Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory: How ISAF infighting helped doom Sangin to its ongoing violence

Afghanistan Analysts Network

View over Sangin district centre and the southern Green Zone

View over Sangin district centre and the southern Green Zone | Julius Cavendish

Sangin district in Helmand has again, this year, seen heavy fighting, this time between the Afghan National Security Forces and the Taleban. With dozens killed and thousands displaced following an insurgent assault involving hundreds of fighters, the Taleban leadership is once again showing how much it values this strategic crossroads and poppy-producing hub. Guest author Julius Cavendish,* who reported on fighting in Sangin in 2010 and 2011 and is following what’s happening in the region closely since, has been looking into the background of one of the most contested districts in the country. He reveals how ISAF repeatedly squandered the chance to build a durable political settlement in the district, including bombing a meeting of Taleban while they were discussing going over to the government. He argues that institutional dysfunction and competing agendas within the coalition helped ensure that the generals and bureaucrats overseeing the campaign in Helmand repeatedly undermined efforts to build a lasting peace. (With additional reporting by Muhib Habibi in Kandahar.)

On 20th November 2010, Taleban commander and shadow district governor Mullah Abdul Qayum met all afternoon with other disaffected insurgents in his high-walled garden in southern Afghanistan. According to local elders and British officials, the men — incensed by months of brutality by out-of-area insurgents — were plotting to hand one of Afghanistan’s most violent districts over to government control. It was a brazen double-cross that would, Qayum and his accomplices hoped, finally bring peace to their valley. Now, following months of secret correspondence with Afghan and British officials, they wanted a demonstration of government good faith. That is when a NATO bomb slammed into the meeting. Read the rest of this entry »


Julius Cavendish: It may not be safe yet, but progress was made thanks to aggressive US tactics

The Independent

View from Sangin: A tentative peace accord struck at the start of the year is holding, at least to the extent that it still exists

Seven months ago 500lb bombs were tearing into Taliban positions outside Sangin district centre in Helmand province as the US Marines here launched an aggressive and costly campaign against Taliban insurgents. What was already Afghanistan’s bloodiest district for foreign troops quickly became more so.

The infusion of troops, including US Marines, was part of President Obama’s surge and despite widespread suspicion of Nato’s spin, it genuinely seems that their arrival had an impact, especially in Helmand and neighbouring Kandahar – although neither province is yet safe, nor going to be in the immediate future. The Taliban matched Obama’s surge with their own escalation, knowing full well that tactical defeats matter little, provided they can simply hang-on under the drawdown.

But the gun battles and roadside blasts that once took place in Sangin’s heart have migrated to its fringes – and it’s hard to see that as anything but a vindication of the Marines’ aggressive tactics. Yesterday there was barely a single explosion within earshot of the Marines’ main base. Read the rest of this entry »


Taliban ‘killing their own’ in bid to wrest back control in Sangin

The Independent

Taliban gunmen have begun assassinating their own rank and file in a desperate bid to stop a remote mountain valley sliding from their grasp, as well as bringing in new commanders to oversee their fightback in Sangin, Afghanistan’s most violent district, The Independent can reveal.

They are also attacking tribal elders trying to broker a peace deal between disillusioned members of the insurgency – resentful of Taliban commanders from other tribes and districts ordering them about – and government officials eager for peace.

Speaking by phone, a tribal elder in the upper Sangin valley said Taliban gunmen ambushed an elder from the Alokozai tribe called Badar Agha as he left home for morning prayers earlier this month. Aware an attempt on his life was likely, the elder shot back with his Kalashnikov, apparently wounding an assailant before being taken to hospital for medical treatment. Read the rest of this entry »


Nato’s grand experiment leaves Marjah scrabbling for a future

The Independent

Attempts to install a ‘government in a box’ in Helmand’s deserts have stalled in the face of tribal jealousies

Marjah at dusk | Julius Cavendish

The white sedans came from nowhere, sliding to a stop amid a plume of dust. Out stepped Haji Zahir – the figurehead for Nato efforts to bolster governance in Marjah, a sleepy Afghan backwater that has seen precious little of it over the past two years. Marjah is the Taliban stronghold which General Stanley McChrystal, until recently the Nato commander in Afhganistan, famously called a “bleeding ulcer”.

