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Altering Afghanistan's Balance of Power

Interviewee: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
February 15, 2010

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Marines along with foreign and Afghan forces began a major offensive in the city of Marja in Afghanistan's Helmand Province on Saturday, with the goal of regaining control from the Taliban and establishing a government there. CFR national security expert Max Boot, who was in the province in October as the offensive was being planned, says success in Marja will mean being able to extend the area of control in "a kind of spreading ink stain, which is a classic aim of counterinsurgency warfare." He also says Colombia's success in controlling its drug trade suggests it's possible to sharply reduce opium production in Helmand Province.

What is this major operation, the largest since President Obama took office, aiming to accomplish?

They are trying to take out probably the biggest remaining Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province, which has been a safe haven not only for insurgents but also for drug dealers--and the two, of course, are connected. I was on the ground in Nawa, which is only five to ten miles south of Marja. A couple of thousand Marines had gone into Nawa last summer and had established control by the time I arrived in October. It was actually safe to walk around the town without body armor, which is not something I'd recommend trying in most of Helmand Province.

But the Marines in Nawa talked about Marja being a sort of black hole that exerted a dark influence over Nawa and everything else in the vicinity. And as long as Marja remained a Taliban stronghold, it would be hard to make progress in other parts of Helmand Province. The Marines were very aware that they needed to reach a critical mass of troops so that they not only would be able to go into Marja but also to hold it once they were in there. That's the point of the whole operation--to have enough American and Afghan troops so that they can not only do the clearing but also the hold and build part of the operation.

They needed some of the thirty thousand surge troops that President Obama authorized on December 1, as well as Afghan troops that have been sent from other parts of Afghanistan. They finally got to this critical mass and decided to go into Marja.

Marines in Nawa talked about Marja being a sort of black hole that exerted a dark influence over Nawa and everything else in the vicinity.

The goal of the operation is not primarily to kill a bunch of bad guys. If that had been the goal they would have disguised the operation so that it would have been more of a surprise. But what they did was to publicize it well in advance. That gave civilians a chance to get out of the line of fire, but it also let the Taliban escape if they wanted to. The attitude of the military planners was that they didn't care if the Taliban escaped. They wanted to grab hold of the populated area and keep it from being used as a Taliban stronghold in the future. The key now is to hold on to it.

They did a lot in the planning process to make sure that not only the combat operation was successful. General Stanley McChrystal [U.S. commander in Afghanistan] got President Hamid Karzai to sign off on the operation, which he has not done with a lot of military operations in the past. They have what they call a "government in a box" ready to come in to govern and not just fight. They have a district governor and a district government ready to come in; they have several thousand Afghan policemen ready to come in. That will be essential to turning around Marja and expanding the area of control.

Right now what we have in Helmand Province is a lot of insurgent activity in the countryside and a few areas of government control in places like Nawa or Lashkgar Gah, the provincial capital, and soon to be followed by Marja, areas where substantial numbers of coalition troops will have gone in and held, and now the task will be to expand those areas of control into a kind of spreading ink stain, which is a classic aim of counterinsurgency warfare. The allies will be trying to bring the ink stains together. You will have quite a large area where hopefully the insurgents will be excluded in the future.

[I]f you can impose a baseline of security 24/7 in the villages all of a sudden you will find a lot fewer people wanting to grow opium.

How does Helmand Province relate to the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban?

Helmand is one of the two critical provinces in southern Afghanistan along with Kandahar. Those two predominantly Pashtun provinces are traditionally the heart of the Taliban movement. Helmand is particularly important because it is the largest opium-producing region in the world, and that finances the Taliban insurgency. In the planning that General McChrystal and his staff have done, their main emphasis has been to take control of Helmand and Kandahar.

This is going to be a major step towards accomplishing that in Helmand Province. There is still a lot of fighting to be done in Helmand and there is still the issue of Kandahar and Kandahar City, where coalition troops have been having a hard fight on the periphery trying to exclude the Taliban from the city itself. That is all part of the integrated campaign plan to take control of some of these areas where the Taliban insurgency has flourished--to deny them to the Taliban in the future. The enemy that our troops are fighting there is primarily Taliban, not al-Qaeda. There aren't that many al-Qaeda troops in Afghanistan, per se. But these groups are closely linked. You have the Pakistan Taliban and various other Islamist groups which have a refuge in Pakistan and all of which are cooperating to some degree to push foreign troops out and to overthrow the democratic government in Kabul.

One critic I heard on television was concerned Marines would bring in Afghan forces and administrators who would not be from the local area, which would breed resentment. Whatís your sense of that?

