Having just seen The Hangover, I’m tempted to ask if the U.S. press corps has just taken a bunch of rohypnol before reporting on the Helmand operation. Every single report I’ve seen so far:
- emphasizes how absent we’ve been from the Helmand River Valley; and/or
- neglects to give any history about the actions of U.S. and other pro-Kabul forces in the region that may affect the U.S. military’s attempt to win the loyalty (or at least the submission) of the local population to the Afghan national government.
Despite this convenient amnesia, we are not starting from a clean slate in Helmand, regardless of media portrayals of this region as a pristine Taliban haven untouched by U.S. forces. Here’s one scene from Helmand, circa August 2007:
Last week I saw the damage being done in the battle for hearts and minds. In the British headquarters a girl was brought in by her family. She lay on the table, blood leaking from her tiny frame. Occasionally her body would convulse, her screams reverberating around the base. On either side, three of her siblings whimpered. They, too, had been lacerated by masonry after a US bomber strafed their home last Sunday morning while the Taliban were firing from the same compound.
Foreign troops continue to make mistakes that enrage whole sections of this deeply tribal society, like the killing of a tribal elder’s son and his wife as they were driving to their home in Helmand two months ago. Only their baby daughter survived. The tribal elder, Reis-e-Baghran, a former member of the Taliban who reconciled with the government, is one of the most influential figures in Helmand.
These awful, bloody blunders help explain the extreme hostility of the populace to coalition forces and their preference for the brutal-yet-predictable rule of the Taliban:
The mood of the Afghan people has tipped into a popular revolt in some parts of southern Afghanistan, presenting incoming American forces with an even harder job than expected in reversing military losses to the Taliban and winning over the population. Villagers in some districts have taken up arms against foreign troops to protect their homes or in anger after losing relatives in airstrikes…[T]hey preferred to be left alone under Taliban rule and complained about artillery fire and airstrikes by foreign forces…[M]istrust of the government remains so strong that even if the Taliban were defeated militarily, the government and the American-led coalition would find the population reluctant to cooperate…
Spencer Ackerman points out that this military assault is the largest Marine operation since Vietnam. He also points out that there are very meager civilian resources accompanying the assault forces, which probably isn’t great. But I’d point out that even if there were an equal number of civilians compared to military personnel, it wouldn’t matter much for the purposes of counterinsurgency because none of our people can speak the language. As of April 2009,
[A]ccording to an official at the State Department’s Bureau of Human Resources, the United States has turned out a total of only 18 Foreign Service officers who can speak Pashto, and only two of them are now serving in Afghanistan – both apparently in Kabul.
…As Chandrasekaran’s article on the Marines’ operation makes clear, the State Department and USAID are not yet capable of bringing their expertise to bear in Helmand through the deployment of personnel.
For all of President Obama’s rhetoric about the military power not being enough to turn things around, that’s what we’ve got and that’s what we’ll use in Helmand. We’re witnessing an almost totally military attempt to win the loyalty (or at least the submission) of the Afghan population to the Kabul government by killing the Taliban currently enforcing their own version of security in Helmand and then filling the hole with U.S. troops. But security means more than just safety from the Taliban–it also means safety from U.S. munitions. Let’s hope we manage to protect them from those as well.
Here’s a quick coda that gives me a sick feeling about the timing of this operation:
Helmand is a Taliban stronghold and the world’s largest opium poppy-producing area. The goal is to clear insurgents from the region before Afghanistan’s presidential election on August 20.
…Southern Afghanistan is a Taliban stronghold, but also a region where Afghan President Hamid Karzai is seeking votes from fellow Pashtun tribesmen.
Electioneering via the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade on behalf of the Rule of the Rapists…probably not what they signed up for.