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    South Asia
     Jul 8, 2009
Crossing the Helmand
By Brian M Downing

The offensive launched last week by United States forces in the southern Afghan province of Helmand signals the start of a new chapter in the conflict. With over 4,000 US troops involved, mostly marines, it is one of the largest operations of the war that began in late 2001 with the ouster of the Taliban.

The goals are ambitious. The campaign first seeks to drive the Taliban out of the region and then begin a counter-insurgency program - providing services to the local population to win them over to the government side. The offensive also likely seeks to disrupt the opium trade in Helmand - which provides revenue to

 

the Taliban - and to throw the Taliban off balance so as to limit a wave of attacks aimed at disrupting national elections scheduled for August 20.

Two potential problems come to mind. First, though the scale of the operation is smaller than the big operations of the Vietnam War, it may be sufficient to cause dismay among the indigenous populace, many of whom are ambivalent about the Taliban but blame US troops for bringing war to their districts. This bolsters support for the Taliban, as in the "accidental guerrilla" dynamic identified by former Australian army officer and now author David Kilcullen.

Second, counter-insurgency doctrine calls for beginning in "easy" districts, where insurgent support is relatively weak and government control relatively strong. From there, having benefited from a learning curve, counter-insurgency operations can spread out into adjacent areas or begin in tougher areas. The present operation has ignored that tenet and chosen to begin in a Taliban stronghold.

Perhaps geography trumped doctrine in choosing Helmand to begin the counter-insurgency. It is relatively flat compared to Kandahar, Paktia and Kunar provinces, where mountainsides afford insurgents formidable positions to rain fire on supply lines and helicopter-borne reaction forces. Accordingly, resupply and responding to Taliban attacks in strength will be less arduous in Helmand.

Engagements have so far been few and brief, though recent reports indicate stiffening resistance in some places. It is unclear if the Taliban have vanished into the population or headed for defensible positions. No one should believe that the US can now write off Helmand and concentrate on Kandahar or other strong points.

The experience of other insurgencies offer several tactics to the Taliban. Among them will be interdiction of supplies coming to forward operating bases in the province. This can be done through ambushes and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) which have become a tactic of choice by the Taliban since costly efforts at large-scale operations in 2007.

The dispersal of US units into small fire bases and checkpoints offer attractive targets for a few dozen or so Taliban fighters whose fellow guerrillas will set ambushes for relief forces. The Taliban might also launch attacks in numerous districts across the country, to pressure the US to withdraw troops from Helmand and to disrupt the August elections.

Foremost in the Taliban response will be disruption of counter-insurgency efforts. Insurgents will seek to assassinate elders and others deemed to be collaborating with US forces. They can also focus on attacking newly founded local forces before they can coalesce into effective fighting forces, and destroying logistical centers that store equipment for local development programs. In every engagement, the Taliban will seek to ensure that US forces inflict casualties on civilians.

Failing to thwart the counter-insurgency program in Helmand, the Taliban may well face desertions from the numerous part-timers who flesh out their fighting forces, and also the threat of shifting local support in the face of an agency whose resources are foreign but virtually limitless.

Helmand will be a test of Pashtun amenability to counter-insurgency. Will they respond to government services and participate in security forces, or has the province become too closely attached to the Taliban over the years? The forces are in place and the stakes are clear to all. The die has been cast, in Helmand.

Brian M Downing is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com.

(Copyright 2009 Brian M Downing.)


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