The coalition showcased the district and made it the focus of its campaigning earlier this year, pouring in thousands of US and Afghan troops in one of the most heavily advertised attacks in history. They also installed what officials called “government in a box” and made Mr Zahir Marjah’s new district governor. US and British experts work with him, struggling to build a local administration from scratch. This approach and its subsequent success, the thinking went, would show the war could yet be won.

On this particular evening Mr Zahir was the model of a local politician. He had come to encourage young men to join the fledgling police force. “We will pay their wages,” he assured families gathered at one of the intersections that criss-cross Marjah. They heckled him; he stroked his beard; they jabbed their fingers; he grinned broadly and settled everything with a firm word and a friendly hug. Then, sunglasses set rakishly on his nose, off he went in search of more constituents.

In Mr Zahir, the district has a leader who “possesses a number of strengths that any politician would like to have, specifically, excellent oratory skills and solid rapport with his constituents”, according to the US State Department representative Edward Messmer. “Where governor Zahir hits headwinds are [in] his administrative abilities and managerial experience.”

In a country fractured by mountain ranges and ethnic splits, local government can assume an importance unseen in more benign environments. Turning it into a functioning branch of the state is integral to Western hopes for a stable Afghanistan. Yet months after Nato and the Afghan government first rolled in, Marjah appears to some to be stagnating.

“Everyone involved, of course, would like the process to move faster,” explains Mr Messmer. But to ensure that schools, clinics and refurbished irrigation canals – crucial to a community that has reclaimed its farmland from the Helmand desert – stay open long after the coalition has left, “we all want to do it right the first time”.

It is the slow rate of progress here and across Afghanistan that has helped undermine the relationship between military and political leaders in the West, culminating in General McChrystal’s astonishing resignation last week. There is little sign so far that his mentor David Petraeus, who has taken over direct responsibility for the Nato campaign in Afghanistan, will abandon his protégé’s strategy – and he has notably failed to endorse timelines set by President Barack Obama to start bringing US troops home.

It is what happens in the shadows, though, that will, perhaps, have the largest impact. Night and day, bearded men wearing Afghan robes walk into the Helmand countryside and try to persuade people here to stand up against the insurgents and criminals. They are US Special Operations Forces. And worryingly for politicians still hoping for an imminent exit, they say there is nothing to suggest change will come quickly.

Captain Matt, a Green Beret operating in southern Marjah, describes what his 12-man detachment does as “weeks and weeks of going out and talking, talking, talking”. Because Marjah was a patch of uninhabited desert until a 1950s development programme brought water to the area, it lacks the social cohesion of more traditional Afghan settlements.

“It’s a tough thing to put your finger on,” he says. “People are scared of each other as much as of the Taliban. When a single tribe is in an area they’re more comfortable but here it’s very small enclaves. [There’s lots of] mistrust. People are worried about sparking jealousies.” With “300 major tribes” present, this splintered demographic – “like New York City”– is hindering efforts to create anti-Taliban unity among Marjah’s residents, Capt Matt says. Poverty and a lack of understanding of what the counter-insurgency is trying to offer compound the problem.

“Most insurgencies over the past 40 or 50 years are pre- or post-colonial failure,” Capt Matt says.

“You had a common language. When you talk governance here you may as well try to describe a mermaid in a land-locked country… The coalition is a liked force. They are in no doubt we are here to reconstruct… [But] we’re dealing with guys who don’t really understand what we’re trying to sell.”

The intimidation campaign waged by the Taliban is not as potent as some in the coalition feared, but it is much in evidence in southern Marjah. According to US forces, out-of-work men regularly let off rounds of gunfire into the air to make cash by fanning perceptions of insecurity. Yet anyone who accepts support from Nato is questioned by the Taliban within 24 hours.

And when the provincial government issued a curious edict, banning the use of motorcycles for 10 days, shopkeepers in the bazaars – symbols of government control, Nato largesse and Marjah’s future prosperity – were ordered by the insurgents to stay at home under pain of death.

