Afghan offensive begins

February 12, 2010

Following up on the last post, the joint US-UK-Afghan Army offensive to clear the city of Marja and Helmand province of Taliban has begun:

Thousands of U.S., British and Afghan troops moved to seize the Taliban stronghold of Marja early Saturday in what the Marine general leading the assault called a “big, strong and fast” offensive aimed at challenging the insurgency’s grip on a key southern Afghan province.

Rounds of tracer fire lighted up a starry, predawn sky as waves of troops, ferried in by helicopters, descended on the farming districts that surround the town. Transport and Cobra attack helicopters also dropped rounds to illuminate the ground.

Troops initially met only modest return fire from inside of Marja.

Sporadic firefights had broken out throughout the day Friday on the periphery of Marja as Marine units probed Taliban defenses.

The commander, Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, had for weeks telegraphed the military’s plans for the offensive, one of the largest since the war began in 2001.

The United States and its allies hope the assault, the biggest joint operation by Western and Afghan troops to date, will prove a turning point in the conflict with the Taliban and other militants that have carved out swaths of territory in Afghanistan.

Military leaders expected about 7,500 coalition troops to occupy Marja by nightfall, with 7,500 more supporting the mission from elsewhere in the Nad Ali district of Helmand province.

The allied command had been prepping the battlefield for months, clearing the Taliban from villages in Helmand and then staying behind to make sure they don’t come back, thus giving the local residents the security they need to start cooperating with our side. Previously, the brave, brave jihadis of the Taliban would come back after we left, and the punishment meted out to those who collaborated with us would be horrific. In this way, Operation Moshtarek (Operation “Together”) resembles the plan used at the outset of the “surge” offensive in Afghanistan in 2007, when US and Iraqi forces began clear-and-hold operations against al Qaeda. In this case, Marja substitutes for Iraq’s Baquba as a key target: a town that had become a central base and depot for the enemy and, our side hopes, a trap where they can be caught and brought to battle.

The Taliban may not be as stupid as al Qaeda in Iraq, however. The offensive had been announced weeks in advance and publicized widely to give civilians a chance to leave. With them, of course, may have gone the Taliban; it’s unclear how many have stayed behind in Marja. What is clear, however, is that they had plenty of time to prepare traps of their own: extensive IED-laden minefields and booby-trapped buildings. Hence the big debut of the Assault Breacher Vehicles.

But it may not necessary to kill thousands of Taliban, much as they need it. The purpose of this counterinsurgency strategy is to deny the enemy access to the population whom he can then hide among and dominate. It was very effective in Vietnam under General Abrams (History later showed that, when we walked away, we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.), it worked better than expected in Iraq under General Petraeus, and now one hopes for similar success under General McChrystal. Less committed elements of the Taliban and their allies may be encouraged to quit, once they realize they’re cut off from the people they preyed on. As the article points out, it’s also a chance for the ill-regarded Afghan Army to show its people that it can protect them, even after we eventually leave.

I’m usually highly critical of President Obama, and I do wish he had made up his mind about an Afghan strategy earlier and sent more troops than he authorized, but I’m grateful he is at least taking the fight to the enemy. It’s been nearly a decade, but let’s not forget that these are the same salafis who abetted and protected al Qaeda before and after 9-11, and still do.

Good hunting, gentlemen.

LINKS: Max Boot. Ed Morrissey with a good observation about the departure of Canadian troops in a year or so and the closing window of opportunity.

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Boot on boots on the ground

October 23, 2009

Afghanistan – what should we do? That’s the question that bedevils the Obama administration, even though the alleged Commander in Chief announced his decision for a counterinsurgency back in March to great fanfare, declaring the world’s safety was “at stake.” Then, having appointed a general to determine how that strategy would best be implemented, the President had a WTF moment when General McChrystal made it known he was going to ask for 40-50,000 more troops to implement that strategy. Now the White House has apparently decided to un-decide its March decision so it can again conduct a “top to bottom” review of Afghan policy in order to decide (again) on a strategy. (Much to the annoyance of Darth Vader Dick Cheney.)

