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.

Gen McChrystal had asked for the size of the ANA to be raised from 134,000 troops to 240,000 troops. However, ultimately it was pegged at 171,000 troops. The size of the US/NATO contingent now grew to 98,000 US troops and 42,000 NATO troops. This makes it larger than the peak Soviet force commitment in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The size of the ANA however remains highly inadequate. The pre-Soviet invasion Afghan Army had numbered 230,000 troops. The Soviets left behind a recreated Afghan army of 550,000 . That is the optimal size needed for a country, the size of Afghanistan, especially if the ANA has to operate in a standalone mode.

Also read: The Revolt in East Pakistan

The amazing fact is that the Pakistan Army has raised serious objection to any increase in the size and equipment pattern of the ANA. It wants it reduced to the status of an armed constabulary, so that Pakistan can physically intervene in a post-American withdrawal scenario. The simple fact is that the ISI of Pakistan continues to provide support to the Quetta Shoora of Mullah Mohammed Omar, as also the Haqqani Shoora and to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami Shoora. These Shooras are the backbone of the Taliban insurgency. Afghanistan has now become America’s longest war – longer even than the prolonged Vietnam engagement.

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 US/NATO casualties in 2008 were 295. These shot up to 521 in 2009 with the first surge and the Battle of Helmand. In 2010, the US/NATO casualties have shot upto an all time high of 711. The combined US/NATO casualties in Afghanistan so far are over 2,284. This is the most critical aspect of the Afghan War and success/failure would primarily hinge upon the US/NATO stomach to absorb such casualties for the next four years and more.

The Marjah Offensive

As part of Gen Petraeus’ Clear, Hold and Build strategy, the US had launched a major offensive in the Helmand province of Afghanistan in February 2010. Taking a leaf from the Pakistani military offensives in Swat and South Waziristan, it was a well advertised operation that was announced in the media weeks before its launch. Little attempt was made to hide preparations in the hope that news of the coming major offensive would induce the Taliban to melt away and thus conserve US casualties. Surprisingly, the Taliban stood up and fought. Helmand is the key poppy growing area and hence was critical for the Taliban. The town of Marjah was cleared by a major heliborne assault. However, the Taliban seeped right back in and the much hyped government in the box could not consolidate itself in the wake of the military operations. The resistance in Marjah was far higher than anticipated and the NATO and ISAF troops took heavy casualties. As a result, troops could not be lifted for the Kandahar operations as per original schedule.

Despite the major effort the turn out for election in Marjah was below 18% (It was generally 40% in other areas). This clearly highlighted the failure to pacify the area and effect administrative penetration of the population. Nevertheless, the major gain of this battle has been to bring the Taliban to battle and hopefully impose significant attrition.

 The Kandahar Offensive

The second phase of the American offensive was anticipated in June2010 in the key Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. However, the Taliban’s unexpected resistance in Marjah delayed the launch of this operation. The Afghanistan Government anticipated heavy civilian collateral damage and was dead set against this assault. This was therefore converted to a Military Civic Action Programme called Op Hamkari (Dari for “Cooperation”). Gen McChrystal had tried to restrict civilian collateral damage by curtailing the employment of airpower. This had led to a sharp increase in US/ISAF troop casualties and considerable resentment in the rank and file of the US Army/Marines.

US/NATO will have to be prepared to pay the cost in terms of casualties. This is the American Achilles Heel. Hence, the US is increasingly getting impatient of the Pakistani sanctuary support to the Afghan Taliban.

It appears that the new Commander, Gen Petraeus was forced to restore close air support (largely in terms of Attack Helicopter sorties) and in general, restore the use of airpower to sustain troop morale and operational effectiveness. The military force to insurgent ratio is not adequate in Afghanistan. With these force levels, only offensive air support can tilt the balance, especially if the time window of operations is so limited and the sensitivity to casualties is so high.

Unlike the Marjah operations, the Kandahar offensive was launched quietly in end August. Reportedly, operations had commenced in Mehla Jat (South West of Kandahar) in the last week of August. These were followed by operations in the neighbouring areas of Kandahar, to include Argandhab, Zhari (birth place of Mullah Omar) and Panjwaye districts. These led to fierce fighting in the vineyards, Pomegranate orchards and over 10 feet high fields of Marijuana. A Brigade of the US 101 Air Borne Division commenced operations in the Zhari district along with an Engineer Battalion to clear mines/IEDs., 18 US soldiers were killed in these operations. The newly arrived 22 Armoured Regiment lost 5 men on 30 Aug 10 to a roadside IED blast. The main offensive was launched on Saturday, 02 October 2010. Hard fighting ensued.

