When I checked the BBC website last night after watching the world premiere of the reconstructed famous 1927 German silent movie ‘Metropolis’ (a ‘don’t miss’ for all cineasts), the red ribbon for breaking news flashed: NATO and Afghan troops have started ‘Operation Moshtarak’ (Together) in Helmand.
In Afghanistan, it was already after 2 am on Saturday morning when some 15,000 troops swept into two main target areas, Marja and Nad Ali district – some 195 square kilometres -, mainly by helicopter. The Taleban had heavily mined the access roads in advance; on the other side, US Special Forces had blocked possible escape routes. 4,000 Americans and Brits each plus Canadians, Danes, French, Estonians and Afghan participate in the operation, the largest since 2001. Its name hints at a supposedly stronger role played by Afghan forces this time. Figures given about the Afghan participation, however, vary. Some say ‘one third’, others ’60 percent’ of the troops involved are ANA. It is not clear whether 1,900 policemen held in reserve for taking over duty in Marja when the operation is over are included.
Strategically, the operation has two aims. The first one is to break the Taleban’s grip and establish government control over Helmand’s ‘green belt’ along the river of the same name, a system of irrigation channels built with US money, by the US company Morrison-Knudsen and with US experts from 1946 onwards, under the Helmand and Arghandab Valley Administration (HAVA)(1). Secondly, this area is part of a long stretch of land more than 320 kilometres long through Helmand and Kandahar where some 85 per cent of the population of these two core Taleban-influenced provinces live. Brigadier James Cowan, commander of British forces in Helmand and quoted on the BBC, said that ‘operation Moshtarak will mark the start of the end of the insurgency.’
To deny the Taleban control over this area could indeed weaken them and one of their major sources of budget – drugs – substantially. As US soldiers on the ground interpret General McChrystal’s new strategy: concentrate on the population centres and ‘forget about the dusty districts’.
Marja lies in the southern part of the ‘green belt’. Its district centre, with some 80,000 people, is sometimes called the largest urban area in Afghanistan held by the Taleban. The whole district reportedly has 125,000 inhabitants. Many of them have been settled here and given newly-won land in the wake of the HAVA project which was meant to increase the area’s agricultural production (mainly cotton, wheat, corn and rice then), so that the Pashtun population there is tribally extremely mixed – Durrani, Ghilzai, Kakar, Safi, Wardak and others (see an interesting article about the projecthere).
In fact, Marja and Nad Ali (like the Shahr-e Nau of provincial capital Lashkargah) were erected as ‘model villages’ then, with a grid of rectangular streets, schools and medical facilities. In Lashkargah, there was even an English-language school, mushtarakan (jointly) attended by kids of the American engineers and rich Afghan families. (The liberal minority of the 1949 Afghan parliament, the first halfway democratically elected one, attacked the project as ‘colonialist’.(2)) Nowadays, the irrigation channels mainly water the opium poppy fields that make Helmand the single most productive growing area of this plant worldwide.
Nad Ali centre, further to the north (see a map of the area here), already had been ‘cleared’ from Taleban last year. However, some ‘pockets’ with 150 to 200 fighters further out in the district had remained in their hands when the earlier operation did not succeed in covering the whole area.
As Nad Ali, also Marja had been the target of an earlier operation in May 2009 but ‘there were not enough troops to take the town’ as Time magazine writes. At the same time, US marines took Garmser centre, to the south and on the supply route from Pakistani Baluchistan. ‘But the international forces have so far failed to link up enough areas to halt the Taliban’s momentum’, the BBC said in a first analysis.
There is a third factor that characterizes this operation which had been pre-announced (without exact dates, of course) since a few weeks. This uncommon approach is said to reflect the new US counter-insurgency strategy: prioritise protecting civilians over killing Taleban fighters. The declared aim of US/ISAF commander McChrystal was to give the Taleban in the area – figures vary again, here, from 400 to 1,000 (NATO figure) to 2,000 (Taleban figure) – a chance to change sides (in congruence with the ‘new’ reintegration program) and the civilian population to escape from the battle scene.
