Without political will for an enduring campaign, operations like Moshtarak remain futile

Without the political will for an enduring campaign, operations like those being undertaken in Marjah at present remain strategically futile.

Initial indicators are that Operation Moshtarak, ISAF’s (International Security and Assistance Force) current surge into south-eastern Afghanistan, has met with little resistance. This is to be expected.

Forewarned that more than 6,000 US, British, Danish, Estonian and Afghan soldiers would be landing in waves of helicopters into the Marjah area of central Helmand, Taleban resistance melted away.

This is exactly the outcome that General Stanley McChrystal will have hoped for. This operation is the flagship of President Obama’s renewed commitment to Afghanistan and McChrystal’s population-centric military strategy.

Having identified the Marjah area as not only a centre of Helmand’s population and infrastructure, but also of the poppy trade which funds the insurgency, McChrystal will now look to hold and build on the ground that the troops have taken.

This is where the real test of ISAF and the Afghan authorities will come.

Many of Marjah’s and its environs 80,000 inhabitants have already left their homes for safety in other towns and villages. ISAF must now convince them that it is safe to return, and if and when they do, they must also provide real signs of improvement in their daily lives.

‘Super hot’ Quick Impact Projects, like the refurbishment of mosques and distribution of aid, will be identified and implemented to influence those who do decide to return.

The Afghan National Army and Police will establish and maintain their presence in order to project their government’s writ into a previously Taleban-controlled district.

For the first time since operations began in 2001, ISAF troops are fully resourced for their task and prepared to stay for its duration. For the first time they have the correct troop density to deliver success.

It is hoped that these factors will prove conducive to political reconciliation with those who had previously aligned themselves with the Taleban. Perhaps Marjah can become an example to the rest of Afghanistan that the Afghan Government is ready and able to govern them.

But when the summer fighting season arrives the Taliban will attempt re-infiltrate. They will try to lay improvised explosive devices on Marjah’s tracks and roads. They will attack ISAF and the Afghan authorities where and when they can, whilst exposing their Muhajideen to minimum risk.

They will endeavour to influence and coerce the population. The farmers will still grow their poppy crops where they can because they are paid more for them than other crops. And the Taliban will continue to tax their profits and buy their radio controlled detonation devices.

Marjah is just one town of many in Afghanistan that lacks government influence. For McChrystal’s strategy to work, and for the influence of the Afghan government to expand, such operations will need to be repeated and maintained throughout Afghanistan.

The operational art must be linked to the strategic aim. This involves an enduring commitment in soldiers, resources and political will, long after the glares of the media’s cameras have gone.

Most important is a commitment in time. And time is the one thing Afghan’s have much of and ISAF little.

Although Moshtarak may be the largest operation yet undertaken by ISAF in Afghanistan, it does not represent any great change in the military approach to Afghanistan’s insurgency – McChrystal’s population-centric approach is nothing new.

What is new is the amount of resources being allocated to enable it. But without the political will for an enduring campaign, operations like those being undertaken in Marjah at present remain strategically futile.

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7 Responses to “Without political will for an enduring campaign, operations like Moshtarak remain futile”

  1. Shamik Das

    Excellent analysis: RT @leftfootfwd: Without the will for an enduring campaign, operations like Moshtarak remain futile: http://is.gd/8q0qE

  2. Joel Davies

    RT @leftfootfwd: Without political will for an enduring campaign, operations like Moshtarak remain futile: http://is.gd/8q0qE

  3. Marcus Roberts

    Excellent piece Paddy, many thanks for it. Whilst I found your analysis of the the way this is likely to play out over short term as accurate as it is encouraging I am curious as to your more pessimistic conclusion. After all, we’ve seen in COIN time after time a surprising upswing in political will after military success has been enjoyed. Without question time and staying power are going to be key, but if security can be established then internal Afghan power sharing agreements become easier which in combination with a newly reinvigorated secuirty force training programme should lead to the successful Afghanisation of the situation in the long term. It is by this means that the long term political and military objects can be secured.

  4. Patrick

    Thanks Marcus, thought you might say that!
    Firstly, you are right, I am pessimistic at present and much of that pessimism stems from my opinion that a lot of the solutions being offered at the policy level lack understanding of the complexities of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. Such pessimism is furthered by my own limited experience of Afghanistan and historical precedent.
    Think back to the much lauded Kajaki third turbine Op in 2008, or to Panther’s Claw 2009. The third turbine still sits in Kajaki dormant, and we knew this would happen when we delivered it. And the ground taken in Panther’s Claw has not been held due to lack of resources. Far from being a resounding defeat for the Taliban, they have become a testament to the hollow military victories played out for the media.
    Secondly, I also agree Moshtarak is a step in the right direction, but it will need to be followed by many more similar steps all over Afghanistan to deliver any real strategic gains. This is a long distance run not a sprint, and telling our adversaries where the finish line is in such circumstances is the height of folly.
    Finally, I think much of the quagmire in Afghanistan is due to myriad inter-related geo-politcal factors that force McChrystal to fight with one hand behind his back against Pakistan’s insurgency. Until these are solved, and at the moment, with the rise of China, they are barely even being addressed, the prospects for Afghanistan do not look good, in my opinion!

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  7. Matthew Page

    I feel it’s a mistake to see British aims in Helmand as somehow leading to a viable stand-alone Afghanistan. The centre piece of that goal seems to be a huge standing army, roled to fight internal enemies so that US-UK don’t need to have troops there. Its unclear how the tiny economy will support it or how the weak central government will control it? Or if indeed that is the intention.
    It would be better to be a little more realist and see the UK role as supporting our policy of being close to the US in geo-strategic matters. It’s their war and their semi-imperial project to exert some control over that region. Bringing security and stability to Afghan lives is a means to an end in this endeavour.
    Respectfully, let’s have discussion around whether we should be supporting the US project in Afghanistan in this way, rather than kid ourselves that British political will, enduring or otherwise, will bring lasting benefit to the Afghan people. That is not why our people are there, though the rhetoric would obviously deny this.

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