Friday, February 26, 2010
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
All together now
A military offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan shows some early success
Feb 16th 2010 | KABUL | From The Economist online
OPERATION Mushtarak, which was launched on Saturday February 13th as a joint effort between Afghan and NATO forces, has so far proven to be a moderately successful affair. The goal was to clear Marja, a big opium-producing town and the main Taliban stronghold in the southern province of Helmand. The territory was well suited to defenders, who could have taken advantage of an intricate web of irrigation ditches, small alleys winding between mudbrick houses and mounds of earth between the canals. One American commander described it as the worst terrain on earth, ideal for slowing down the advance of even the most powerful army. Yet the fighting has, reportedly, been limited.
The biggest allied offensive in Afghanistan since 2001 is a part of the recent Western push to turn the war against the Taliban. Operation Mushtarak—“Together” in Dari Persian—makes use of some 15,000 allied troops, roughly half of them Afghans, most of the rest American Marines and British soldiers. By Tuesday the offensive had succeeded in putting NATO and Afghan forces in control of most of the target area, according to coalition officials. But occasional fighting continues between militants and coalition troops who are moving from house to house. The danger of explosives is particularly severe. Clearing the town entirely could take weeks.
It is problematic that civilians have suffered in an operation that is, in part, designed to win support from local people. So far at least 15 non-combatants have been killed, 12 of them when a coalition rocket missed its target (although Afghan officials say three of the victims may have been militants). At least four NATO soldiers have died, three in a bomb explosion and one in a gun battle. And at least 30 insurgents have died. More than a 1,000 Marjan families have streamed into Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, refugees from the well-advertised operation. The government says it is looking after them, though a local human-rights group says supplies have not been forthcoming. Amir Mohammad, a Marja refugee interviewed in Kabul, said the Taliban had tried to stop people leaving.
Marine commanders say that the insurgents have shown less resistance than had been anticipated. Many are believed to have fled in advance of the invasion, although American forces have come under fire from snipers and there have been reports of day-long gun battles and attempted suicide attacks. As expected, the biggest obstacle is hidden explosives: roads are mined, houses are booby-trapped. The roads into Marja, especially, are dangerous. British forces, given the task of taking Nad Ali, a town north-east of Marja, have been quicker to reach their target.
Marja, a town of nearly a 100,000 people, had previously been cleared in May when a four-day operation killed dozens of militants and saw narcotics seized. But NATO forces withdrew after the battle and the Taliban slipped back. By the end of last year American commanders estimated that Marja was home to as many as 1,000 enemy fighters and served as the insurgents' capital.
This time the coalition claims that it intends to stay. Under a new doctrine of “clear, hold, and build” it plans to patrol the roads of the area, build new schools and clinics, establish decent local government and create jobs. But convincing locals that this will really happen will not be easy. Many of them support the Taliban, if only out of fear and an expectation that, in the long run, the insurgents will be back. NATO forces are for now disinclined to destroy the poppy crop, which provides a livelihood for many residents.
Nonetheless, many locals will be happy to be rid of the Taliban's heavy-handed rule. Haji Wali Jan, a local MP, says the militants were taking money and food from people to “defend” them from the infidel government. But previous operations in Helmand have shown that clearing, bloody as it sometimes gets, is the easy part. Insurgents who melt away at the first push, tend to slip back to mount a bombing campaign later. This winter has already been bloodier for NATO than any since the war began, although that is partly the result of recent troop increases. An incompetent and corrupt Afghan administration, a mostly hopeless police force, and little economic development have so far ensured that any gains in security remain tenuous at best.
Monday, February 15, 2010
Saturday, February 13, 2010
A faint glimmer from Afghanistan’s most troubled province
CAPTAIN Jason Brezler of the US Marine Corps had never imagined he might spend his tour of duty chasing truant children to school. At least not in Now Zad, one of Afghanistan’s most infamous battle zones, a place destroyed so conclusively by years of fighting between British forces and Taliban insurgents that its centre is now little more than a pile of rubble. Yet here he is, shouting gamely after the little devils while walking through the bazaar, unescorted but for a single marine and one Afghan policeman. He stops to chat with shopkeepers who have just started returning to a market that had stood empty for years. It was recently secured by the marines.