The fact that the Taliban did not roll with the punch but put up pitched battles indicates the significance it attaches to this key opium producing terrain that funds its operations. It therefore provides a major opportunity for US forces to inflict high levels of attrition on the Taliban. Gen Petraeus has stated that the operations launched in Kandahar are more nuanced. He is optimistic that these will force the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government and in fact, he cited the attempts by high level Taliban leaders to reach out to the Afghan government.

The problems, however, are twofold – the heavy casualties the US/NATO troops are taking in the heavily mined terrain and the political pressures on the Obama Administration to end the Afghan engagement in July 2011 as announced. Gen Petraeus knows he cannot ask for more troops (which are certainly needed). He has been asking for more time. The withdrawal in July 2011 therefore, is likely to be very cosmetic/token in nature. In fact, President Obama has now clearly indicated that though token thin out could commence, the date for handing over the charge to the ANA is 2014. The NATO allies have endorsed this and in fact, have promised to stay engaged (economically, at least) for well beyond that date. They fully realise that any precipitate withdrawal would well be seen as victory of the Taliban.

Also read: Chinese avionics & missiles for Pakistan

 The American/ISAF strategy is to put sufficient military pressure to force the Taliban to the negotiating table. “Negotiated peace agreements”, said Gen Petraeus, “are ultimately the way the CI efforts have been concluded.” However, a very public declaration of a withdrawal deadline incentivises the insurgents to stay the course and hold on. It fails to let the military and psychological pressure build up and in a way defeats the very purpose of the surge. Helmand and Kandahar however, have been identified correctly as the key centres of gravity of the Taliban. These are key narcotic markets and bomb producing areas. Their concerted engagement will yield good results.

There are credible reports of Al Qaedas preparations for 26/11 type attacks on European cities. The first low grade strike has actually occurred in Sweden in end 2010.

It is now widely expected that the Taliban cannot afford to cede control of this vital opium producing terrain and is likely to launch a major summer offensive in 2011. However, the US/NATO will have to be prepared to pay the cost in terms of casualties. This is the American Achilles Heel. Hence, the US is increasingly getting impatient of the Pakistani sanctuary support to the Afghan Taliban. Accordingly, 140 miles to the North of Kandahar, US/NATO Attack Helicopters had crossed in hot pursuit and claimed to have chased and killed some 30 insurgents of the Haqqani Group in 2010. A Pakistani Post at Torkham was attacked and 3 Pakistani troops were killed and three injured. Pakistan, in turn, reacted strongly and even stopped US/NATO supply convoys and tacitly encouraged attacks on these convoys to underline its resentment. The floods had given it a very viable excuse to put off the long sought offensive in North Waziristan, which was to coincide with the Battle of Kandahar.

There are credible reports of Al Qaeda’s preparations for 26/11 type attacks on European cities. The first low grade strike has actually occurred in Sweden in end 2010. The United States has warned that any attacks on its homeland will lead to serious retaliation and has apparently drawn up a contingency list of 150 insurgent camps/targets in Pakistan that will be hit in such an eventuality.

In the light of all these developments, the outcome of the ongoing offensive in Kandahar will be crucial to the final outcome in Afghanistan. The Americans will have to go beyond the existing ambiguity and clearly decide on their response to Pakistan’s persistent provision of sanctuaries and support to the Afghan Taliban (in specific, the Haqqani, Hekmatyar and Mullah Omar groups). The Americans are also seeking Russian and Central Asian countries’ help to develop alternative routes of supplying their forces in Afghanistan. This will reduce their critical dependence on Pakistan, for logistical support. Another clear option if there is a relative thaw in US relations with Iran is for the NATO countries to use the land routes via Iran

The Way Out:- The ultimate solution would be a significant enhancement in the size of the ANA. India and other regional powers can play a major role here. India should offer to raise, equip and train upto two divisions more of the ANA as also a Tank and Artillery Brigade with equipment. It should strengthen the Aviation Corps of the ANA by providing Dhruv helicopters and Kiran jet trainers (that can double as ground attack fighters). A revived ANA will be far cheaper than US/NATO troops and is the ideal force to deal with the Afghan insurgency. Pakistan must be pressured to resile from its zero-sum game strategies. It cannot hope to gain at the cost of each one of its neighbours. It would be in India’s interests to see that no single state or any state inimical to India ever dominates Afghanistan. A failure of the Afghan state could have dangerous consequences for the region. Hence, all regional players need to be co-opted.

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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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