Operation Moshtarak: In search of the COIN

It was 1535. Humayun was the sovereign of the fledgling Mughal Empire in India. It was natural for him to expand beyond the Ganga-Yamuna doab region. Thus, he undertook the Gujarat campaign. Quite successfully, he ousted the then ruler Bahadur Shah from the throne. However, he emplaced his brother Askari to look after the newly controlled territories rather than stay back and hold it. 

Askari was inefficient and lacked managerial abilities. Moreover, the Mughals could not mingle with the masses of Gujarat and appeared as foreign elements, aka invaders. The Mughals had to face a couple of popular uprisings. The consequences were disastrous for Humayun and the Mughal party as they not only lost Gujarat but their pride was also dented. 

Actually, Humayun had failed to understand the tactical situation and ground reality in Gujarat. This ineptitude further aggravated his problems and he had to flee India barely within five years after this incident. 

Now, it is 2010. Centuries have rolled past. Technology has been elevated to soaring heights. Cannons which wreaked havoc in the First Battle of Panipat in 1526 have been overwhelmed by sophisticated tanks, matchlock guns have given way to the ‘Molotov Cocktail’ of the days of the Cuban revolution and thereafter to the Kalashnikovs, and the dreaded Mongol manjaniqs or catapults have been replaced by the ballistic missiles traversing a parabolic path. This is to speak merely about conventional warfare. 

Overall strategies and on the ground military tactics too have evolved with time.
Changes notwithstanding, some basic tenets of warfare, especially ‘irregular warfare’ (viz. against ‘non-state actors’), have failed to undergo mutation. Taking into confidence the local populace in the warring terrain is one such, more so if one seeks to hold and build on it.  

Terrorism and Insurgency

Apart from the ‘near-extinction’ level effect of the nuclear arsenal that the nation-states possess, another major factor which has come to perennially perturb the mundane lives is International terrorism led by brand names like the Al Qaeda and the Taliban. ‘Terrorism’ follows the modus-operandi of causing harm to the people so that the ‘rule of law’ in a particular territory trembles. The process aids the ‘terrorists’ to negotiate with the ‘state-actors’ in order to gain leverage. 

On the other hand, ‘Insurgency’ can be described as an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict. Well, terrorism can surely be a part of the overall strategy of the insurgents.

Presently, the Taliban and Al Qaeda are the ‘non-state actors’ leading insurgencies in various nation-states to establish a ‘pure Islamic world’ based on the Shariat and the Hadis (sayings of the Prophet). And America and the Western world are their arch enemies; with any other country joining the rank and file of the US-led counter-terrorism drives falling prey to their blatant acts of terror.

Things are not as forthright though as described above because the insurgent groups like the Taliban (The students), the Al Qaeda (The Base) or the Al Shabaab (The Youth, active in southern Somalia) cannot be distinguished from the common populace. In fact, they thrive in the demography and are part of the socio-cultural fabric of the territories in question. 

Hence, to decapitate these pejorative insurgencies, it is imperative for the US-led forces to follow a carefully threaded ‘Counter-Insurgency (COIN)’ programme and not merely a Counter-terrorism drive so that the citizenry of Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia do not get alienated from them and treat them as ‘invaders’. At the same time, the insurgencies need to be quelled and the hardcore Taliban or the Al Qaeda elements cannot be proffered any compromise. 

The US-led NATO-ISAF (ISAF: International Security Assistance Force) forces face a messy situation to handle after about eight years in the tribal dominated, culturally and politically independent minded land of the Afghans. NATO-ISAF desperately needs to implement the COIN and that too fast. Time is running out, and explicably for President Obama, who has to show tangible signs of deliverance in Afghanistan by July 2011, by when according to his own proclamation, he may commence American withdrawal. 

His predicament is not very different from Humayun though. He plans to place his inefficient factotum Hamid Karzai on the trembling Afghan throne as Humayun placed his feeble brother Askari in Gujarat. Obama’s soldiers are viewed as predators in the land of Ahmad Shah Abdali as Humayun’s infantrymen were to the ordinary Gujaratis. Interestingly, although Karzai is a local Pashtun, he is perceived by the locals to be part of the foreign handiwork. Furthermore, his government is beset with rampant corruption. 

And to add to these, Obama is facing a determined, battle-hardened, ideologically-motivated insurgency which Humayun did not have to bother with, except a couple of sporadic popular uprisings. Moreover, the rugged topography of Afghanistan is nowhere comparable to that of much more gentle Gujarati landmass. 

Well, Humayun failed ignominiously. Would Obama succeed?

Obama-Petraeus-McChrystal Doctrine

The sole purpose of U.S.A. to invade Afghanistan was to seize Osama bin Laden and to destroy and dismantle the Al Qaeda. The associated reason was to target the Taliban government since they were reluctant to hand over Osama and were providing sanctuary to him.

