The military campaign now being waged in the Afghan province of Helmand is being described in much of the world’s media as the biggest such operation since the one which secured “regime-change” in Kabul in October-November 2001. A coordinated military assault involving 15,000 troops - from the United States, Britain and Afghanistan itself - aims to seize the town of Marjah and surrounding areas, which are described as the Taliban’s last stronghold in Helmand.
Operation Moshtarak (the word means “together” in the Dari language), even before its launch, has been the subject of a series of high-profile news stories with an almost uniformly positive “spin”. Their consistent core is that the operation’s purpose is to curb Taliban influence over Helmand as a whole; that the province is, alongside neighbouring Kandahar, the pivot of Taliban power in Afghanistan; and, therefore, that victory would be likely to turn the whole course of the war in Afghanistan in favour of the Nato/Isaf project.
The herald of success
The task of reaching an accurate assessment of the real state of the conflict must look beyond such public-relations campaigns from military sources. The starting-point here is to acknowledge that after a long process of internal deliberation the Barack Obama administration has embarked on a policy markedly different from its predecessor. Washington’s new approach combines a readiness to negotiate and compromise (even with significant elements of the Taliban leadership) in order to end the war with a belief that it needs to do so from a position of clear military strength. Operation Moshtarak is the first major step in this military-diplomatic process.
Why, though, is the assault getting so much advance publicity? At first sight this seems puzzling, for it evidently gives Taliban strategists detailed warnings of what they are about to face. The rationale is fourfold: to intimidate some militants into abandoning the fight; to encourage civilians to evacuate the area (thereby reducing casualties); to make the best of the fact that the Afghan security services are so penetrated by Taliban sympathisers that it is pointless to keep operations secret; and - a crucial domestic consideration in the United States and Britain - to wring some positive publicity from a situation of diminishing popular support for the war. For Nato’s military planners and their political overlords, it is essential to demonstrate that the war can be won; what better way than to depict Operation Moshtarak as the instrument that breaks Taliban control of a key province?
The problem is that this narrative of anticipatory semi-triumphalism in no way corresponds to current signals from elsewhere in Afghanistan, including Helmand. For example, a new report from the Center for A New American Security co-authored by Major-General Michael T Flynn (Isaf’s director of intelligence) highlights the remarkable capabilities of the Taliban and is very cautious about progress (see Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan, 4 January 2010). A number of other recent reports similarly point to a versatile and resilient opponent (see CJ Chivers, “As Marines Move In, Taliban Fight a Shadowy War”, New York Times, 1 February 2010).
Two senior military officers - Major-General Andrew Mackay, a former commander of Britain’s task-force in Helmand, and Steve Tatham - make an especially potent criticism of the country’s war-fighting approach. They argue that “a fresh 'hearts and minds' strategy is required which focuses less on winning bloody battles against the enemy, and more on understanding their culture, economy and psychology” (see Eddie Barnes, “MoD 'is not capable' of winning war”, Scotland on Sunday, 3 January 2010).
Such critical, topical and ground-level analyses at least suggest that the intense and positive publicity devoted to Moshtarak is more a public-relations exercise than a realistic estimate of the current situation. In this respect, the experience of an earlier military operation of comparable scale - the attempt to send a giant turbine to the Kajaki dam in northern Helmand in August-September 2008 - casts an interesting light.
What comes after
This operation received huge publicity in the British media, most of which hailed it as one of the great successes of the war. The plan was to supplement the dam’s already working turbine with another that would be divided into seven large sections (of over twenty tonnes each), then carried by road from Kandahar airbase to Kajaki through 280 kilometres of largely hostile territory. No less than 5,000 troops were involved to ensure the safe transfer of the turbine: from Britain (3,000), the United States, Australia, Denmark and Canada (a total of 1,000), and Afghanistan (1,000).
The logistics were enormous: a 4-kilometre convoy of 100 vehicles - supported by fifty Viking armoured vehicles and constant air-cover from British, American, French and Dutch planes and American drones - took six days to travel the route, deliver the turbine, and (again over six days) return to secure bases. Along the way, one Canadian soldier and a reported 200 Taliban were killed. The way was now ready to import Chinese technicians to instal the turbine (which was a Chinese design), and for Nato/Isaf to bask in the secure knowledge that this part of Helmand province had been made safe and was on the development path.
The British ministry of defence (MoD) was upbeat about the result:
- “With the delivery of the turbine complete, work can now begin on its installation and the much larger programme of the rejuvenation of the electrical distribution network needed to pass the extra power to the areas of Sangin, Musa Qaleh, Kandahar and the provincial capital of Helmand, Lashkar Gah. The new turbine is capable of producing 18.5MW of economically viable, renewable energy, which will be in addition to the dam's current 16.5MW output”
- “The additional electricity it will eventually provide will light up classrooms, allowing Afghans across southern Afghanistan to learn to read and write in evening classes; farmers to store their produce in chilled storage, allowing greater export opportunities for the booming wheat markets; and clinics to provide improved health services” (see “Kajaki dam troops return to base”, Military Operations [Ministry of Defence, 8 September 2008]).
The MoD concluded its report on the successful operation by quoting George Wilder, a contractor working on the USAID contract to upgrade the power- plant:
- "There's still a lot to do, but I've been waiting for this for a long time. It's a great day for Afghanistan and it feels like my birthday.”
The entire operation was portrayed both as a success in itself and as the start of a process that would have a ripple-effect across much of southern Afghanistan. It could, it was claimed, be a turning-point in the war.
What happened next? By March 2009, six months on, there were reports that the turbine was still waiting to be unpacked (yet alone installed); and that security concerns were delaying progress in the work. Now the whole project has been abandoned (see “US postpones Afghan dam project”, BBC News, 14 December 2009).
The immediate trigger of the decision was that the Chinese contractor charged with installing the turbines withdrew overnight because of poor security. The job was always going to be huge; it would have involved the deployment of several hundred tonnes of cement and other supplies, and the mobilisation of a large team of engineers, technicians and labourers. At last, USAID has accepted that a further operation on this scale across land still controlled by the Taliban is unfeasible. It has reluctantly arranged for the turbine sections to be put into storage, and is now seeking energy projects elsewhere in Afghanistan in which it can invest.
A complex reality
The Kajaki power-plant experience has implications, direct and indirect, for Operation Moshtarak. First, it reveals the possibility of Nato using its huge firepower advantages to push Taliban paramilitaries out of larger towns - but being unable to prevent the Taliban from retaining control of many rural areas, to the degree that the movement can prevent the completion of an important infrastructure project.
Second, what might come after the impending operation is likely to be much more significant than what happens during it. As Moshtarak unfolds, it is almost certain that the Taliban will be evicted from Marjah and the surrounding areas; indeed, there may even be relatively little fighting as local Taliban commanders avoid localised conflicts that they cannot win. The great risk then is that Taliban rule will be replaced by regional governance of a kind that is all too typical of the Hamid Karzai regime's record elsewhere: corrupt, dysfunctional, incompetent, with a police force that may be be infiltrated by Taliban sympathisers.
This is not to denigrate the efforts of defence ministries and departments yet again to represent the current operation as a decisive turning-point. Such efforts are, from their perspective, a necessary part of their work that becomes especially important at a time when support for the war is diminishing.
But it has always to be remembered is that the official representation of Afghanistan’s condition is just one part of a much wider picture; and that any worthwhile assessment of what is happening in the country must take into account many other factors. In this respect, the dismaying outcome of the Kajaki operation may be a more accurate reflection of Afghan realities than the publicity accompanying Operation Moshtarak.