|Operation Moshtarak: Which way the war in Afghanistan?
A week into the joint allied offensive in Helmand province, NATO commanders have been vocal in cautioning that the true success of the mission cannot be fully gauged for months to come and indeed possibly beyond that.
Thus far the allied advance has suffered negligible losses. Although there have been vast numbers of improvised explosive devices left by Taliban bomb makers keeping military engineers busy defusing them, on the face of things the allied drive is going as well as could be expected.
Yet the Taliban guerrilla formations in what has long been their stronghold and scene of the fiercest fighting in the entire campaign, have not really shown themselves or offered much of a fight, despite defiant posturing ahead of the mission kicking off. It would seem that in classic guerrilla fashion, the Taliban faced with overwhelming allied firepower and numbers, refused to grant NATO and the Afghan National Army a conventional battle they would surely lose and simply retreated and melted away either over the border into Pakistan or in the midst of the local population.
In 2006 during the Canadian-led Operation Medusa, the lone but aggressive and skilled Canadian combat brigade was able to lure the Taliban into a conventional showdown and made the black turbans pay heavily, killing some 1,000 of their fighters. It is not an error the Taliban wish to repeat again.
After years of military impasse nonetheless the relative ease with which NATO has swept into Helmand and all but secured the town of Marjah, a key objective of the mission, a well-defended Taliban base area and focal point of its opium/heroin production which finances its war effort, is a clear psychological and tactical boost to both NATO and the ANA.
Some errant NATO artillery rockets have caused some civilian fatalities, which as ever deeply damages hearts and minds efforts, but given the scale of the operation and a new attentiveness to try and diminish civilian losses, even in this regard NATO seems to be doing better.
Winning - both militarily and politically
A captured Taliban militantBildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: Some senior Taliban figures have been capturedWinning over public opinion in Helmand is as much the objective as any military goal and that the operation was publicized with such fanfare so far in advance, allowing many civilians to leave in safety is also a hallmark of Operation Moshtarak, which not incidentally means "together" in Dari. That togetherness has also witnessed the ANA taking part in operations alongside its western counterparts as never before, with the clear intention of demonstrating in a deeply tribal and clan conscious region always wary of outsiders, that Afghans are taking care of their own.
Professor Fawaz Dergez, a scholar in Middle East politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics, argues it's misleading of the international media to "have expected great battles and lots of casualties, when the body count is not the point."
Dergez says NATO deliberately sacrificed the element of surprise ahead of launching its assault to send an entirely different message beyond a mere show of military might to the civilian population, to build confidence and therefore to wrest support away from the Taliban by limiting violence.
"They wanted to tell the public our intention is not to kill, but that were here to stay, you can rely us on to provide security but not to destroy or to create havoc and for those Taliban that want to peacefully disappear or integrate so be it," he told Deutsche Welle.
Dergez sees the operation as vindicating US President Barak Obama's desire to rationalize the allied effort in Afghanistan, as the US begins to extricate itself militarily from Iraq, shifting focus and resources to the Hindu Kush. As the Washington-led 38,000-strong Afghan troop surge gets underway at last the war effort against the Taliban which the US and the European powers allowed to languish on the cheap for so long, is being properly resourced.
The capture this week of top Taliban military mastermind Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar by Pakistani and US security agents is more good news for the war effort and a positive sign that Islamabad is escalating its own pressure against the Taliban in its midst. It too is fighting a ferocious military campaign against insurgency and Islamic radicalism in the tribal territories, where Al Qaida's leadership reputedly still finds sanctuary.
It remains to be seen whether Mullah Baradar's capture becomes a pawn in expected back-door negotiations with the Taliban, but Dergez says a shift in the manner in which the war is being fought is tangible and Moshtarak is the key to understanding.
"We should not lose sight of the overarching goal, that is the first shot of a new political strategy, to change the process, to change the very configuration of Afghanistan," he said.
But surely all the Taliban fighters that did not come out to fight when it would have been suicidal, have other intentions? Western intelligence agencies have been monitoring the growth of both Taliban and Hezb i Islami guerrilla forces in the hitherto relatively peaceful north of the country, where the bulk of German ISAF troops are deployed.
The insurgents and their resurgence
US soldiersBildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: The Taliban may be on the run in Helmand but will no doubt regroup elsewhereIf there is so much mounting pressure building in southern Afghanistan why will not insurgent commanders create a new flashpoint in the north or indeed the west or launch a new series of spectacular series of kamikaze attacks in Kabul itself again? The relatively quiet war the German soldiers have known may not last forever and the rule of thumb of all guerrilla warfare is to expect the unexpected, anytime, anywhere.
But if NATO and the ANA are punching through empty space in Helmand, in the sense that the enemy has withdrawn, for how long has he withdrawn? And in order to consolidate its control over what can be termed newly liberated portions of Helmand, even with the scale of the troop surge and the projected rapid growth of the ANA over the next year, are there enough soldiers to garrison Helmand indefinitely?
The force within
If NATO can ever begin to draw down its mission, over time the bulk of the soldiers and security forces in Helmand, as in throughout Afghanistan, must come from the ANA and the Afghan National Police, which remains a lackluster force, corrupt, poorly trained and equipped and in Helmand at least, riddled by Taliban infiltrators.
A man surrenderingBildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: Winning the war is one thing but winning over hearts and minds is even more crucialIn Helmand the ANA still cannot operate on its own. David Livingstone, a fellow in counter-Terrorism and military operations at the London think tank Chatam House, told Deutsche Welle that "NATO does not lack (due) cognizance of the ANA's current capabilities. They would surely fail on their own and their confidence would be adversely affected. But there has to be an ultimate aim that that we learn through the process, that we improve the methods of joint cooperation and we have to begin somewhere. The Afghan army has to be grown systematically you can't turn today's private into tomorrow's major general."
And anchoring the whole concept of security in Helmand is the notion that "life building under a form of democracy, however imperfect is better than life under the Taliban," he added.
In this regard there is little NATO's soldiers or the ANA can do to build confidence and trust, when so much of the Afghan government at the national and regional level remains rife with corruption and is often so inept in its provision of good governance and service.
Andrew Dorman, senior lecturer in defence studies at King's College, says for the Taliban to lose control of its opium crop and processing facilities in Helmand "when it is a principal source of income is a strategic loss and for the Taliban not to stand and fight is a further blow to their credibility."
Underestimate the Taliban at your peril
But Dorman also warns that the new offensive is not the be all and end all. Even with the Taliban's arguably top field commander and strategist now a POW, there will be another to replace him. And with all the publicity surrounding the new offensive he told Deutsche Welle that "the ANA has to show itself a success and that it can take control of its own country, the psychological symbolism for NATO is also vast, they've talked it up, they need to win it, because their biggest liability is to lose the support they need at home."
So it would seem the battle for public opinion in the struggle for Afghanistan counts just as much in American and European living rooms as it does in the rude adobe huts of Helmand.
And if Western public opinion is tired of war and its expense both in treasure and the lives of its soldiers, Livingston reminds starkly just what remains at stake in what Obama now calls the Af-Pak war and what public opinion should not forget poses such a clear danger to global security. "An ungoverned and insecure space next to a fragile state that possesses nuclear weapons, itself the engine room of insurgency which already has harsh intentions."
With this in mind NATO's generals are now hoping both the olive branch and overwhelming strength in Helmand can show the way forward to achieving something like success, not outright victory but some form of effective containment, that will ultimately allow western soldiers to go home and for Afghans to carry the weight of their security on their own shoulders in time.