27636256fb868210VgnVCM100000e56411acRCRDapproved/thenational/Articles/Migration/2009-Q3US embarks on a new long war in Afghanistan17636256fb868210VgnVCM100000e56411ac____US embarks on a new long war in AfghanistanCommanders have said the size and speed of the new offensive in Helmand province should overwhelm Taliban positions, but the initial attack will be decisive only if it fails.<p>US marines are calling it "the decisive op". This is true in a sense. Commanders have said the size and speed of the new offensive in Helmand province should overwhelm Taliban positions, but the initial attack will be decisive only if it fails.
Rather, Helmand will be the testing ground of a new counterinsurgency strategy that will take months if not years to prove itself. Even if the surge is successful there is a long struggle ahead to stabilise the country. If it fails, the US faces that struggle without a viable plan.</p>
<p>Proponents have described the new strategy as triage to stop the bleeding. There is no doubt that previous efforts were failing. A 2006 offensive floundered, and since then the 9,000 British troops have been hemmed into the main population centres, even signing limited ceasefire agreements with the Taliban that may have saved lives but ceded them safe havens.
The airlift into southern Helmand that began on Wednesday is drawing comparisons to operations during the Vietnam War, but the analogy misses the most important point.</p>
<p>Since Gen Stanley McChrystal was appointed commander of international forces in Afghanistan in mid-June, there have been clear signals that the war will be waged on a new set of terms, with parallels to counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq.
Instead of hunting and killing the Taliban, the marines' first priority will be establishing and holding forward observation posts with an emphasis on protecting the civilian population.
In line with that interest, Gen McChrystal has limited battle tactics, ruling out air strikes except to protect ground positions from being overrun and prioritising disengagement from battles where civilians are at risk. The critical battle test will be if forces operating under these rules can hold these small outposts without taking prohibitive casualties.</p>
<p>The Taliban have had enough advance warning to avoid the initial wave, but are exceedingly unlikely to surrender Helmand without a fight. The province, particularly the fertile Helmand River valley, produces more than 40 per cent of the world's opium, a vital source of funding for the insurgency.
While they cannot match the marines in direct engagements, their guerrilla warfare skills have been honed over decades and the lessons of al Qa'eda and the war in Iraq suggest that suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices may take the heaviest toll.</p>
<p>Success relies on persuading the Afghans, particularly the powerful Pashtun tribes, to oppose the Taliban, cutting supply sources and denying safe havens. This requires the unpalatable necessity of tolerating opium cultivation until crop substitution and economic inducements take hold.
Most importantly, the people of the province must be convinced that the new forces can provide security in the long term and that their lot will be better than under the Taliban.</p>
<p>The conventional war was being lost, but the new plan is nothing less than building the institutions of a civil society in the most hostile of conditions. At stake is the counterinsurgency strategy, the long-term plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan and perhaps the credibility of the Obama administration's foreign policy.
Three days after withdrawing from the streets of Iraq, the US military is preparing for an open-ended commitment in Afghanistan. Can the American public stomach another long war? Only time will tell.</p>