Crouching down in a lush green field, an informant told one US patrol that the Taliban wanted to create the impression of a local strike against the edict, which was hampering their operations: motorbikes are the militants’ preferred getaway vehicle.

Several villagers saw fit to discuss the intimidation campaign with the US Marines they see daily. But no one wanted to cross the insurgents, and their shutters stayed down, day after day.


Afghanistan war: NATO unfolds blueprint to rebuild Marjah

Christian Science Monitor

Western and Afghan officials have outlined ambitious plans for a new Marjah that include erecting new schools, reforming the police force, and upending the drug trade. Rebuilding Marjah and other towns is now seen as critical to NATO’s Afghanistan war strategy.

LASHKAR GAH, AFGHANISTAN

Long before Marjah was dragged from sleepy anonymity into one of NATO’s biggest offensives in its nine-year war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Western governance experts had begun drawing up the town’s future.

Down white-tiled corridors and behind code-locked doors on their base in Helmand Province, a handful of American and British officials planned for months how to turn this swath of irrigation ditches and mud compounds, ruled for two years by Taliban militants and crime syndicates, into a beacon of peace and prosperity.

This is the “build” part of the “clear, hold, build” strategy set out last year by the top NATO commander here, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

It could become a blueprint for winning the war – if it works.

It is here that the insurgency has raged most fiercely, costing NATO 408 lives and the local population many times more.

Kabul takes interest

Governance experiments in Afghanistan have failed before, but this one is different, the planners say, because more resources and thought are being put into it.

The apparent emergence of political will at the highest levels of the Afghan government, after years of neglecting to support their provincial and district counterparts in Helmand, is also a factor.

Last Tuesday a delegation from the capital arrived to discuss agriculture with provincial officials.

Kabul’s interest in Helmand grew last September. That month, Agriculture Minister Mohammad Asef Rahimi visited the town of Nawa, which US Marines had recently cleared of militants, and promised to follow up with development.

“They were horrified. There was nothing there, absolutely nothing,” recalls Peter Hawkins, a British official who accompanied Rahimi’s delegation. “There was a good governor, but he was sitting there on his own in a little building built by us. They went back to Kabul with the message, ‘We’ve got to do something, we can’t not do something with this void down there.’ ”

Mapping out a new Marjah

In Marjah a similar void would allow the crime bosses and Taliban commanders just driven out to return. They “exercised far too much control over the population” in the past, says Marlin Hardinger, a US State Department official in Helmand. The “most important and difficult [thing now is to] build better governance.”

Although the insurgency is still flickering in Marjah, it is mainly in the form of roadside bombs strikes, about five a day. Officials, who have access to $500 million for stabilizing Helmand, don’t expect to know if they have won over the population for at least three months.

A map drawn up by the provincial governor and dotted with colored blocks shows what the restoration of sovereignty means in tangible terms: there are bright red schools, yellow agriculture directorates, and courts festooned with the scales of justice.

Green blocks, or police stations, are a point of concern. Thousands of elite officers have been drafted from outside Helmand and charged with maintaining security in the crucial next few months. The force must also shed its predatory and corrupt reputation for the rebuilding of Marjah to succeed, experts say.

“Probably the most challenging and sensitive thing” is improving the police, says Mr. Hardinger, the State Department official.

Rooting out opium

Another challenge will be how to deal with Helmand’s thriving opium economy. Powerful players in the drug trade in the province, such as former governor Mohammad Akhundzada and his police chief Abdurrahman Jan, have much to lose by acceding to a new political economy. Mr. Jandemonstrated his intent to reestablish his influence over Marjah last month when he took control of a local council.

Posed against these strongmen is current Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal, a technocrat who burnished his reputation by busting kidnapping rings and crooked police since taking office two years ago. He has won praise from Western advisers for using the media to spread a message of inclusive government and for traveling around the province to hear complaints from his constituents.

He’s also earned plaudits for his handling of men like Mr. Akhundzada and Jan. “Mangal’s played the technocratic card brilliantly,” says Hawkins, who has worked closely with the governor. “He has managed the situation rather than (1) allowing the situation to manage him or (2) confronting the situation. If you confront the situation in Afghanistan, you’ve lost.”