The US forces bungled at the cave complex of Tora Bora in 2001 and since then Osama has remained out of reach, presumably in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of neighbouring Pakistan. 

Soon after assuming Presidency in January 2009, the first thing which Obama did was to inflate the number of US troops in Afghanistan by another 17,000 in order to upholster the ground situation. And in the middle of the same year, he put in Gen. Stanley McChrystal as in-charge of the NATO-ISAF forces in Afghanistan. At about the same time, he re-affirmed his confidence on the Bush-era Defense Secretary Robert Gates as well as CENTCOM (Central Command) Chief David Petraeus. 

The aim was to embark on a Counter-Insurgency (COIN) drive so as to muster as much popular support as possible which in the future would create a friendly political and military setting to have an honourable retreat. And not let the contemporary historians and political commentators term Afghanistan to be “Obama’s Vietnam”. 

Soon after being appointed as the top commander of NATO-ISAF in Afghanistan, Gen. McChrystal came out with a detailed report of sixty-six pages outlining a definite COIN strategy for the Afghan War. The report, in fact, lifted ‘several pages’ of the COIN Manual of the US Army bearing the signature of David Petraeus. And to put into effect ‘his COIN’, McChrystal requested for a troop ‘surge’ to the tune of forty thousand over and above the already existing sixty-eight thousand American men. 

After some dilly-dallying, in December 2009, Obama agreed upon the ‘surge’, though reducing the amount to thirty thousand.

The primary objective behind the ‘surge’ was to employ the COIN strategy of “Clear, Hold and Build” (CHB); i.e. ‘Clear’ the chosen areas of the Taliban, thereafter ‘Hold’ those areas for a considerable time period and finally ‘Build’ infrastructure and institutions in those areas so that the incumbent Afghan government can permanently entrench itself. Secondly, according to McChrystal, NATO-ISAF needed to have a better mixing with the masses in order to gain their confidence; i.e. the civilian casualties from the NATO-ISAF side had to diminish. 

Thus, the COIN strategy would give Obama an agreeable ‘exit option’ from Afghanistan. Also, U.S.A. does visualize repeating another Iraq in Afghanistan. And to implement the CHB COIN strategy, a sufficient ‘surge’ was necessary. That would destabilize the Taliban command structure for a reasonable time frame and impede the regrouping of Al Qaeda after the US withdrawal. 

Another aim was to train, develop and increase the numbers of the Afghan Police and the Afghan National Army. The reason was simple. U.S.A. wanted to leave Afghanistan in secure hands. They did not want to repeat the Vietnam fiasco. 

A Place Called Marjah 

Out of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces, the southern territories of Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul and Uruzgan are the main bastions of the Taliban. And amongst these, Helmand and Kandahar top the list. Marjah is a town in the southern half of the Nad Ali district in Helmand. The town has a population ranging between 50,000 to 80,000. Marjah is a nerve centre of the Taliban-led insurgency as it is a poppy growing centre which forms a substantial part of the funding for the terrorists. As a matter of fact, Helmand is the largest opium producing region of the world. The Taliban encourages and sometimes exhorts the farmers to grow poppy so that it sustains the finance of the anti-US insurgency. The farmers also find it profitable to continue growing opium as the Taliban provide safe transit facilities for it to the nearby Pakistani city of Quetta from where the opium reaches the world market.

The town of Marjah has vast expanses of open space, punctuated by mud-brick compounds and crisscrossed by narrow irrigation canals which helped the Afghan Mujahideen fighters to evade the Red Army during the Soviet occupation (1979-89).

Marjah is barely twenty-five miles southwest of Helmand’s capital Lashkar Gah. Reports suggest that the Taliban generate around a whopping $200,000 per month from the flourishing opium-heroin business from the town. To have a stranglehold on the economy of the region, Mullah Omar’s Taliban have alternative judicial and political institutions in place. The focal point of Taliban activity in Marjah is a market called the Loy Charahi bazaar.

Operation Moshtarak

Dari, along with Persian is the official language of Afghanistan. Incidentally, Moshtarak is a Dari word meaning “together”. The name carries significance in the sense that the present operation contemplated by Gen. McChrystal is a joint one, encompassing the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) along with NATO-ISAF.

The ground offensive, though launched on 13 February 2010, had been much publicized since the beginning of the month. In the early hours of Saturday 13 February, about 15,000 soldiers consisting of US Marines, supplemented by the British and Afghans stormed the town of Marjah. McChrystal followed the tactic of propaganda to serve a twofold purpose:

  1. He apprehended that most of the middle and lower level Taliban cadres would flee the area by the time NATO-ISAF would launch the actual operation.
  2. Collateral damage could be minimized as many civilians shall have the opportunity to move out.

