Friday 2 October 2009

Insight into the military campaign in Helmand

Despite the intensity of the fighting in Afghanistan, it is exceptionally hard to find accounts of what is actually happening in areas like the southern province of Helmand. News reports - most of which originate with military press officers - talk about the latest casualties or, occasionally, about a new offensive against a Taliban target. But seldom do you read anything approaching a narrative.
An excellent exception to this state of affairs is a new report from the US-based Institute for the Study of War. Written by Jeffrey A. Dressler, Securing Helmand: Understanding and responding to the enemy explains to the reader the ebbs and flows of attack and counter-attack in this critical region.
Dressler says, for example, that "The enemy system in Helmand is resourced and directed by the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST). The enemy is determined, well-organized, and entrenched in the province. In recent years, the enemy has shown its ability to adapt to the evolving conflict by developing and executing coherent campaign plans." He goes through these campaigns, showing how they evolved and who was behind the decision making.
He divides Helmand into three distinct, but related, areas of southern, central and northern Helmand River Valley, each of which is used in different ways by the Taliban. The southern area facilitates the movement of foreign fighters and weapons to central Helmand, as well as facilitating the refining, storage and eventual movement of narcotics out of Helmand, mainly through the province’s southern border with Pakistan.
Central Helmand is the Taliban’s centre of gravity in the province, particularly the areas west of the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah and around the province’s economic centre of Gereshk in the Nahri Sarraj district.
In northern Helmand the Taliban is entrenched along the Helmand and Musa Qala Rivers, in and around the fertile farmland mainly used for opium cultivation.
Dressler says that the most critical population centres in the province are Lashkar Gah, Gereshk, Nad Ali, Nawa, Garmser, Sangin, Musa Qala, and Kajaki and that these population centres must be the focus of Coalition activity.
British activity in Helmand is carefully analysed by Dressler, who notes that it was, from the beginning in 2006, a comprehensive approach, involving the military, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. The strategy was designed to mirror the British "Malayan inkspot strategy": by focussing on the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, it was hoped that the perceived benefits in terms of security, social and economic improvement and political stability would spread to outlying towns and villages.
However, says Dressler, the strategy has not worked. He points to differing agendas. The military planners say that you cannot have development without security, while the DFID and FCO staff are under pressure to show signs of development that are not based on "kinetic activity".
He adds that the British effort has also been hampered by misuse of funds and the Taliban's control of the roads surrounding the district. The UK Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee report published in July (see my post on this subject) offers a way forward, with its emphasis on improving security as a way of stabilising the province.
Dressler's report provides a sober assessment of Britain's Panther's Claw offensive this summer. Dressler says the operation was timed to allow some of the 80,000 elegible voters to take part in the Presidential election on 20 August. However only 150 turned out to vote in the town of Babaji, which was the only place thought safe enough to open a polling station.
Overall, says Dressler, "The shortcomings of Panther’s Claw were evident. First, the force failed to comprehensively and methodically clear the green zone. Hence, the transition to the holding phase was premature. An insufficient holding force has been left to oppose an enemy presence that is still quite strong. The poor voter turnout was likely a result of an enemy presence that remains capable of intimidating and coercing the local population. Although the British may hold Babaji district center, the remainder of the green zone is not under their control. Despite the magnitude of Panther’s Claw, the result is likely to be the same as previous operations throughout Helmand."
This report contains much very useful information and is indispensable for anyone who wants to understand how the Taliban fights and organises in its most important battlefield.

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