"I have to thank the Americans more than my own father," says a beaming Muhammad Yunus, the very first man to have returned to Now Zad. He is working as a day labourer, paid by the marines, clearing away rubble alongside 500 other men. Even the video rental store has reopened, albeit with only one movie. The pharmacy seems to be well stocked; it even carries Viagra.
An important shift may be under way in Helmand, Afghanistan’s most troubled province. An influx of thousands of American troops last year has helped push the Taliban out of much of the Helmand river valley. Higher troop levels mean that hard-won battles are no longer followed by retreat behind safe lines but instead by stepped-up patrols everywhere. Previously hostile areas, such as Garmser in the south, Nawa in the middle and Now Zad in the north are now controlled by American and Afghan national forces. Any day a new offensive is expected to be launched into Marja, the last big population centre to remain under Taliban control. General Stanley McChrystal, the coalition commander in Afghanistan, said recently that he thinks the situation is no longer deteriorating.
An important measure of success in the recently cleared areas is the willingness of their residents to co-operate in the face of Taliban intimidation. With coalition forces increasingly out and about, it seems that many locals are no longer afraid to be seen as supporting the government. Now Zad’s citizens are returning, despite a prohibition by the Taliban. In Garmser most roadside bombs are now found by the marines—acting on local tip-offs—before they can do their damage. This is all the more remarkable in a place without a mobile phone network: Afghan informants have to report in person.
None of this means the war is being won. There may be less fighting, but the Taliban have not disappeared: they simply plant roadside bombs instead of setting ambushes. Coalition casualties were actually higher in January than a year before, though this is partly a function of the increased troop numbers (soon to rise to nearly 30,000 in Helmand). Open fighting may well resume in the spring as blooming poppy fields offer better cover to the militants. Garmser suffered bloody riots in January after allegations that American troops had desecrated the Koran. The marines say that was only a rumour, provocation spread by an increasingly desperate enemy. In any case, distrust of the foreigners still runs high.
More importantly, it is unclear whether there are sustainable structures in place to keep the militancy tamped down. On the one hand, USAID is promoting agricultural projects in Nawa that might wean farmers off poppy growing. Falling opium prices, due to a glut on the market, mean that wheat is now a viable alternative. Schools and a clinic have been built in Garmser, and two miles of road have been paved. But such development seems sporadic, ad hoc and very much foreign-run. Captain Brezler is forced to use his own discretionary funds to pay local labourers. He reckons about a tenth of his workers are former Taliban fighters who have found other sources of income as the tide of war has turned. No one seems to know who will pick up the tab after the marines have gone.
And while the marines speak highly of the local governments, both in Now Zad and Garmser, the locals seem less sure. There have been reports of police stealing money from labourers in Now Zad and beating those who complained. The Afghan security forces are weak and under-equipped—and yet necessary to securing recently cleared areas, even with the upgraded Western presence. These are the very conditions that have fed the insurgency and kept it growing. Neyad Muhammad, an elder of Now Zad, does not sound hopeful. "When the Americans leave, so will I," he says.
HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- For Gen. Nick Carter, commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, and Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the U.S. Marines in Helmand, taking a walk late last month in the Garmsir district center's bazaar without a flak jacket was no big deal.
The northern bit of the district, known as the Snake's Head, has been relatively stable for about a year -- unusual for the troubled province of Helmand, which is home to a massive insurgency that makes it a dangerous place to visit even in heavily armored vehicles.
But perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the generals' promenade is that security in the area is no longer provided by NATO troops. That task has already been transferred to Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), mainly the army and police.
While the ANSF has taken care of security in Kabul, the nation's capital, and other relatively calm areas since 2008, better-equipped and better-trained Western forces are generally needed to secure volatile areas in the east and south of the country. But security in the Snake's Head recently became the responsibility of the ANSF, with about 500 Afghan soldiers and policemen currently stationed in and around the district center, and about 7,000 in Helmand altogether.
