By Brig Asif Haroon Raja
After failed operation in Marjah, talk of an operation in Kandahar gained currency. It was asserted that victory in Kandahar would break the back of Taliban and would render them fragile. Media hype was deliberately created to demoralize the militants. It was presumed that successful culmination of Operation Dragon Strike would provide much needed satisfaction and sense of moral ascendancy to the US military which after suffering repeated reverses was desperately in need for taste of victory. Other plus points envisaged were that it will help in checkmating demoralization set in among coalition troops and Afghan National Army (ANA); silence the critics that were drying up pens to paint US military as losers; push back anti-US circles in USA and in western countries on the back foot; vindicate the position of hawks seeking more reinforcements for Afghanistan and continuation of policy of brute force; bolster sagging morale of ANA and troops from NATO and other countries and may encourage them to stay back; slow down frequency of attacks by militants, which had become a daily occurrence; give heart to occupying forces to follow it up with few more operations in quick succession in critical eastern and southern regions to maintain momentum and to wrest the initiative; give a better leverage to USA in political peace negotiations with Taliban for a political settlement on its terms.
Despite creating hype about the decisive offensive to be launched in June, and despite identifying multiple advantages that could be gained by striking at the heartland, somehow the envisaged offensive was postponed several times. After drumming up operation in Kandahar for quite sometime, of late its importance has been downplayed. One possible reason was that the chief architect of the operation Gen McChrystal had left the scene and his successor Gen David Petraeus was not finding the obtaining operational environment conducive to take the plunge into the spiritual home of Taliban. Passion for Kandahar operation was overtaken by peace-talk mantra. Lot of coverage was given to peace Jirga in Kabul followed by secret parleys between Taliban and Karzai.
Besides peace talks, somehow focus of US attention drifted from Kandahar to North Waziristan (NW). It was strongly suggested that neutralization of NW was a pre-requisite for success in Kandahar. An impression was created as if Taliban in Kandahar were being supported from NW whereas on ground the two places are situated far apart, former in the south and latter in the northeast. Additionally, attention of the world was deflected from Kandahar towards other issues such as Times Square incident, presence of Osama in NW and Mullah Omar in Quetta, projection of NW as the breeding ground and hub centre of terrorism, and lately Mumbai-style terror attacks on European cities by Al-Qaeda emanating from NW. Media performed all the tricks to keep Kandahar out of radar screen and NW on screen with its consequences on Pakistan. Latter was continuously nudged to launch an operation in NW. Variety of pressures were applied to make it do its bidding.
Having carried out diversionary effort through media, NATO-US forces on the quiet got offensively deployed in proximity of Kandahar in late September and thereon started to gradually tighten the noose around the city to impose an economic blockade on the pattern of Gaza. One of the major reasons for launching a silent offensive is Marjah fiasco. Operation Sword and Panther’s Claw had been launched last February with 15000 US troops, several thousands British troops and ANA. Tanks, helicopters, jets, APCs and humvies were extensively used to create shock and awe. Media hype was created by USA terming it the biggest operation ever launched by US Marines after Vietnam War. It was claimed that the militants would be wiped out of the town within no time and a functional civilian government installed.
The Mujahideen quietly retreated from certain areas under a tactical plan to lure in foreign troops in soft target areas. When they got dispersed, they were trapped. Taliban fighters returned by April-May and regained control over outer perimeter of the town. People of Marjah refused to cooperate with foreign troops, ANA and Afghan police because of which consolidation could not take place.
In north of Helmand, all districts remained in the hands of Mujahideen. In south, where operation was intense, writ of Taliban was restored in districts of Khanshin, Marji, Garam Sar. Foreign troops are entirely dependent upon air supply since no road supply is possible. Tanks and logistic vehicles are vulnerable to sudden ambushes and minefields. In Nad Ali, they were forced to abandon their base. British troops occupied areas in Babaji and Pashak, but couldn’t retain it for long and had to withdraw. They then decided to withdraw from Sangin district as well.
In nutshell, invading forces not only utterly failed to consolidate their hold over captured Marjah, a small town in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, but also suffered heavy casualties. From February onwards, rate of fatalities has been constantly rising, making 2010 the worst year for ISAF. Most casualties occurred due to IEDs about which Taliban had earlier warned that their new version of improvised device would prove deadly. Hit and run attacks have also proved expensive. Mounting fatalities of offenders tapered off media hype and soon Marjah operation was smoke screened behind stony silence.
These reverses have taken the steam out of belligerence expressed by US military at the dawn of 2010 and posed caution on future offensive plans. Kandahar which was to be tackled in phase two in June is therefore being tackled cautiously without any hullabaloo and recklessness.
Apart from aggressive deployment around the third largest city of Afghanistan, a massive covert drive has been unleashed through intelligence agencies, Blackwater and local informers to gain first hand credible information about militants inside the city, their state of preparedness, their hideouts and bunkers, logistics and arms dumps, and their sympathizers. A network of spies combs the city to pass on information. Besides, influential persons including warlords are busy winning over the sympathizers and fighters. This covert action has been named Operation Hamkari (cooperation) which is aimed at gaining collaboration of sizeable segment of Kandharis to help in providing a secure base for fighting in built up areas at an opportune time and also in identifying enemy. Certain areas on the outskirts like Arghandab have already been secured for use as launching pads for assaults.
ANA will be used to lead the assault with coalition troops giving the backup support. The attackers may be able to wrest control over the city but their gains may prove illusory as in the case of Marjah. Governed by rules of guerrilla warfare, Taliban seldom indulge in pitched battles against a stronger force. In all likelihood they will abandon the city and after the winters would start irritating, pricking and nibbling occupiers of Kandahar to drive them mad.
Although Obama administration has revised its given schedule of pull back from July 2011 to 2014 so as to keep up pressure on militants in Afghanistan and to lessen anxieties of Karzai regime, Israel, India and hawks within US power centres, I have a hunch that pull back will be on time, but completion time will be extended. Length of extension will be subject to operational preparedness of ANA and its ability to undertake security duties independently. In case the US-NATO troops find it difficult to stay put, they may shift to northern parts of the country from where they would continue rendering aerial support, logistics and training support to ANA to keep fighting the Taliban.
Brig Asif Haroon Raja, a Member Board of Advisors Opinion Maker is Staff College and Armed Forces War Coursequalified, holds MSc war studies degree; a second generation officer, he fought epic battle of Hilli in northwest East Bengal during 1971 war, in which Maj M. Akram received Nishan-e-Haider posthumously. He served as Directing Staff Command & Staff College, Defence Attaché Egypt and Sudan and Dean of Corps of Military Attaches in Cairo. He commanded the heaviest brigade in Kashmir. He is lingual and speaks English, Pashto and Punjabi fluently. He is author of books titled ‘Battle of Hilli’, ‘1948, 1965 & 1971 Kashmir Battles and Freedom Struggle’, ‘Muhammad bin Qasim to Gen Musharraf’, Roots of 1971 Tragedy’; has written number of motivational pamphlets. Draft of his next book ‘Tangled Knot of Kashmir’ is ready. He is a defence analyst and columnist and writes articles on security, defence and political matters for numerous international/national newspapers/websites.