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Why Moshtarak might succeed where Soviet army failed

Mark Urban | 18:24 UK time, Monday, 15 February 2010

The joint Nato-Afghan offensive called Operation Moshtarak has pushed troops into many areas previously under Afghan control.

The results are encouraging - but so they should be, as Nato now has 10 times as many troops in Helmand as the Russians did.

When the Soviet army pulled its brigade, the 22nd Spetsnaz Brigade, out of that province in 1988, I accompanied them as a young newspaper reporter.

They numbered fewer than 2,500 troops.

Although a similar number of Afghan army men remained in the province once they had gone, it is important to note how few the Russians had there.

The Soviet approach to Helmand revolved around a grand deal made with the principal mujahideen commander - you leave us alone in the main provincial centres (Lashkar Gah and Gireshk) and we will leave you alone in more remote districts.

It was this bargain which produced relative quiet for the 22nd Brigade and, at the same time, saw the province turned into opium central.

Nato's operation embraces totally different ideas - it is a vast expenditure of resources designed to crush opposition in areas where the Taliban have found sanctuary, propelling newly formed Afghan security forces in at the same time, and extending the control of the country's callow government.

It was never likely that the Taliban would not contest Operation Moshtarak in a major way.

When 36 Sea Stallion helicopters land around your farm (as happened in Marjah), each of them carrying 30 or more US marines, even the most ardent guerrilla fighter knows it is time to strike the pose of a peaceful farmer.

Some people assume that these fighters will pop up, laying IEDs and taking pot shots as soon as the forces which surged into their area thin out a little.

This is quite possible, or likely even.

But there is also a possibility that, if the Afghan security follow-up is as extensive as we have been led to believe, there could be some permanent "re-adjustments" in the Marjah and (British-controlled) Nad Ali districts.

Things may reach a point where a significant number of local people who had been fighting Nato or government forces decide it is not worth it - for a while anyway.

Early reports indicate that this is what may have happened in another Helmand district, Now Zad, following a major operation there in December, which I witnessed first hand.

Recently there have been suggestions that many refugees have come back to Now Zad and that the level of attacks or IEDs laid against US marines has declined since their clearance operation.

With something like 25,000 Nato and 8,000 Afghan security forces operating across the province the ratio soldiers to locals has now reached a level considered optimum by many theorists of counter insurgency (1:25 or 30).

In short, if this does not work, the generals will have run out of excuses.

The US surge will buy a window of opportunity in Helmand and elsewhere.

The Obama administration want to be cutting troop numbers on 2011-12 by which time the Afghans will have to hold the ring.

It is a totally different approach to the one tried by the Soviet army - and it might even work.


  • Comment number 1.

    afghanistan has been conquered once. by the mongols who decided on a policy of killing everyone including all the animals.

    so will democracy and womens rights be in place by next week then?

  • Comment number 2.

    The Soviet’s Realpolitik approach to Helmand back in the 80s was tenuous at best. It would just take a more aggressive Soviet theatre military commander, looking with askance at the work ethics of the local commander, to restart the battle. The local mujahideen commander, after accumulating enough resources from opium sales, could also reinitiate the offensive. This Realpolitik works best if there are no invasion forces in the demarcated regions. The occupying forces by just their mere presence have to justify their stay, nothing is more superfluous than in insisting that there is no requirement for battle when their presence alone invites being shot at or being hurt by bombs.
    Yes, this Operation Moshtarak might succeed. And once law and order is restored, then, the real socially uplifting stuff like democracy, women’s rights, compulsory education, healthcare etc can work its magic. There is nothing to learn from Mongols aggression of long time ago.

  • Comment number 3.

    For more on Moshtarak form a different perspective see

  • Comment number 4.

    The hard part will be the eventual handing over to Afghan forces to hold and maintain the area, they are not seen as particularly skilled or reliable military forces; that is the spectre hanging over any decision to withdraw western troops from Afghanistan.

    Many Afghans have been fighting since 1979. (Following the Soviet withdrawal there was a protracted civil war.) They're not inexperienced in guerilla warfare and will have a mindset that works to a much longer time scale than November 2011.

    The hard part of this operation (as in Helmand) may not be occupying territory, but in the holding of it.

    As Sun Tzu wrote over two thousand years ago: "Give enemies no target to attack. Be dangerous and elusive, and let them chase you into the void. Deliver irritating but damaging side attacks and pinpricks."

    And "Frontal assaults stiffen resistance. Instead, distract your enemy's attention to the front, then attack from the side when they expose their weakness."

  • Comment number 5.

    Frankly, this obsession with Sun Tsu is terribly overrated, considering that it comes from a country thrice conquered by peoples less populous than it. There were the Mongols, the Manchurians and the Japanese. Besides, its lessons are so obvious that it is universally known and long-in-practiced; there is no need of attribution for its originality. Almost every mother’s soldier-son is a Sun Tsu long before the West meets China.
    More seriously though, Boady raised an interesting point of the enemy not showing up. However it befits the wider scheme of things that the Nato-ISAF and the Kabul forces proclaim victory of sorts. This puts the Taliban minds at a psychological disadvantage: their enemy is now occupying ground, the civilian population is now beyond their sway and the only way the Taliban can assert themselves; is to attack. What the writer of the “enduringamerica” article fails to understand is that it is now the Taliban’s turn to do the ‘shoving’ to regain the territory which they had vacated.
    To any military commander in an asymmetric warfare, it must be assumed that the civilian population is indifferent to who so ever is in charge. I am very sure that the parting words of the Taliban to the civilians left behind: ‘Don’t co-operate with the enemy, we will know who does and punish them!’ So NATO-ISAF and Kabul troops must win their hearts and minds. And this is how to do it as practiced in the Malayan Emergency: …. and I leave it to the Brits to explain it to their NATO-ISAF and Kabul colleagues how to do it.

