence review is near-certain to recommend serious cuts to the military budget (see “The politics of security: beyond militarism”, 2 July 2009).

This is an uncomfortable situation for the United States as well as for Britain itself. The by-product is that Washington will be making a sustained effort in spring 2010, before and after the election, to ensure that Britain stays on board. If it does not or - given its immense debt burdens - cannot, then the very future of American operations in Afghanistan could once more come into question. 

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