Saturday 18 Aug 2018 | 12:49 | SYDNEY
Saturday 18 Aug 2018 | 12:49 | SYDNEY

Thoughts on operations in southern Afghanistan

6 July 2009 13:16

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

Due to the dramatic failure of NATO to conduct out-of-area operations, making NATO irrelevant as a military force, the US has taken over the Afghan war, and is trying very hard to resource it. NATO had an adequate strategy but failed to resource it due to lack of will and experience. The US has extraordinary experience, will have less trouble resourcing its strategy but is unlikely to get near an adequate number of troops until about 2011.

The current reinforcement of 21,000 US troops is not a ‘surge’ in the Iraq sense but a small start of what must become a large US build-up. Compared to the magnitude of Afghanistan's problems, 21,000 is better than nothing, but is a drop in a bucket.

It is only fair to see the current US Marine operation in southern Helmand (Operation KHANJAR) as the first operation conducted under the March 2009 Obama strategy, the military part of which was 'disrupt, dismantle and destroy'. The Marine operation is complemented by UK operations to the north and Pakistan operations to the south, with a strong rhetorical focus on protecting the population, controlling collateral damage and re-establishing governance.

There is unlikely to be anything like a decisive result out of this operation, even in the local area in the short term. Marine commanders will talk up the operation because that is what you do, and the media, Congress and commentators will project their own hopes and desires onto the operation, and then castigate the Marines for not meeting them.

With 4000 deployed troops from this 11,000-strong Marine force, relatively few small outposts can be established because each outpost must be big enough to protect itself against initial attack, and must be backed up by quick reaction forces held in reserve. So even if this operation goes perfectly it will merely establish small groups of Marines in a number of local areas. This is the right first step. It then requires the re-establishment of local governance, which will take years, and the replacement of the Marines with Afghan troops and police.

Trust will only be built up in the eyes of a deeply suspicious local people by a protracted period of careful operations. US Marines are more than capable of doing this if given time, with some of the most successful counterinsurgent operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan behind them, and an intellectual and experienced leadership.

An immediate positive result might be that Taliban supply lines to central Helmand and to Kandahar are likely to be interdicted, which will make British and Canadians efforts much more achievable. The Taliban reaction might be to step out of the way in the first instance (so results for the media in the first few weeks might be minimal) and then choose how they will attack the Marines and the local people at their will.

The Taliban might also use surrounding provinces (including Uruzgan, with its Dutch and Australian forces) either to establish new supply lines or to threaten local populations with the hope that troops will have to be deployed from their current tasks in Helmand to meet the new threat somewhere else, thus dislocating the efforts in Helmand.

The other side of locating Marines in many local villages to help establish governance, control and protection is that this Marine force is now tied down in that area for (probably) some years to come. If there were adequate coalition troops in Afghanistan this would not be a problem. Given there is only one-third to one-half the number of capable troops needed in Afghanistan, this is a big problem indeed. And the area in which they are tied down is relatively close to the Pakistan border and (it is assumed) to larger numbers of Taliban forces. An even greater reliance on air power may be the result.

Once again, non-military agencies have failed to support the US military’s actions. Talk in the Obama strategy about diplomacy, aid, governance, policing, agriculture and local infrastructure has come to nought because none of the people have been made available by their agencies. The US military might be at war, but the rest of the US and the US government certainly is not. The troops will have to do it all, probably until at least the end of this year. The two constants of modern military operations (Australia included) are the failure of our societies to ever provide enough troops initially, and the failure of our governments to provide non-military (interagency) personnel.

The pitiful lack of Afghan troops involved in KHANJAR (4000 Marines deployed but only about 650 Afghan troops) indicates that the hope of producing an Afghan force numerous and capable enough to take over counterinsurgency from the coalition is five to ten years away. Most of the Marines won't have nearby Afghan troops to provide them with local knowledge.

The nature of this operation indicates that regardless of what Obama’s strategy might say, the US is still in a holding strategy. Petraeus knows this better than anyone and as much said so at recent House Armed Services Committee hearings.

The Obama strategy cannot be implemented until it is resourced. I address this in great detail in an article in the Australian Army Journal (Winter Edition), soon to be published.

Photo by Flickr user US Army Korea IMCOM, used under a Creative Commons license.