Military & Aerospace

The critical battles of Helmand and Kandhar
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 23 Feb , 2011

The year 2010 was crucial for the final outcome in Afghanistan. There were two major changes in the military leadership. The highly regarded, Special Forces Commander, Lt Gen Stanley McChrystal had been brought in to replace Lt Gen McKiernan. Gen McChrystal had tried to convince the US and NATO forces to operate without close air support and hence reduce collateral damage and civilian casualties. This led to serious disquiet amongst the US and NATO troops, who were highly uncomfortable with the idea of operating without the advantage of responsive air power. The initial offensive in Marjah encountered stiff resistance and resulted in heavy US and NATO casualties, which raised political alarm in US and Europe.

Gen McChrystal made some very outspoken remarks about the political leadership and this was utilised to remove him from  command. Gen Petraeus, the hero of the Iraq campaign was virtually demoted from Theatre Commander to lead the campaign in Afghanistan. He was the author of the ‘Clear, Hold and Build’ strategy. His assumption of command saw the restoration of close air support (largely by Attack Helicopters) and after several delays, the resumption of the long heralded assault on Kandahar (Op Dragon Strike). The centre of gravity of the Taliban had been correctly estimated and instead of melting away, they stood up and fought in the hope that by 2011, the US-ISAF forces would withdraw anyway. This has resulted in fairly heavy attrition, which forced some semblance of peace offers from the Taliban.

Gen Kayani and the Pak Military-ISI Complex were dreaming of a complete victory of their Taliban protégés in Afghanistan.

The Pakistanis, convinced that they had won this war, refused to launch the coordinated attack on North Waziristan (which was supposed to coincide with the Kandahar offensive) on the plea of the floods and the Indian bogey. This toned down the effect of the US offensive in Kandhar. However, the greatest anticlimax came with the US President’s announcement that the date for handing over charge to the Afghan National Army (ANA) had been put off to 2014. The threat of a resumption of Al Qaeda/LashkareToiba (LeT) attacks on American/European targets was perhaps responsible for this perceived shift in strategy. The attack on the European targets commenced with the terrorist strike in Sweden. This prompted the NATO allies to endorse the 2014 withdrawal deadline and even promise to stay engaged (economically, at least) in Afghanistan well beyond that date.

This has come as a considerable shock to the Taliban and the  Pak Military-ISI Complex. Their military thinking is invariably coloured by a high degree of subjectivity. They were fully convinced that come 2011, the US and its allies would cut costs and run. They were keenly anticipating a Taliban victory. This sudden volte-face could affect Taliban morale. It leads one to speculate whether the US announcement of a withdrawal deadline was a deliberate deception exercise. Even if it was unintended, the end result has been the same. It aroused the Taliban hopes to an unrealistic level and these have now been rudely dashed.

Gen Kayani and the Pak Military-ISI Complex were dreaming of a complete victory of their Taliban protégés in Afghanistan. There was a quixotic air of triumphalism in Islamabad. In fact, they were almost dictating the terms of surrender to their American interlocutors. Pakistan’s zero sum game could prove to be its final undoing. The Pakistani military is highly subjective in its estimates and habitually tends to overreach far beyond its capabilities. The key factor however, would now hinge upon the US and European stamina to absorb the casualties. Frankly, if they do not want a resumption of terrorist strikes on their homelands, they have very little option left but to persist with their engagement in Afghanistan. With this as a backdrop, let us now examine the two major offensives of the year 2010, in Afghanistan that followed the two surges of US troops .

The US Defense budget has shot up from US$ 370 billion in 2001 to US$ 707 billion in 2011. With the second surge, the US is spending almost US$ 100 billion a year on Afghanistan.

The First Surge:- The first surge of some 17,000 troops and 4,000 trainers was sent in May 2009. It raised overall force levels to 68,000 US and 32,000 NATO troops. The American formations inducted were:-

  • 82 Combat Aviation Brigade (130 helicopter, 4000 troops)
  • 2 Marine Expeditionary Force (8,000 Marines)
  • 5 Stryker Brigade (4,000 troops)

With this initial surge, the US and NATO forces launched Op Moshtarek in the opium producing Helmand valley, resulting in heavy fighting and significant casualties.

The Second Surge:- Lt Gen Stanley McChrystal (who had replaced Lt Gen McKiernan) asked for 40,000 troops. This was scaled down to 30,000 troops by President Obama. The formations now inducted by May-Jun 2010 were:-

  • 4th Brigade ex 19 Mountain Division (US)
  • 1st Brigade ex 4 Infantry Division (US)
  • 2nd Brigade ex 34 Infantry Division (US)

Some 10,000 of these new troops were deployed in Kandahar. 5,000 were sent to Helmand (to join some 4,000 Marines already operating there) and some 5,000 were sent to Paktia, Paktika and Khost provinces. 5,000 troops were deployed to train the ANA. Spending on the ANA was quadrupled from US$1.9 billion in 2006 to US$7.4 billion in 2007.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen GD Bakshi, (Retd)

is a war Veteran and Strategic Analyst.

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