Timeline: U.S. War in Afghanistan

The allied commanders are pretty well aware of this. The people who are governing down south are Pashtuns, as is President Karzai. The fight in the south is really a fight among Pashtuns. There is no question that there are a number of other ethnic groups--Tajiks, Hazaris,† Uzbeks, and others--who are represented in the Afghan army. Overall, the Afghan army is pretty well balanced ethnically. This hasn't been a huge issue. In fact, one of the interesting aspects of the fight in Afghanistan is that there hasn't been a lot of the sectarian fighting like you saw in Iraq where Sunnis and Shiites were at each other's throats. The bigger issue is not the ethnicity of the troops or the government officials involved. The bigger issue is corruption and the competence of those involved.

If you're the president of the United States and you're talking about withdrawal in the summer of 2011, that undercuts the message that the troops on the ground are trying to convey of permanent and lasting security.

Is the goal of wiping out the narcotics traffic here a reasonable one?

"Wiping it out" isn't going to happen any time soon. But reducing it is reasonable. I've just been in Colombia, which is another area where you've got a flourishing narcotics economy and a flourishing insurgency, which is piggy-backing off the narcotics economy. Ten years ago, the situation in Colombia seemed hopeless. It looked like it was going to be a failed narco-state. There has been a rapid reduction in the amount of coca which is grown and exported out of Colombia. So the historical evidence suggests that it's not impossible to root out or dramatically and reduce local drug production. But it can't be done in isolation.

What works is that you have to establish 24/7 control on the ground. If you do that, then you start to shift the incentives and all of a sudden the farmers find that it doesn't pay to grow poppies, that other crops might make more sense. And if you can get roads open again and prevent the insurgents from mining the roads, farmers will be able to get other crops to market. One of the big attractions to the farmers in growing poppies is that the Taliban will come and pick it up and deliver it for them so they don't have to worry about transportation, which is very difficult in southern Afghanistan. If you can make the transportation network safe and secure--if you can impose a baseline of security 24/7 in the villages--all of a sudden you will find a lot fewer people wanting to grow opium.

Youíve pointed out that President Obama has never called for a victory in this fight in Afghanistan. Will there be pressure on him to do so if the Marines clear this whole area?

I donít think heís going to change now. But the fact that heís not talking about winning but in fact he seems to hold out the withdrawal of our troops as being the highest goal of American strategy makes it harder for the troops to achieve their job. The only way theyíre going to truly take out the Taliban is if they create the impression in the minds of ordinary Afghans that it is a better bet in the long term to side with the government and its NATO allies than it is to side with the Taliban. The only way to do that is to convince them in the long term that we and our Afghan allies will be there to protect them. If youíre the president of the United States and youíre talking about withdrawal in the summer of 2011 that undercuts the message that the troops on the ground are trying to convey of permanent and lasting security. It doesnít make the mission impossible but it makes it more difficult.

When you were in Nawa, did you find that after chasing out the Taliban, many of the Taliban came over to the government side? Is that a goal of this operation?

There hasn't been a huge amount of that. What tended to happen in Nawa was that the Taliban would just lie low. When you talk about the Taliban, there are many varieties of Taliban. There are some hardcore fighters, but many of them are just farmers who get paid for planting bombs and who go off and deal with their crops. At some point they may plant bombs or carry an AK-47 for a few weeks, but a lot of the Taliban are part-time fighters.

What happens in places like Nawa is that a lot of the part-timers who might have been willing to go out and plant bombs for the Taliban a few months before, once they have two thousand U.S. Marines sitting on top of them, suddenly decide that's not a wise thing to do, and just go to ground. They don't necessarily join the government, and that's fine. You don't necessarily want them to join the government, but if they cease and desist from undertaking insurgent activities, that's perfectly acceptable. NATO and the Afghan government have announced an elaborate program, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to reintegrate former Taliban fighters into Afghan society. That's an important program to have, but it's not going to reap real benefits until you change the military balance on the ground. You have to create incentives for ordinary Taliban to say it's more dangerous to stay with the Taliban than it would be to go with the government.

For an example of what you might see happen, go back to the fall of 2001 when we came in right after 9/11 and all of a sudden many, many fighters switched from the Taliban to the government because they thought that American intervention was this irresistible force and they had to get on the right side of it. A lot of that momentum has been dissipated in the last few years. The goal of the surge now is to regain that momentum and convince a lot of the ordinary foot soldier Taliban to give up the fight. Thatís a realistic expectation but again, we haven't reached that tipping point yet.

In a way, this battle for Marja will be a test case, right?

I don't think anybody imagines that we will win the war in Marja. It's one step in a long road toward creating the kind of environment where you create security and change the balance of power on the ground. And once you do that, then you donít have to kill or lock up most of the Taliban. A lot of them will just give up or switch sides--and that's the ultimate goal.

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