Mangal will also have to wean farmers away their opium crop without alienating them. Counternarcotics experts have praised his “food zone” program, which combines the stick of poppy eradication with the carrot of improved wheat seed handouts. Although Helmand still produces more poppy than the rest of the world combined, they say there are tentative signs of success.

The new mayor of Marjah, Haji Zahir, is tasked with replicating Mangal’s tactics, for example, reaching out to local leaders in a flurry of meetings.


Afghanistan war: As civilian deaths rise, NATO says, ‘Sorry.’

Christian Science Monitor

In the Afghanistan war, NATO forces chief Gen. Stanley McChrystal publicly apologized Tuesday for 27 Afghan civilian deaths in a US airstrike. The coalition has begun saying ‘sorry’ more quickly to civilian deaths, as part of a new hearts and minds strategy.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

Another botched airstrike, another apology.

In a video distributed Tuesday in Dari and Pashto, the main languages spoken in Afghanistan, the top NATOcommander here Gen. Stanley McChrystal said he was sorry to the nation for 27 civilian deaths, after US special forces killed a convoy of Afghan civilians they had mistaken for insurgents. It was the coalition’s deadliest mistake in six months.

While public apologies by NATO have become almost commonplace – this was just one of half a dozen in the past 10 days, and the second by McChrystal himself – the push to admit mistakes and say sorry is unprecedented in NATO’s nine-year intervention in Afghanistan. It fits into McChyrstal’s new strategy that prioritizes winning over the population.

“I have instituted a thorough investigation to prevent this from happening again,” he said. “I pledge to strengthen our efforts to regain your trust to build a brighter future for all Afghans. Most importantly, I express my deepest, heartfelt condolences to the victims and their families. We all share in their grief and will keep them in our thoughts and prayers.”

For years, stonewalling

For years, foreign forces here were grudging in their apologies, trying to spin big mistakes into smaller mistakes and refusing to comment on civilian casualties until torturously slow and opaque inquiries ended. If any blame was admitted, it was usually too long after the event to sound sincere. The Taliban exploited NATO’s lack of information, seizing on reports of civilian deaths with its own propaganda machine to turn Afghans against the foreign forces.

But NATO has shifted on the communications front. In the past 10 days alone, it has admitted that airstrikes in Kunduz and Kandahar Provinces last week killed five civilians and a handful of Afghan policemen, and that a rocket strike in the Marjah offensive in Helmand Province left at least nine bystanders dead. Troops there have also shot and killed civilians they have mistaken for suicide bombers. Each time an explanation has been forthcoming.

Apologies, apologies

Afghans are circumspect about the change in tone. “Does this apology mean there won’t be any other civilian casualties in future?” says Abdul Jabar, a carpenter from the eastern province of Wardak. “If it does then I appreciate it.”

Mohammad Yassir, a shopkeeper in Kabul, is less receptive. “I want to ask McChrystal if he had lost his family in such an incident,” he says. “And if someone called to apologize, what would his reaction be? An apology doesn’t bring anyone back to life.”

Officials claim that NATO’s improved ability to communicate in Afghanistan can be attributed to McChrystal himself, who has shaken up the command structure and spun off a new public affairs office fielding queries 24 hours a day.

“It’s a good place to be right now. It’s very exciting and I think the excitement is contagious,” says Col. Wayne Shanks, a NATO public affairs officer based in Kabul. “I owe most of it to General McChrystal because he refocuses us and reenergizes us each day.”

More than words

But independent observers say the difference is attributable not just to the reorganization but also to a change in approach. The circumstances in which coalition forces are allowed to call in an airstrike have become more limited. For example, they must wait 72 hours to establish a “pattern of life” before bombing a house where insurgents have taken refuge.

Although the total number of civilian casualties rose in 2009 to 2,412, NATO troops were responsible for ‘only’ 25 percent of them, down from 39 percent the year before.

“The distinction that McChrystal has brought to the table is that there is a focus on communications but there is another level beyond that, where they are willing to make some changes in policy that reflect community concerns,” says Erica Gaston, a human rights advocate in Kabul for Open Society Institute. “I think that’s the main reason he’s been more effective in strategic communications.”