In fact, McChrystal seems to have incorporated this ‘hype creating mechanism’ from the Pakistani side as the latter had used it to a reasonably successful degree in its much-awaited ground offensive in FATA.

McChrystal had sternly dictated his men not to use artillery indiscriminately so that human casualties could be managed to a base level and the COIN strategy could be followed fruitfully. Simultaneously, his men had to avoid the innumerable Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and mines planted by the Taliban.

The job was not an easy one at all. Though proclaimed to be the biggest offensive in Afghanistan after the invasion commenced in 2001, this was not the first time that an operation was carried out in Helmand. Major joint offensives took place in July 2009 to clear the Taliban from Lashkar Gah and Marjah. The operations were more or less successful in Helmand’s capital whereas Marjah remained elusive for the coalition forces.

Hence McChrystal had demanded a troop surge. He believed that with more than 100,000 troops the CHB strategy would be fructuous.

The Taliban had to be hunted in its own den since only then they would be defeated psychologically. Further, the underlying economy of the insurgency had to be derailed. And if the Taliban were defeated in Marjah, the civilians would slowly loose faith in their invincibility. These were the top priorities of the coalition forces under Gen. McChrystal while launching Operation Moshtarak.

Also, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the top US Marine in Afghanistan termed Marjah as the ‘cancer of Helmand’. Hence Marjah had to be besieged.

Will CHB Work?

First, the ‘clear’ phase was likely to be successful and reports indicated in a positive direction since within two weeks of the operation, the Afghan flag was hoisted twice in Marjah: a signature of coalition victory. The troops were sufficient as they outnumbered the Taliban by about 10:1 ratio.

But then, it is natural that the insurgents have just melted away to other places by avoiding direct bloodshed. The Taliban are just playing a waiting game. Nevertheless, at least the coalition wanted a symbolic victory. McChrystal and company know that a protracted guerrilla war would continue and the NATO-ISAF have to contend with long-range snipers and IEDs.

Second, to ‘hold’ the area would certainly be much more cumbrous as sporadic attacks on the coalition forces would necessarily occur.

Finally the last phase of ‘build’ would take a considerable time. The coalition claimed to have a ‘government in a box’ ready to be put into Marjah after the ‘clear’ phase.

The aim of U.S.A. is to destroy the fundamental bases of the Taliban before partial withdrawal. Marjah would definitely serve to be a test case, and Kandahar would surely follow. The principal US aim is to ‘clear’ large parts of Helmand and Kandahar and ‘somehow hold’ onto those regions and at the same time ‘build’ as much infrastructure and institutions as possible. If this could be continued till July 2011, then ‘Nobel’ Obama could declare ‘success’ and hence if needed, an honourable retreat.

Pragmatically speaking, as the Taliban have established ‘shadow governments’ in almost all the provinces, the challenge of ‘clearing’ and ‘holding’ onto all the regions of Afghanistan is next to impossible for the coalition.

Already, public opinion is turning against the war in the NATO countries as well as in America. Moreover, in July 2011, the re-election cycle of US Presidency would begin. So, Obama needs to cushion himself against these exigencies.

Thus, prima facie, there are a number of caveats.

The Caveats

First and most important, how long are the Americans willing to reside in this arid landmass of Afghanistan? Since, the Taliban are playing a waiting game, the answer to this question is vital. Presently, it appears that there are no unequivocal answers to this query as Obama declared in his December 2009 speech that the troop withdrawal would depend on ‘circumstances’.

Second, if the actual US goal of attacking Afghanistan was to defeat Al Qaeda, then it has been partially successful in that regard. The sharp edges of the organization have been blunted to a large extent, its efficacy thwarted, its reach pruned, and its core leadership cocooned in FATA. Basically, Afghanistan has been more or less cleared of Al Qaeda.

But the catch is what would happen after a US withdrawal. If a proper government cannot be formed, it is highly likely that the Taliban would displace the incumbent Karzai regime in a coup. And that in all conceivable probability can bring in the Al Qaeda again.

Thus, an additional burden on NATO-ISAF is to build and train the ANSF in COIN strategy and rid the Karzai government of corruption and embezzlement. This is a Herculean job.

Third, Obama and his top commanders very well appreciate the fact that merely military solutions to this tangle do not exist. Political solutions need to be attempted and hence the talk of wooing the low and middle level Talibans by guaranteeing them job and security. But this programme has to be effectively undertaken as there are instances of past failures where re-integration had not been satisfactory.

Fourth, a much more problematic feature likely to hinder the long term success of the CHB-COIN strategy is the role Pakistan would play. Till date, it has allowed its territory to be used for drone-attacks on Taliban and Al Qaeda suspects. It has also embarked on a major ground offensive against the insurgents in Swat and FATA. Furthermore, Islamabad seems to have taken pro-active steps in incarcerating some top Taliban leaders like Mullah Baradar. But the civil-military elite of Pakistan would continue to have their reservations regarding an Indian friendly Afghan government after the US withdrawal. History cannot be defied that the Taliban were propelled by the then Benazir Bhutto regime. And till date, Pakistan seeks a ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan.

