The vast offensive launched in the Helmand is progressing slower than predicted and hitches impede military efforts to win the population’s confidence.
Two months after President Obama made the decision to send reinforcements, the American army struggles in Afghanistan, where they continue to lose men and unfortunately sacrifice civilians while also going toe to toe against the invisible army of the Taliban. Though it has been ten days since the army launched the offensive, presented as decisive and exemplary, in the highly dangerous province of Helmand in the south, the U.S. has multiplied their public declarations, calling for the country to “arm itself with courage.”
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Michael Mullen, had warned that there would be even heavier losses in the coming months. The operation “is moving more slowly than expected,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted Monday, while specifying that these difficulties in no way question the counter-insurgency strategy planned by the U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal. One day earlier, Commander of Central Command, David Petraeus, who concocted the attack plan in close cooperation with McChrystal, also announced a long march, speaking of twelve to eighteen difficult months before a significant breakthrough.
The American generals have amassed around 15,000 soldiers (both coalition and Afghan) around the city of Marjah, known as one of the principal Taliban bastions in Helmand, in hopes of demonstrating their capacity to deprive the enemy of ground. In eight days, the township of 80,000 inhabitants fell into their hands, but the military has crashed against fierce and unexpected resistance within the city, where entrenched Islamist snipers continue to resist and plant homemade bombs. To dislodge them, American troops make use of their famous pilot-less aerial drones, which effectuate regular reconnaissance over the theater of operation. Then, it is up to officers present on the ground to order targeted air strikes or to take action on the ground.
The dilemma is huge because children often play close to combat locations, and each poorly targeted strike generates collateral civilian losses, which often undermine the fastidious military efforts to win the confidence of the population. “We often have to choose between exposing our men and exposing civilians,”* an officer involved in the throes of daily tearing decisions confided to the Washington Post, on Monday, after America has already lost 1,000 men in Afghanistan. An air strike ordered Sunday against a bus convoy elsewhere in the south resulted in at least 27 civilian deaths and a dozen injured, arousing a general outcry in Kabul. General McChrystal, “furious” according to the Post, excused himself to President Karzai and denounced the decision by his subordinates, judging that the strike could not be justified, since “no danger was threatening coalition forces.”*
Invoking this blunder, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates underlined that it was, unfortunately, “part of the reality of war.” As advocates of the counter-insurgency philosophy (which advises “winning the hearts and minds” of the Afghans while securing the civilian population), Petraeus and McChrystal have made reduction of civilian losses one of their priorities, but struggle visibly to put this new command into action.
The American generals also encounter large difficulties in their mission to train and update the Afghan army. Special envoys to the New York Times and Post note these last few days, since Helmand, that the critical portion of the operation conducted at Marjah rested on international forces. David Hogg, one of the generals in charge of training and recruiting Afghans, recently admitted to having the greatest difficulties in recruiting troops, notably officers. The practice of “buying an officer position” often remained present, he noted, insisting on the difficulty of recruiting from the Pashtun ethnic majority in the south. Cases of defection of soldiers to Taliban ranks are equally frequent, demonstrating the precariousness of the ground on which the American army has evolved. All while swearing that he is convinced that all the necessary conditions for victory are in place, General David Petraeus, who has experience in the Iraq surge and used it as an operational model, prefers moreover to call himself a “realist” than an optimist. “And the reality is that it's hard. But we're there for a very, very important reason, and we can't forget that.”
*Editor’s Note: These quotes could not be verified.