Transferring security duties to the ANSF is now a central plank of NATO's strategy in Afghanistan. Even with some 20,000 Western troops in Helmand alone, there just aren't enough to both clear and hold ground, meaning that NATO must gradually hand over territory to ANSF forces after clearing it of insurgents.
To be sure, the security handover in the Snake's Head isn't nearly complete. Although there are no longer any Marine rifle companies there, about 400 Marines remain, fulfilling various other duties, such as training and mentoring. They are heavily armed, with air support as close as 15 minutes away, providing a backstop to the Afghan forces if something goes wrong.
Marines also still patrol together with the ANSF, at least once a day. And during their tour, Gens. Carter and Nicholson were protected not just by ANSF personnel, but by American and British troops as well as European private security contractors.
And the Snake's Head is not without tensions. In mid-January, bloody riots broke out over rumors that American troops had desecrated the Quran. (The coalition denies the allegation, claiming the rumor was Taliban propaganda.)
But Marine commanders held even this incident up as proof of the ANSF's growing ability to provide security for their own country. Although Marine snipers shot and killed at least one armed Afghan when the rioters attacked their compound near the Garmsir district center, they say security was eventually restored by the ANSF in cooperation with local elders.
"We never even stepped out of our compound," says Gunnery Sgt. John Leroy of the 2-2 Marines, who is assigned to train and mentor the local Afghan police. He lives and works with them on their compound with 17 other Marines.
Gunnery Sgt. Leroy says the police are for the most part self-sufficient, but adds that they are still unable to devise detailed patrol plans for themselves. He said their biggest problem was logistics, and that they were often short on fuel.
Most of the Garmsir police have already been through an 8-week American training program. But many policemen elsewhere are put on duty without any training whatsoever - and it shows: It is not unusual to see policemen wandering around with the safeties of their AK-47s switched off, and corruption persists.
As for the army, generally acknowledged to be head and shoulders above the police, plenty of questions also remain, especially when it comes to logistics, equipment and discipline. Interestingly, most Marines who have served in Iraq compare the Afghan soldiers very favorably with the Iraqi Army.
"It's a good, committed fighting force, and they are determined to develop," says Lt. Troy Van Zuckermann, an army mentor with the 2-2 Marines. But if most U.S. officers sound quite positive, the lower-ranking Marines generally held less favorable opinions, while views about the Afghans' discipline vary widely.
The Afghans themselves acknowledge their shortcomings, but they mostly complain about their equipment. "We have nothing. No armored trucks, no air force, no proper accommodation, no night-vision equipment, no GPS, no maps," says 1st Lt. Abdul Alim of the 4th battalion, 205th Corps of the Afghan army, stationed in Garmsir. "Only ancient radios and old M16s that you have to clean all the time, otherwise they jam."
Meanwhile, desertion is a major problem, with up to 20 percent of the army AWOL at any given time. This is not entirely surprising. Even though pay was recently raised to $160 a month ($240 with combat bonus), it remains low. And because soldiers are routinely deployed well beyond the target date of six months -- and sometimes as long as 11 months -- many simply choose to disappear, pushing the attrition rate to about 3,000 per month.
It is anybody's guess if these forces can stand up to the Taliban unassisted. But some American officers hope that cash-for-works programs can turn enough people away from the Taliban so that the Afghan army will never really have to face them. The strategy is based on the belief that most low-level insurgent fighters are fighting for money, not ideology.
Cpt. Jason Brezler, Lima company, 3rd battalion, 4th Marine regiment, in Now Zad, Helmand, estimates that up to 15 percent of the 500 men he pays to clear the rubble away in Now Zad are former Taliban fighters. "If you can give these people work, they won't go back to fight, and then the Taliban is dead," says Brezler. "Why would they go back to fight? For Allah's name? Come on."
A good part of NATO's strategy depends on Brezler being right.