During Operation Moshtarak, the pertinent question was: “Did the Pakistanis seal the border so that the Taliban would be unable to squeeze into either Balochistan or FATA? Till this is effectively coordinated, it would be quite futile to have a firm hold on the ‘fluid Taliban in Afghanistan’.

Another serious impediment in implementing CHB-COIN is the interaction of the coalition troops with the locals. It has been reported that in spite of the best efforts of the NATO-ISAF troops to avoid civilian casualties, around 30 civilians lost their lives in this operation and around 20,000 were displaced. The task of rehabilitation and confidence building are in the offing. Moreover, the dreaded ‘night-raids’ of the coalition forces need to be minimized which are a total violation of socio-cultural ethics of the country.

Sixth, too much concentration on the Pashtun south makes the Northern provinces like Kunduz vulnerable to Taliban growth. If the insurgency spreads in the north, the Central Asian Republics may also come under its domain.

Seventh, the longer the COIN persists, the higher would be the cost factor. According to data provided by the Congressional Research Service, the cost of one U.S. soldier in Afghanistan for one year is $1 million and that of maintaining an Afghan soldier is an estimated $12,000. Hence 100,000 American troops in 2010 would tantamount to $100 billion. On top of this, the cost of the support staff and transport system is bound to escalate.

What can be the Fate of the COIN?

U.S.A. has plunged into the doctrine of CHB-COIN as articulated by the triumvirate of Obama, Petraeus and McChrystal. Their NATO allies have to an extent been goaded into believing and accepting the doctrine. Candidly speaking, the Americans and especially Obama hardly had any alternatives. Though pressured by the unexpected conferment of the Nobel, he still had to live up to the expectations of the nationalistic sentiments of continuing the Global War on Terror: a responsibility which he was unable to shirk.

The COIN manual of the US Army, per se, hardly has loopholes. It is a meaty, scholarly treatise of years of experience of several military generals who had withstood different kinds of insurgencies across various territorial domains and in challenging conditions.

But the moot point is the applicability of the COIN in the ‘graveyard of empires.’ If the Obama administration is trying to ‘run’ away from the undulated territory by somehow erecting a ‘façade of COIN’, then the implementation seems to be perfectly plausible. But, if Obama is really serious about ‘building a nation’ for the ‘variegated bands of tribes in the land of Abdali,’ then the COIN may prove to be too costly and it could be, in turn, detrimental to Obama’s domestic preferences: a ‘not-so-soothing scenario’ for his re-election cycle.

Before Obama is forced to follow the footsteps of his predecessors Truman and Johnson, a sane observer may like to suggest him the following:

  1. The NATO-ISAF should try to hold onto Marjah and its nearby areas of Nad Ali for a reasonable period of time, viz. six months. That would psychologically dent the Taliban-Al Qaeda combo.
  2. Before Marjah is firmly held and a reliable Afghan government is proved to be a reality there, NATO-ISAF should refrain from attacking Kandahar; thus avoiding engagement on two-fronts simultaneously. Kandahar being the ultimate haven for the Taliban, would throw up fierce retaliation if attacked now. And quite expectedly, media reports have not been on the contrary. However, the temptation of denting the Taliban at one go before they re-group would be irresistible.
  3. Meanwhile, security needs to be beefed up in Kabul. The Taliban would naturally hit Kabul and other urban centres to divert attention as done by its Pakistani counterpart during the Operation of the Pakistani military in South Waziristan. The series of suicide bombings in Kabul on 26 February, targeting foreign citizens, many of them Indians, is a relevant case in point.
  4. If Marjah is held for a period of six months and collateral damage reduced to a minimum in other parts of Afghanistan, then that would provide the ideal platform for the Obama administration to have secured a vantage point to negotiate with the low and middle level Taliban.
  5. The drone-strikes need to be continued, with celerity, in FATA, Swat and Quetta.
  6. The Quetta Shura Taliban (QST) need to be dismantled with Pakistani help for which the latter needs to be induced by diplomatic, political and financial means. The Kerry-Lugar Financial aid late last year and the US-Pak Strategic Dialogue in March-end of this year hint toward such a ‘favourable reconciliation’ between the two countries.
  7. The final aim of US-led NATO-ISAF should be to leave Afghanistan completely by the end of 2011 in a phased manner. The first contingent may withdraw after Marjah seems secured.

To sum up succinctly, Obama needs to totally withdraw from both Iraq and Afghanistan in a phased manner by 2011, without falling prey to any sort of jingoism or egotism. But then, at the present juncture Obama gravitating in that orbit of sanity is probably a utopian proposition.


More by :  Dr. Uddipan Mukherjee

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