x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

US tries to break stalemate with the Taliban

Operation Khanjar, the largest military offensive in Afghanistan since the Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, is a crucial test for the US president Barack Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. "You don't really need to chase and kill the Taliban," said General Stanley McChrystal, the newly appointed US commander of all allied troops in Afghanistan. "What you need to do is take away the one thing they absolutely have to have - and that's access and the support of the people."

Operation Khanjar (which means "dagger" in Dari and Pashtu but which the US marines translate as "Strike of the Sword") is the largest military offensive in Afghanistan since the Soviet forces departed in 1989. For the American forces it is the biggest operation since the assault on Fallujah in Iraq in 2004. It is a crucial test for the US president Barack Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan which he first outlined in late March. At that time Mr Obama said the United States has "a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qa'eda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future." In the operation which began on Wednesday, British forces have handed over control of the bulk of Helmand province and are now primarily responsible for the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. "It's all part of a strategic change. In [the] future, American and British troops will be expected to hold their ground, providing security for local people while denying the insurgents access to vital supplies, funding and recruits," The Sunday Times reported. " 'You don't really need to chase and kill the Taliban,' said General Stanley McChrystal, the former special forces chief and newly appointed US commander of all allied troops in Afghanistan. 'What you need to do is take away the one thing they absolutely have to have - and that's access and the support of the people.' The report said: "In a spectacular show of force, contrasting strongly with the British lack of equipment, heavily armed marines, backed up by drones and fighter jets, stormed into the south of Afghanistan's most dangerous province shortly after midnight on Wednesday. It was the biggest operation in Afghanistan since the Soviet occupation, and the largest American assault since the Battle for Fallujah in Iraq in 2004. "The marines' mission is to secure the villages along a stretch of river more than 55 miles long in the heart of poppy-growing territory. They also hope to choke the Taliban supply lines used to ferry guns, drugs and fighters in and out of Pakistan. "Most of the Taliban melted away as convoys of marines in state-of-the-art 'mine resistant' trucks drove further into their heartland. One marine was killed in fighting and at least two others were injured when a roadside bomb struck their vehicle. Cobra attack helicopters were seen firing into tree lines as the marines advanced, though much of the fighting was 'sporadic'... "Afghans fear the return of the insurgents, but many would prefer to be ruled by the Taliban than to be caught in the crossfire. Foreign forces are still viewed as a source of danger, according to Hajji Taj Muhammed, from the village of Mar-ja, whose house was bombed two months ago. 'We Muslims don't like them,' he said. "Hajji Abdul Ahad Helmandwal, a district council leader from Nad Ali, in Helmand province, said: 'People are hostages of the Taliban, but they look at the coalition also as the enemy, because they have not seen anything good from them in seven or eight years.' "Now, however, a new American counterinsurgency doctrine puts protecting civilians above killing Taliban. 'We do not want the people of Helmand province to see us as an enemy, we want to protect them from the enemy,' said Captain Bill Pelletier, an American spokesman." Haji Nader, a resident of Garamsir district in southern Helmand province, told Al Jazeera: "They started the operation without warning. We couldn't evacuate our women and children. The Taliban, they just leave. It is the civilians who pay the price." In an analysis for The Daily Telegraph, Dean Nelson noted: "Pakistan appears to have finally realised the Taliban and al Qa'eda threaten its existence as a state and no longer feels so passionately that it's 'America's war'. More importantly, Pakistan's armed forces appear to have reached the same conclusion after a series of bloody attacks on its major cities. Yesterday, it moved its forces up to the Afghan border to capture Taliban militants fleeing the American advance. Finally there appears to be evidence of the joined up thinking President Obama's new 'Af-Pak' policy promised. "But both Western critics and those who oppose America's presence and influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan say it's the wishful thinking of man looking for a way out. 'It's front-loaded withdrawal,' as one retired Pakistani general described it last night." In the London Review of Books, the former British soldier, diplomat and now Harvard professor, Rory Stewart, wrote: "Policymakers perceive Afghanistan through the categories of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, state-building and economic development. These categories are so closely linked that you can put them in almost any sequence or combination. You need to defeat the Taliban to build a state and you need to build a state to defeat the Taliban. There cannot be security without development, or development without security. If you have the Taliban you have terrorists, if you don't have development you have terrorists, and as Obama informed The New Yorker, 'If you have ungoverned spaces, they become havens for terrorists.' "These connections are global: in Obama's words, 'our security and prosperity depend on the security and prosperity of others.' Or, as a British foreign minister recently rephrased it, 'our security depends on their development.' Indeed, at times it seems that all these activities - building a state, defeating the Taliban, defeating al Qa'eda and eliminating poverty - are the same activity. The new US army and marine corps counter-insurgency doctrine sounds like a World Bank policy document, replete with commitments to the rule of law, economic development, governance, state-building and human rights. In Obama's words, 'security and humanitarian concerns are all part of one project.' "This policy rests on misleading ideas about moral obligation, our capacity, the strength of our adversaries, the threat posed by Afghanistan, the relations between our different objectives, and the value of a state. Even if the invasion was justified, that does not justify all our subsequent actions. If 9/11 had been planned in training camps in Iraq, we might have felt the war in Iraq was more justified, but our actions would have been no less of a disaster for Iraqis or for ourselves. The power of the US and its allies, and our commitment, knowledge and will, are limited. It is unlikely that we will be able to defeat the Taliban. The ingredients of successful counter-insurgency campaigns in places like Malaya - control of the borders, large numbers of troops in relation to the population, strong support from the majority ethnic groups, a long-term commitment and a credible local government - are lacking in Afghanistan."

pwoodward@thenational.ae