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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 30, July 17, 2010

When and How in Kandahar

Thursday 22 July 2010, by Uddipan Mukherjee


The interviews for an article in the Rolling Stone magazine has cost General McChrystal his job. Nevertheless, the Obama Administration is keen to move ahead with the Counter-insurgency (COIN) Doctrine in Afghanistan since the offensive at Marjah. Against this backdrop, this article looks into various aspects of the COIN for the impending battle in Kandahar: the Taliban’s fortress.

Since McChrystal has now expectedly capitulated to his Rolling Stone misdemeanor, the American COIN (Counter-insurgency) is likely to face a stiffer challenge in Afghanistan.

A year-long experience in the war ravaged topography, a dedicated ‘prefect’ of the Obama Administration, a perfect torchbearer of Petraeus’ counterinsurgency programme in Iraq and an initiator of the ‘surge’ in ‘the graveyard of empires’, General Stanley McChrystal perhaps had it all in him to carry forward to fruition the American COIN in the ‘land of the Buzkashi’.

The Obama-Petraeus-McChrystal Doctrine (OPM) was literally put to test in the Marjah offensive (christened Operation Moshtarak) in February this year. The ambitious McChrystal was probably too optimistic when he fired the salvo for a deadlier offensive in Kandahar, almost immediately after Marjah.

Whether it was a real warning before a battle or a mere muscle-flexing to psychologically dent the Taliban-Al Qaeda combo is something which is an exclusive preserve of the General and the Obama Administration. However, it has definitely confirmed one thing. The Kandahar-salvo gave the Taliban-Qaeda duo ample time to regroup and revive. Moreover, Mullah Omar’s Taliban had everything to lose in Kandahar.

It is their core bastion. Their power, both political as well as economic, emanates from the region. Certainly they are not in a position to lose the battle in Kandahar, let alone forego it. The Taliban had retreated in Marjah, allowing McChrystal and his company to believe that they had been successful or at least make the world believe that the American COIN had passed the first test after the ‘surge’, with honours.

The apparent defeat of the Taliban-Qaeda duo in Marjah allowed the resurrection of the anti-Taliban administration which was being carried by McChrystal, according to his own parlance, in a ‘box’.

Three-and-a-half months have rolled past since the official completion of the ‘hold’ phase of Operation Moshtarak. The ‘build’ phase is going on amidst skirmishes with the Taliban snipers. The OPM juggernaut has definitely been thwarted, not only because of the sporadic Taliban counter-attacks, but also due to the fact that there might still be a lack of unanimity amongst the Obama Administration regarding the implementation of the COIN.

Way back, Vice-President Biden had come up with his ‘Drone Doctrine’ of annihilating the top leaders of the Al-Qaeda and not concentrating much on ‘building’ a war torn country. He too had his followers and logically so. Investing billions of dollars in a war which was getting protracted and turning out to be yet another Vietnam was not prudent. And since the American aim were the 3Ds of ‘disrupting’, ‘dismantling’ and ‘defeating’ the Al Qaeda, wisdom dictated that focus should be on Osama’s entourage and not on the internal politics of Afghanistan. Furthermore, keeping in mind the history of the undulated territory and the fiercely independent Pashtuns, Biden probably appreciated the fact that even providence was not on America’s side.

NEVERTHELESS, President Obama did toe the counterinsurgency line of Petraeus. He saw it being fruitful in Iraq to an extent of receiving encomiums and naturally got attracted to use it in order to tame the vicissitudes of the American fate in Afghanistan. The triumvirate of Obama, Petraeus and McChrystal finally confided in each other and went ahead with the onerous task. To them, it appeared logically impossible to de-link the Taliban from the Al Qaeda.

They basically had three targets in the ‘land of Abdali’. One, they had to negotiate with the Taliban from a position of strength; hence corner them if not ‘technically defeat’ them in their strongholds of the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. Second, erect a pliable government in Kabul. If that was Karzai, fine. If the Taliban supplanted Karzai, then they needed to disconnect the Taliban-Qaeda alliance. Third, completely destroy the Al Qaeda hubs in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of neighbouring Pakistan.

Whatever be the case, the Obama Administration in no way could have accepted to leave Kabul with their self-esteem bludgeoned. Hence, McChrystal’s position on the ‘surge’ was literally accepted late last year. A new transit route to supply logistics to the war theatre in the form of the Northern Distribution Network through the Central Asian Republics (CAR) was constructed.

On a pragmatic plane, to ‘actually build’ Afghanistan, if at all that was in the minds of either Obama or McChrystal, is surely to flounder and should not be the American agenda. Hopefully, Obama is no Gandhi to weave a utopia.

Incidentally, there appeared a ‘halo’ surrounding McChrystal. His prodigious ‘morning runs’ and ‘one meal a day’ elevated him to a ‘super general’. To add to these, the recent leakage of his ‘impressions’ about the Administration’s top brass was disconcerting to Obama on the one hand and also reminded us of the of the late eighteenth century Napoleon-Directory spat on the other.

Though Napoleon lived in an era when France had decapitated the institution of monarchy, still military dictatorship was in vogue. Hence, a coup d’état was feasible for him to enact. Today, in the land of the second largest democracy on earth, it was inevitable that McChrystal had to prostrate and be admonished by Obama for his ‘immature’ handling of the media.

Presently, to intrude into Kandahar is imperative for the Americans. Hence, nobody is asking why Kandahar? The germane question is: when and how?

Gravitating in the orbit of sanity, a few suggestions may be posited.

First, the NATO-ISAF should try to hold onto Marjah and its nearby areas of Nad Ali for a reasonable period of time, namely, six months. That would essentially provide them a psychological edge.

Second, before Marjah is firmly held and a reliable Afghan Government is proved to be a reality there, the NATO-ISAF should refrain from attacking Kandahar; thus avoiding engagement on two fronts simultaneously. Though the temptation of defeating the Taliban at one go before they re-group was irresistible, McChrystal and his men were forced to be cautious.

Meanwhile, security needs to be beefed up in Kabul. The Taliban would naturally hit Kabul and other urban centres to divert attention. The series of suicide bombings in Kabul on February 26 targeting foreign citizens is a relevant case in point.

Fourth, the drone-strikes need to be continued, with celerity, in FATA, Swat and Quetta.

To sum up succinctly, Kandahar is definitely on the cards and COIN is the strategy but to surmise the august presence of the NATO-ISAF before August this year seems to be beyond hypothesis. And Petraeus again is the man to take up the cudgels.

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