After months of planning and putting pieces in order, aspects of the new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan are beginning to be concretely implemented — including a surge of troops and attempts to curtail the poppy trade that allegedly funds insurgents.
But some aspects of the new strategy are lagging behind, and questions linger about the feasibility of winning by concentrating new U.S. forces in Afghanistan’s south and east, where the Taliban has largely established full control.
On Thursday, 4,000 U.S. Marines made their way by helicopter into Afghanistan’s enormous Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold in the south where poppy cultivation runs rampant.
Those troops, part of the 21,000 additional troops ordered to Afghanistan by U.S. President Barack Obama, are being given a different objective than past incursions into Taliban-controlled territory: the seek-and-destroy missions against Taliban commanders and safe houses are being replaced with an attempt to create a sustained presence in Afghanistan to allow for the growth of good governance.
Indeed, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the ground gained by the Taliban since the militant group’s government dissolved in 2001 was because the Afghan national government had failed to fill the void in the provinces. Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, is sometimes ridiculed as the "Mayor of Kabul," the capital, because of his government’s limited reach.
With no one to turn to for protection or, for example, to handle judicial disputes, the Taliban provided the only alternative.
The U.S. strategy hopes to mend this trust deficit between the international coalition and Afghans by providing services: "Our focus is not the Taliban," Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson was quoted as telling his officers before they moved into Helmand. "Our focus must be on getting this government back on its feet."
The U.S. troops will not be relegated to their bases when not on specific missions.
"We’re doing this very differently," Nicholson said, according to the Washington Post. "We’re going to be with the people. We’re not going to drive to work. We’re going to walk to work."
The tactical shift — in line with the strategic counter-insurgency principle of winning over the local population — is a welcome change for many who were disturbed by the gains made by Taliban in the last few years, when U.S. priorities were elsewhere. But some voices have been warning that the strategy may not be the best one.
In contrast to the perceptions of many outsiders, writes Gilles Dorronsoro, an Afghanistan expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Taliban is not a disjointed group of fighters. Rather, the "professional" insurgent force has a cohesive strategy, strong national communications and intelligence networks, a robust propaganda operation, and is even finding allies outside its ethnic Pashtun roots.
"These developments, and the strength of the insurgency, makes the current Coalition strategy of focusing its reinforcements in the South (Helmand and Kandahar) risky to say the least," writes Dorronsoro in his latest report for Carnegie, "The Taliban’s Winning Strategy in Afghanistan."
"The insurgency has made significant inroads in the past months, consolidating its grip in the South and the East, securing the sanctuary in Pakistan, and opening new fronts in the North. The situation around Kabul is unclear," he writes.
"The biggest mistake is to concentrate the reinforcements in the South, while failing to react quickly and decisively to stop Taliban inroads in the North, where success now would be achievable," write Dorronsoro.
In other words, while focusing on a very uphill battle in the South, the U.S.- and NATO-led coalition risks losing the North and Kabul. If that were to occur, the Taliban would be a full-fledged national insurgency, and chances of coalition success would drop precipitously.
But despite such warnings, it appears that the U.S. will indeed focus a significant portion of its new resources on the South.
In addition to the 21,000 additional troops already ordered, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, the top U.S. military commander, told the Washington Post that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new top commander in Afghanistan, will have latitude to make requests for more troops.
McChrystal is in the middle of a two-month review of the war effort, and Mullen said he has been told, "You come back and ask for what you need."
But even as Mullen told the Post that the war cannot be won by military means alone, serious deficits are coming to light in other areas.
Part of the new strategy for Afghanistan was supposed to be what was called a ‘diplomatic surge’ — an influx of State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development officials to help with reconstruction and governance issues. But that surge has yet to materialise in any significant way.
The Washington Post reported from Afghanistan that only two new State officials were joining Marines in Helmand, with a dozen more promised for later this year. The Marines are filling the gap with 50 military civilian affairs experts.
Nicholson emphasised this dual capacity of the Marines’ mission in Helmand: "We’re not going to measure your success by the number of times your ammunition is resupplied," he told officers. "You’re going to drink lots of tea. You’re going to eat lots of goat. Get to know the people."
On Saturday in Trieste, Italy, in conferences set up around the G8 meeting there, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, told allies that the U.S. strategy to cull the poppy trade in Afghanistan was being radically shifted.
Afghan poppies supply more than 90 percent of the world’s heroin, with about 50 percent of that coming from Helmand. Some of the profits are allegedly funding the Taliban.
The past U.S. policy has been poppy eradication, but will be shifted to focus on alternative crops for farmers.
"The Western policies against the opium crop, the poppy crop, have been a failure," Holbrooke said, according to Reuters. "They did not result in any damage to the Taliban, but they put farmers out of work and they alienated people and drove people into the arms of the Taliban."
"The poppy farmer is not our enemy. The Taliban are," he said.
(Inter Press Service)