Voices on the Right have supported an aggressive Afghan strategy to defeat al Qaeda and its Taliban allies (who are these days almost indistinguishable), but have differed sharply over how to do it. Some argue for a counterterrorism strategy, narrowly targeting al Qaeda with Special Forces and missile strikes and worrying far less about what they deride as “nation-building.” Others argue for a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy that concentrates on protecting the Afghan population from the depredations of the Taliban, gaining their trust and cooperation, which would isolate the enemy and allow aggressive operations against them. Again, General McChrystal has recommended COIN.

Max Boot, a foreign policy and strategy analyst and former advisor to the McCain presidential campaign, argues for the COIN approach and believes in giving McChrystal all he wants and more. As part of his case, he cites the success already reached in small areas of Afghanistan with a limited COIN approach. There’s No Substitute for Troops on the Ground:

“I HOPE people who say this war is unwinnable see stories like this. This is what winning in a counterinsurgency looks like.”
Lt. Col. William F. McCollough, commander of the First Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, is walking me around the center of Nawa, a poor, rural district in southern Afghanistan’s strategically vital Helmand River Valley. His Marines, who now number more than 1,000, arrived in June to clear out the Taliban stronghold. Two weeks of hard fighting killed two Marines and wounded 70 more but drove out the insurgents. Since then the colonel’s men, working with 400 Afghan soldiers and 100 policemen, have established a “security bubble” around Nawa.
Colonel McCollough recalls that when they first arrived the bazaar was mostly shuttered and the streets empty. “This town was strangled by the Taliban,” he says. “Anyone who was still here was beaten, taxed or intimidated.”
Today, Nawa is flourishing. Seventy stores are open, according to the colonel, and the streets are full of trucks and pedestrians. Security is so good we were able to walk around without body armor — unthinkable in most of Helmand, the country’s most dangerous province. The Marines are spending much of their time not in firefights but in clearing canals and building bridges and schools. On those rare occasions when the Taliban try to sneak back in to plant roadside bombs, the locals notify the Marines.
The key to success in Nawa — and in other key districts from Garmsir in the south to Baraki Barak in the center — has been the infusion of additional United States troops. The overall American force in Afghanistan has grown to 68,000 from 32,000 in 2008. That has made it possible to garrison parts of the country where few if any soldiers had been stationed before. Before the Marines arrived in Nawa, for instance, there were just 40 embattled British soldiers there.

“I HOPE people who say this war is unwinnable see stories like this. This is what winning in a counterinsurgency looks like.”

Lt. Col. William F. McCollough, commander of the First Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, is walking me around the center of Nawa, a poor, rural district in southern Afghanistan’s strategically vital Helmand River Valley. His Marines, who now number more than 1,000, arrived in June to clear out the Taliban stronghold. Two weeks of hard fighting killed two Marines and wounded 70 more but drove out the insurgents. Since then the colonel’s men, working with 400 Afghan soldiers and 100 policemen, have established a “security bubble” around Nawa.

Colonel McCollough recalls that when they first arrived the bazaar was mostly shuttered and the streets empty. “This town was strangled by the Taliban,” he says. “Anyone who was still here was beaten, taxed or intimidated.”

Today, Nawa is flourishing. Seventy stores are open, according to the colonel, and the streets are full of trucks and pedestrians. Security is so good we were able to walk around without body armor — unthinkable in most of Helmand, the country’s most dangerous province. The Marines are spending much of their time not in firefights but in clearing canals and building bridges and schools. On those rare occasions when the Taliban try to sneak back in to plant roadside bombs, the locals notify the Marines.

The key to success in Nawa — and in other key districts from Garmsir in the south to Baraki Barak in the center — has been the infusion of additional United States troops. The overall American force in Afghanistan has grown to 68,000 from 32,000 in 2008. That has made it possible to garrison parts of the country where few if any soldiers had been stationed before. Before the Marines arrived in Nawa, for instance, there were just 40 embattled British soldiers there.

This mirrors the Coalition experience in Afghanistan, where small examples of counterinsurgency’s effectiveness foreshadowed the immense success of the “surge” strategy in 2007-08. And while it’s foolhardy to apply a program as a one-size-fits-all template without considering local conditions, the Marines’ experience at Nawa and elsewhere indicates that COIN could work in Afghanistan, too, if given enough time and resources.

