About our operations in Kandahar – all that’s old is new again

Summary:  After trying so many tactics in Afghanistan, including search and destroy sweeps, we’re back to that Vietnam era:  clear and hold.  A fog of vivid language disguises this from the American people.  We rely on Afghanistan security forces to hold what they cannot clear.

Although the current operations in Kandahar have no embedded journalists (all were canceled due to logistical problems), the Pentagon keeps us informed (if not well-informed).  Feel the excitment coursing through the reporters as they repeat what they’re told.

A major military operation involving hundreds of American troops, U.S. Special Forces and heavy bombers dropping 2,000-pound bombs on Taliban command and control centers wrapped up last week, concluding a critical phase in the campaign to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province. … The operation was one part of a new push that began in September into the rural areas west of Kandahar City, which includes Arghandab, Zhari and Panjwai districts. All are traditional strongholds for the Taliban … A senior coalition official in southern Afghanistan, who asked his name not be used, said the offensive focused on the northwestern part of Arghandab district and, specifically, a village called Charqol Bah.  The official described the village as a “command and control headquarters” for the Taliban.

They provide no picture of this “command and control HQ”.  One can only imagine!

“We expect hard fighting,” Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, a spokesman for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force, told reporters … “destroying Taliban fighting positions so they will not have anywhere left to hide.”  (Los Angeles Times)

Pillboxes?  Forts?  Castles?  Some descriptions are direct echos from Vietnam, like this:

Often the soldiers there run what are known as “move to contact” patrols that have no goal but to draw fire from the Taliban so aircraft can find and kill them.
— “American and Afghan Troops Begin Combat for Kandahar”, New York Times, 26 September 2010

Some descriptions raise more questions.  Since modern reporters are incurious, seldom do we get answers.  Too much detail ruins the pleasant story:

Lieut. Colonel Peter Benchoff, a battalion commander of the 101st Airborne Division deployed in Zhari district, says the goal is nothing less than to “crush [the Taliban’s] will.” … In the latest phase of the operation, the scouts were tasked with supporting another company engaged in house-to-house clearing aimed at extending the security belt further away from the highway, while armored vehicles plowed up roads for bombs. … The current phase of operations is geared to make a statement: drive the fight as aggressively as possible and rout the Taliban in their own backyard.
— “Why the Kandahar Campaign Matters“, Time, 18 October 2010

What does “house-to-house” clearing mean, as they “extend a security belt”?  Foreign news agencies are more informative about the results of these operations.

Military operations against Taliban militants in their birthplace Kandahar in south Afghanistan have forced over 900 families to leave their houses for safer places, head of Refugees department in the province Mohammad Azim Nawabi said Wednesday. “Since launching operations in Arghandab district about one month ago 626 families have left their homes for safer places and many of these refugees have been living with their relatives in Kandahar city,” Nawabi asserted.  In an interview with Xinhua, he also said that 250 families have left Jalai district and 25 more families left Panjwai district for safer places.
— “Military operation against Taliban in Kandahar leaves 900 families homeless“, Xinhua, 29 September 2010

We don’t know what’s happening now.  But details emerge after several years have passed, allowing us to guess about the present.  Clear and hold sometimes slides into other things, such as search and destroy or punitive strikes.

Three years ago, Canadian troops built a temporary post near Lora. When they immediately came under fire from insurgents, they bulldozed much of the hamlet, flattening houses, water pumps and surrounding orchards, the villagers and local elders say.  “There were 10 families who had houses there that were totally destroyed, and mulberry trees were taken out by their roots,” Mr. Hamid said in a recent interview in Kandahar city. “They destroyed all these things, and we are unable to replace them.”  But a provincial councilor, landowners and farmers from the area said at least half the hamlet was demolished. A year later the Canadians dismantled the post and left, but the village remains deserted, the villagers said.

The experience has left a bad taste for many villagers. “Fighting brings no result for us because when they are fighting, we get caught under their feet,” said Ghulam Haidin, a butcher who fled the hamlet of Garaj for a second time recently.  The case of Lora, and two neighboring hamlets, Garaj and Ghilzan, which were also destroyed, would seem to be a lesson in the mistakes that NATO forces have made in southern Afghanistan, and what should not be repeated

— “In Afghan South, U.S. Faces Frustrated Residents“, New York Times, 16 October 2010

Sounds like “zippo missions” in Vietnam (as in zippo lighters).  Burning hamlets in order to save them.  Punative strikes at villages unwise enough to aid our enemies.  As we did in Iraq:  Winning hearts and mind with artillery fire, Another example of winning hearts & minds with artillery.

What are we accomplishing by these operations?

When the enemy advances, we retreat. …
When the enemy retreats, we pursue. …
When the enemy halts, we harass him. …
— Basic Tactics by Mao Tse-tung, Chapter 2 (1937)

How do we identify Taliban fighters, if they choose not to fight?  That’s the great question ignored by most reports, written as if describing the landing at Normandy.  Intelligence, perhaps — getting locals to finger suspects.  Hopefully not just rivals, family enemies, or stray names to demonstrate “value”. this IPS article raises questions about drone targeting.   (update)  This BBC article describes a horrific intelligence failure (probably commonplace):  “Mr. Pink, Mr. White, and Bottom“.

The likely result of these operations, like the strikes by drones and special ops teams:  more recruits for the Taliban.  We can only guess at the overall results.  The history of foreigners fighting insurgencies gives us few grounds for confidence.

Articles about our operations in Kandahar

Michael Cohen at Democracy Arsenal describes the schwerpunkt of the attack — the US public:

So it seems the latest US military offensive has begun both in Afghanistan and here in the United States – Operation Enduring Conflict. And like so many other military offensives it promises to be a smashing success – in continuing US military involvement in Afghanistan.  It began over the weekend, with a shock and war-style attack that left critics of the conflict dazed and bloodied.


For more information about our strategy in Afghanistan

  1. Quote of the day: this is America’s geopolitical strategy in action, 26 February 2008 — George Friedman of Statfor on the Afghanistan War.
  2. Another perspective on Afghanistan, a reply to George Friedman, 27 February 2008
  3. The simple, fool-proof plan for victory in Afghanistan , 1 June 2009
  4. Advice about our long war – “It’s the tribes, stupid”, 9 June 2009
  5. The trinity of modern warfare at work in Afghanistan, 13 July 2009
  6. How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan?, 15 September 2009
  7. About those large and growing Afghanistan security forces…, 26 September 2009
  8. DoD did not consider troop levels when devising our latest Af-Pak war plans, more evidence that their OODA loop is broken, 8 October 2009
  9. “Night Raids, Hidden Detention Centers, the ‘Black Jail’, and the Dogs of War in Afghanistan”, 30 January 2010
  10. The future of Marjah, after the invasion and occupation, 23 February 2010
  11. Stratfor explains “The Meaning of Marjah, 24 February 2010
  12. A powerful story from Afghanistan, an illustration of our un-strategy at work, 18 April 2010
  13. Afghanistan war logs: Shattering the illusion of a bloodless victory, 28 July 2010

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