Sunday, July 5, 2009

Thoughts on the Helmand Offensive

It's getting... some news. Not too much.

But it's the biggest military offensive in Afghanistan since the invasion in 2001, and the stakes are high. The outcome is important. The implications will be enormous.

The whole thing smells a bit sweetly of a General Petraeus plot. Large surge of troops, offensive against the seriously bad guys, and long-term boots on the ground to provide security and institutional organization where there is a vacuum. Petraeus trained the US army in doubling as a low-level government, and those skills will be critical in winning the long-term security of the province. Hearts-and-minds.

It is very hard, to say the least, to tell how the offensive is going. Bad guys are dying, good guys are dying. The folks in Helmand aren't sure whether they're more angered by the presence of the Taliban or the presence of foreign troops.

But if US marines and UK army troops are able to achieve victory (loosely defined as restoring peace and security to the region), then a number of benefits follow:

1) Helmand and Kandahar will be more secure areas in which the US can operate and prevent Taliban from pouring across the border during the Waziristan operation in Pakistan. This is critical. If Helmand and Kandahar remain in Taliban hands, then even a successful assault in Waziristan will be worth little to the long-term war against the Taliban. On the other hand, if the US and UK can hold the area and patrol the border, then they will pinch the largest concentration of Taliban in the entire Afpak region, and have a good shot at delivering the first crushing blow in a very long time. But these Taliban are wiser, tougher, and smarter than their brethren out in Swat, and will not go down so easily.

2) Voting in the area will be secure. Giving the Pashtun majority the ability to vote in full (where currently the only secure voting areas are in northern, non-Pashtun areas) will legitimize the election and potentially prevent post-election violence.

3) The ISAF will strike a significant psychological blow to the Taliban--and bolster the confidence of anti-Taliban citizens in Afghanistan, much like the Pakistani assault in Swat did. The ISAF needs to regain the momentum of this war; the Taliban can out-wait foreigners rather indefinitely if it is not soundly beaten.

Losing, of course, means that the momentum is very squarely in the hands of the Taliban. But, frankly, the US and UK are unlikely to simply give up this fight--they will stick around and make life rather difficult for the Taliban for a long time. Total defeat seems unlikely, and they should at least be able to operate with enough presence to support the Waziristan assault in Pakistan (at which point the US should have an easier time "mopping up" Helmand and Kandahar, as the Taliban will have no safe zones). It may be messy and long, but I believe the US is likely to turn a victory here.

But if it doesn't, serious questions will be asked about whether it is worth it to stick around much longer.
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