But there are serious questions, largely revolving around the hold of Islam on the population: Can a COIN strategy genuinely separate the population from the Taliban and al Qaeda, who claim to be mujahideen, “holy warriors?” Or will they only claim to be on our side, but instead practice taqiyya (religiously sanctioned deception), taking the goodies we offer but helping their Muslim brethren, fellow members of the Ummah? (Which I suspect would be the argument of Robert Spencer, an expert on Islam who grants great weight to its hold on the believer.) If the latter, then COIN would be a waste. I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the middle and that it will come down to “how many are there of each.” How many will genuinely back us, as opposed to those playing us for infidel suckers?

Based on our experiences in Iraq and the success of small COIN projects in Afghanistan, such as at Nawa, and given the expertise of Generals McChrystal and Petraeus (Servator Respublicae Iraqi!), I’m inclined to support the COIN strategy as “not guaranteed, but well-worth trying.” Afghanistan is the land from which the attacks of September 11th, 2001, were launched, and we can ill-afford to let the Taliban and al Qaeda come to dominate it again.

You decided on counterinsurgency once already, Mr. President. Now, act like a commander-in-chief and stick to it.

Related Reading: As I said, there’s been an argument on the Right about counterinsurgency versus counterterrorism.  Following are links to five articles that I think capture this debate and are well-worth your time to read. All these authors are top-notch:

  • Andy McCarthy writes against COIN, arguing that it’s folly to attempt “…the unlikeliest of social-engineering experiments: bringing big, modern, collectivist, secular government to a segmented, corrupt, tribal Islamic society”
  • Ralph Peters contends angrily that COIN is crazy, and it’s getting our troops murdered.
  • Max Boot has his own angry answer to McCarthy, and says McChrystal’s COIN strategy is the only way to win in Afghanistan and that the last eight years prove it.
  • Frederick Kagan makes his own persuasive argument that counterinsurgency is the way to go and that counterterrorism’s kill-and-capture methods have been shown not to work in the long run.
  • Finally, McCarthy replies to his critics to say that, if you don’t understand Islamic ideology, you don’t understand the problem in Afghanistan.

The articles are best read in the order presented, I think.


Obama’s FDR moment

September 22, 2009

Churchill once said to President Roosevelt, “Give us the tools and we will finish the job.” It appears that President Obama has reached or is fast approaching that moment in Afghanistan, the war he has declared a war of necessity, for what else could one call it than a “crisis” when the nation’s top field commander threatens to resign if he doesn’t get the support he needs?

Within 24 hours of the leak of the Afghanistan assessment to The Washington Post, General Stanley McChrystal’s team fired its second shot across the bow of the Obama administration. According to McClatchy, military officers close to General McChrystal said he is prepared to resign if he isn’t given sufficient resources (read “troops”) to implement a change of direction in Afghanistan

(…)

In Kabul, some members of McChrystal’s staff said they don’t understand why Obama called Afghanistan a “war of necessity” but still hasn’t given them the resources they need to turn things around quickly.

Three officers at the Pentagon and in Kabul told McClatchy that the McChrystal they know would resign before he’d stand behind a faltering policy that he thought would endanger his forces or the strategy.

“Yes, he’ll be a good soldier, but he will only go so far,” a senior official in Kabul said. “He’ll hold his ground. He’s not going to bend to political pressure.”

I was going to write a long post analyzing and criticizing the White House’s unconscionable vacillation in our commitment to victory in Afghanistan (though that vacillation in any recent conflict seems to be a feature, not a bug, of the Democratic Party), but I really cannot do better than this piece by Baseball Crank, which I urge you to read.

Presidents have often had trouble with generals, of course. Truman famously had to fire MacArthur for insubordination, but found a superb (and superior) replacement in Ridgway. Lincoln ran through generals like a man changes socks until he found a group that was not only competent, but would actually fight.

But President Obama doesn’t have President Lincoln’s problem. General McChrystal is highly regarded and quite willing to fight. But, to implement the counterinsurgency strategy he recommends (and which is supported by his boss, General Petraeus, the guy who saved Iraq), he needs more troops, the request for which the article at Baseball Crank reminds us generated shocking warnings of a WTF moment at the White House.

The question then becomes “How committed is the White House to victory in the war it declared a ‘necessity?'” Or was this, as a prominent liberal blogger declared, “…a political strategy, not a serious foreign policy?” To turn Churchill’s statement into a question and ask it for General McChrystal, “Will you give us the tools to finish the job, Mr. President?”

Or will Americans be left asking “WTF?”

LINKS: Allahpundit; Ed Morrissey; PoliGazette.