“With [Gen. David] McKiernan [McChrystal’s predecessor] there was also a certain public relations sensitivity to issues like civilian casualties, but you didn’t really see changes of policy,” she says.

“McChrystal is not only willing to go to the site afterward and make apologies but also to follow that up by making changes to tactical restrictions to prevent similar incidents from occurring.”


Marjah offensive: New Afghan governor takes office as battle rages

Christian Science Monitor

Less than two weeks into the Marjah offensive in Afghanistan, an Afghan governor flew into town on Monday and began holding meetings.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

The shots haven’t even died away in one of NATO’s biggest offensives of its nine-year war in Afghanistan, but US State Department officials are already rushing in Afghan government staff as part of the ambitious next phase of Operation Moshtarak.

The speedy rollout in Marjah of the new US strategy to “clear, hold, and build” is part of the renewed US strategy of wresting momentum from the Taliban. But some experts warn there is no way to install good government overnight.

Ten days into the fight – with US Marines and their Afghan counterparts still advancing on Taliban fighters holed up in the north and west – Marjah’s new subdistrict governor was brought in and held a shura, or council, with local elders in the town center.

Haji Zahir will hold a flurry of similar meetings with other community representatives as soon as he is properly installed, possibly before the end of the week, in makeshift offices while the real ones are cleared of bombs and refurbished.

Civilian stabilization and governance advisers will assist him as he seeks to extend his reach as far and as quickly as possible. In the northern part of Nad-i-Ali, the district to which Marjah belongs, fighting has slackened sufficiently for development specialists to start rolling out “schools-in-a-box.” Repairs to irrigation canals are also under way.

Window of opportunity

Everyone from lowly subdistrict administrators to the government ministries in Kabul is involved in planning Marjah’s future, Western officials are keen to emphasize.

“We’ve planned to have all this in place very quickly partly because we – the Afghan government and Western advisers – feel like we have a window in which to win over the local population,” says Bay Fang, a State Department spokesperson in southern Afghanistan.

“Installing a subdistrict administrator along with governance and stabilization advisers allows the work of government to start straight away. Because basically we want to show the people that the government can deliver basic services and is a viable alternative to the Taliban.”

According to the new population-centric counterinsurgency strategy championed by top commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the real battle for Marjah – and for the rest of Afghanistan – lies in governance and security, not gunfights.

Operation Moshtarak is “in many ways … a model for the future: an Afghan-led operation supported by the coalition, deeply engaged with the people,” McChrystal told reporters on Sunday.

Short timetable

The rush to roll out a functioning local government may also reflect the tight deadline that coalition forces face in Afghanistan. Large amounts of territory remain to be cleared of insurgents, developed, and restored to Afghan sovereignty before President Barack Obama’s July 2011 deadline for a drawdown of US troops.

Operation Moshtarak is the first phase of an 18-month campaign plan mapped out by McChrystal. The focus of coalition and Afghan forces will soon switch to the neighboring province of Kandahar, where the Taliban movement spluttered to life in the early 1990s, and where power has traditionally resided in southern Afghanistan.

There, as in Marjah, troops will try to clear out the insurgents and install a new government. But the battle to win hearts and minds can be easily set back by civilian casualties. According to the Afghan government, a US airstrike on Sunday killed at least 27 civilians on the border of Uruzganand Day Kundi Provinces – NATO’s third botched bombing raid in seven days. Afghan government ministers called the strike “unjustifiable.”

Not everyone is convinced by the rapid effort to impart good governance in Marjah.

“Is [Operation Moshtarak] going to address one of the root causes of this insurgency – bad governance and exclusionary politics? That’s at the heart of it,” says a Western analyst in Kabul, who asked to go unnamed.

“What can the West bring? More resources? Yes. Better politics? Unlikely,” he says. “At the end of the day people want local leaders they can trust. That can’t be delivered overnight. That takes years. It isn’t that this operation is without value but we’ve got to get away from the idea that we can just parachute in a ready-made government.


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