  • Comment number 6.

    ...And once law and order is restored, then, the real socially uplifting stuff like democracy, women’s rights, compulsory education, healthcare etc can work its magic. ...

    the muslim state model is built on the they only way to implement the 'western state model' will be to pacify the muslims majority. ie an eternal occupation that locks down the border with pakistan

    the mongols were successful in their aim. they had no need to turn it into a gaza. which is where this pointless crusade is going.

  • Comment number 7.

    #5. Sun Tzu is a set text at West Point & Sandurst (as is Clausewitz's On War etc) etc. So not irrelevant as you think.

    Gen McChrystal in Afghanistan will be aware that the Taliban were unlikely to engage in a battle with advancing coalition forces on terms that favoured the coalition.

    I think it is highly likely that the Taliban will "pop up, laying IEDs and taking pot shots as soon as the forces which surged into their area thin out a little".

    I do think that progress can be made in Afghanistan (news that Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar has been recently captured in Pakistan is a welcome) but there are doubts over the abilities of the Afghan National Army (ANA), so I think that puts major doubts on the timetable for a 2011 withdrawal. I think Brigadier Lorimer was right three years ago when he said UK troops may need to be in Afghanistan for the next two decades or so.

    As for hearts and minds; the most crucial step is proving to the ordinary Afghans that the coalition can provide effective security.

    #6 "only way to implement the 'western state model' will be to pacify the muslims majority".

    The Taliban are heavily influenced by Wahhabi orthodoxy (as are Al Qaeda), the most militant form of Islam; most Afghans, including many Pashtus, are more moderate mainstream Sunnis.
    There are also ethnic differences: Tajiks, Uzbeks etc. The Northern Alliance in the civil war (pre 2001) mainly comprised Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbeks, and Turkmens.

    It's a mistake to assume all Afghans are automatically Taliban supporters or fellow travellers.

  • Comment number 8.

    We should not overestimate the NATO-ISAF capacity for "an eternal occupation that locks down the border with Pakistan". Time is a punisher of patience and endurance, Vietnam War lasted about 15 years with USA withdrawing in 1975. The Brits took 12 years to end the Malayan Emergency where most of the British troops were conscripts. The end of the Malayan Emergency coincided with the abolition of UK National Service in 1960. I sense urgency in the NATO-ISAF and Kabul efforts to bring the Afghanistan conflict to a victorious conclusion soon. Or else, be prepared for the ignominy of withdrawal. There will be no “eternal occupation”.
    West Point and Sandhurst being educational institutions will always have room for ‘compare and contrast’ analysis of Sun Tsu, Clausewitz, etc. But it does not mean that they do not have their own-derived doctrines of war dating from American War of Independence and the 100 Years War respectively. There are more similarities than differences. The differences being more related to local circumstances than knowledge gaps.

  • Comment number 9.

    so 400 afghans (200 of which have been killed according to isaf) are holding out 15000 isaf forces with the uk military saying it will take 30 days to take it and a further 3 months to secure it.

  • Comment number 10.

    for all of the propagandist words being reported and replayed from our politicians and generals .. the fact that the issue of civilian deaths has been pushed to the forefront only to find how little we do care about such killings ... to find that it is now somehow sidelined by the media as the death toll rises.

  • Comment number 11.

    The silent factor: the hatred in the eyes, the resentment in the heart, the suffering on the faces of occupied Afghan people - bombed for so long, fleeing, waiting only to be starved, frightened or dead.
    The resistance of Afghans, their refusal to submit, is largely due to their realization that the invaders are not there to establish a peaceful, sectarian democracy. The invaders lie. How do the Afghans know the invaders' lies?
    The thousands of civilians killed by the invaders, their drones, or other war-machines; and the un-Islamic, even disrespectful ways of the invaders.
    The new plan calls for clearing all regions of Taliban.
    The new strategy calls for Afghan administrators and police - a prosperous, peaceful secular society, after "winning the hearts and minds" of the locals. The very proof of the un-Islamic ways of the invaders is General Stanley McChrystal’s statement: “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in."
    A Government in a Box?
    Who comprises this Government in a box?
    Can & will this Government in a box be trusted by the Afghans outside the box?
    NATO has met resistance in Marjah. This at a time when most Taliban have withdrawn- waiting, waiting. They can wait till the American leave.
    Tribal elders in Helmand this week called for a stop to the "Moshtarak". The people are dying - too many people are dying, do you not see the children? Nato said it was sorry, reduced its carelessness. Nevertheless another 63 civilians are dead, maybe more. It’s hard to keep count. Sometimes a civilian becomes a militant, but never the other way around.
    The latest ploy: the Taliban uses locals as "human shields".
    Right, when have the Taliban resorted to using civilians as human shields? When!
    But where did we hear this excuse for killing before? Was it not in the horrible Israeli onslaught in Palestine?
    (30 Afghan soldiers defected from their posts to join the Taliban.)
    No matter how you look at Marjah, the “coalition of the willing” is pursuing yet another illegal war launched by the United States of America, without United Nations' approval. Here is the rationale for excluding the UN? Deputy Special Representative for Secretary General Robert Watkins said the UN can’t be involved "because we don’t want the humanitarian activities linked with military activity."
    NATO is in contravention of international law. Last month’s London Conference on Afghanistan was not a UN conference, though it was attended by the UN Secretary General. Before the Conference, there were two days of meetings at NATO headquarters in Brussels, followed by a meeting of allied defense chiefs in Istanbul. This latter meeting was attended by Israeli Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. What was he doing here? What does Israel have to do with Afghanistan?
    Nato – an illegal invader – is the present.
    Taliban - no matter how long it must wait - is the future.

  • Comment number 12.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?


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