Both aims, however, have not been achieved. The Taleban, instead, took recourse to their usual tactics and withdrew from the area, not picking an open fight. Embedded journalists report ‘little resistance’. The BBC quoted a Taleban commander in Marja that his men were pulling back to spare any civilian casualties. (They might return, though, or use pin-prick attacks from within the area.) And the New York Times reported that the Taleban shadow district governor of Marja was caught by the NDS when fleeing through Kandahar (see here). And although some 300 to 400 families – that must be up to 5000 people – indeed have left Marja and Nad Ali – according to UNHCR, the ICRC and the Afghan Red Crescent mainly to Lashkargah, Gereshk and Garmser – this barely is large part of the population.
There are also a few question marks about the issue of protecting civilians and targeted assassinations. A British newspaper reported that US and British troops ‘have begun targeting insurgent leaders for assassination […] with the aim of decapitating the Taliban force’. There are also reports that drones ‘took out’ people that are found burying IEDs. One can only hope that the intelligence involved here is much better than in the Kunduz case where German officers and US pilots dropped a bomb on fuel tankers captured by the Taleban in September last year but did not realise that a lot of civilians were around.
New in Operation Moshtarak – and consistent with McChrystal’s COIN strategy – also is that this time it has been underlined that the troops would stay in the area, not allowing a return (and revenge) of the Taleban as in 2009 and that they would establish a sound local administration. A team of Afghan administrators (as well as the mentioned policemen) is said to be ready to come in when the shooting is over. In contrast to Musa Qala (from where we haven’t heard for a while really), where the local administration and police was recruited from Taleban defectors, the Marja personnel seems to come from outside. The Washington Post says the new wuluswal (district governor) Haji Zahir had just returned from 15 years in Germany, and also the 1,900 waiting policemen seem to be from other areas. (And Interior Minister Hanif Atmar who visited the area in advance had asked local elders to give him their sons to build a police.) Let’s see how the local elders like this.
What they most probably will not like is what Brigadier Cowan said: ‘The whole point of the hold is for it to last forever.’ That will be read as if the foreign troops plan to stay indefinitely (what was most probably not meant). But there already is the perception in the area that the British (who now are being replaced by the US surge troops step by step; there are already more Americans here than British) only have come to Helmand to take revenge for British defeats in the 19th century suffered around here when they attempted in vain to colonise Afghanistan.
Finally, there must be some concerns about the drug issue. Marja’s status as a stronghold of the opium industry will certainly create some desires on the part of pro-government people linked to this business. One side-effect of Operation Moshtarak might be that their competitors, i.e. Taleban-linked drug traffickers, are eliminated and a way is opened up for them to step in. (in particular when militias are raised to hold the area.) In the past, Western troops might have been involved in covering up drug finds in the south when linked to pro-government people. See this Stern story already quoted earlier on an AAN blog.
The latest UNODC report for 2010 predicts that poppy cultivation in Helmand will remain ‘stable’ and ‘very high’.
(1) The HVA/HAVA project (arghandab was added in the 1960s only.) continued a pre-World War II project to recover ancient irrigated areas at the Upper Helmand. In 1939, Japanese engineers started to rehabilitate the 200 year old Deh Adam Khan dam in the vicinity of Gereshk but they had to leave in February 1942, in the result of outbreak of the war. The project included the prolongation of the ancient Boghra and Shamalan canals, the construction of the Kajaki and the Arghandab dams in neighboring Kandahar and of a small hydroelectrical plant at the Boghra canal and also USAID-financed projects to expand Kandahar airport as well as health and education projects. The area reclaimed by irrigation was 363,000 acres (145,000 hectare). The project had a major flaw: Much of the irrigated soil became salty and unfit for agricultutal use. A New York Times article from March 1960 called the project a ‘comedy of errors’ (see here).
(2) The reason for this protest was that the costs of project by far exceeded the initially planned budget. The Afghan government, already drained off its monetary reserves – it had to cover half of the US$ 100 million project costs – had to ask the US for a loan but rejected to inform the MPs about the conditions of the loan contract. Furthermore, the US rejected additional loans to develop an Afghan processing capacity for cotton and fruit. The MPs feared that this could compromise Afghanistan’s independence. The government obtained these loans from Germany, the UK and Czechoslovakia, instead.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020