Last week US forces launched an offensive in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. The four thousand troops involved, mostly marines, are beginning one of the largest operations of the war and the start of a new chapter in the conflict as well.
The goals are ambitious. The campaign first seeks to drive the Taliban out of villages then begin a counterinsurgency program – providing services to the local population to win them over to the government side. Officers are ordered to meet with local councils within forty-eight hours of arrival and impress upon them the US’s commitment there.
The offensive likely also 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 elections on August 20th.
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 are ambivalent about the Taliban but will blame US troops for bringing war to their districts, thereby bolstering support for the Taliban – the “accidental guerrilla” dynamic identified by David Kilcullen.
Second, counterinsurgency 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, counterinsurgency ops will spread into adjacent areas then jump into 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 counterinsurgency. It is relatively flat compared to Kandahar, Paktia, and Kunar, 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.
Thus far, engagements have 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 can think they will write off Helmand to concentrate on Kandahar and other strong points.
The experience of other insurgencies offer several responses for the Taliban weigh. Among them will be interdiction of supplies coming to forward operating bases in the province. This can be done through ambushes and IEDs – the latter having become a tactic of choice in recent years, apparently learned from veterans of the insurgency in Iraq.
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. Furthermore, the Taliban might attack in numerous provinces 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 counterinsurgency efforts. Insurgents will seek to assassinate elders and others deemed to be collaborating with US forces, attack newly-formed local forces before they can coalesce into effective fighting forces, and destroy logistical centers that store equipment tagged for local development programs. And in every engagement, the Taliban will seek to ensure that US firepower causes civilian casualties.
Failing to thwart the counterinsurgency program in Helmand, the Taliban may well be saddled by desertions from the numerous part-timers who flesh out their fighting forces, and also by the threat of shifting support in the face of an agency whose resources are foreign but virtually limitless. Helmand will be a test of Pashtun amenability to counterinsurgency. Will they respond favorably to government services and participate in security forces, or has the province become too closely attached to the Taliban over the years? Should the campaign fail, the US will have to reevaluate its approach in Afghanistan, if not its very presence there. The forces are in place and the importance is 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: firstname.lastname@example.org