15 Feb 2010

Now the real fight against the Taliban gets underway

Alex Thomson on the challenges facing NATO and the Afghan government on keeping the Taliban out of areas of Helmand cleared during Operation Moshtarak.

As predicted by analysts, and all but said out loud from NATO commanders, the Taliban have taken the proffered hint and left central Helmand. They almost invariably do, not being stupid and only being suicidal in a tactical sense of strapping explosives to themselves when tasked so to do.

So overwhelming odds have quickly achieved, well, what?

First the Clear of NATO’s grand stratagem in Afghanistan: Clear, Hold, Build.

But how real is this “Clear”? Clearly the Taliban are watching closely what is happening and waiting. If they can melt away, they can equally well melt back into central Helmand and elsewhere.

Perhaps not this month, or year. But next year when NATO is desperate to start pulling its troops out.

The Taliban have time on their side. For NATO the political clock is ever ticking. Obama needs results with mid-terms beginning to loom. He needs to start bringing his people home. So too Gordon Brown.

So it will not be clear what clear really means for a good long while to come.

Let us move to stage two: Hold. With NATO commanders admitting this is the difficult bit. But this is vital to Gen Stanley McChrystal’s Grand Plan for Afghanising the country.

Once the Talibs have moved, in theory in come the army and the police. And Afghans begin dealing with Afghan problems.

Simple? Well not quite.

For starters, the Afghan National Army isn’t very national at all. It is dominated by ethnic Tajiks and Hazaras from the north who do not speak the language of the Pashtun south and have a history of enmity centuries old.

The Afghan police are widely detested as little better than a renegade bunch. It’s a reputation they have worked very hard to live down to. I have myself watched the Army round up and arrest the police as they set about looting the bazaar in Sangin, central Helmand.

There are big civilian issues too. Yes, the governor of Helmand Gulab Mangal is a vibrant and dynamic character. But is he trusted by President Karzai up in Kabul? And he is but one man.

For the Hold really to take hold you need large numbers of literate, experienced, non-corrupt officials capable of running a region, and that cadre of professionals simply does not exist in Afghanistan, and will not do so for some time to come.

The Taliban know all of this very well and know that the allegiance of many southern Pashtuns is, well, up for grabs at the very least.

And they can wait. They can move about. They can sit it out over the border in the mountains of Waziristan – theoretically part of Pakistan.

And wait. And watch. And wait. And NATO will begin packing up and leaving just as fast as it can. Hoping that the embryonic Army and new officials can take the strain.

And this, you see, will allow Build to begin.

There never really was a battle for Marjan and many people doubted there ever would be one. But this operation is the easy bit. Bringing real change will be the hard part to which NATO has thus far proved inadequate.

And all the while the Talibs can watch. And wait. As Gerry Adams once memorably said of the Provisional IRA:

“They haven’t gone away you know.”