Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Stuck in the poppy fields of Helmund

Time Magazine's Joe Klein, has been breaking hard with the Obama administration's war policy. In last Thursday's piece, he explained that a 21st-century military is stuck in the wrong province because the orders given by a commander who stepped down in June couldn't be changed in late September.

The story is that we sent a large number of troops to Helmund province, where 60% of the world's opium crop is located. There was certainly a strong Taliban presence there, but it quickly became apparent that conditions in neighboring Kandahar, governed by Karzai's opium trading brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, was under major assault from Taliban forces. Klein admits that diverting forces to Kandahar to stop the Taliban rampage would probably leave Karzai allies in Helmund more vulnerable, but as it turns out, there is no choice to be made:

As McKiernan's replacement last June, General Stanley McChrystal was pretty much presented with a fait accompli: the troops were arriving in Helmand. "The ship was moving in that direction," a military expert told me, "and it would have been difficult to turn it around." Indeed, it would have taken months of planning to change course.

Does it not stagger anyone else that our military is facing a major tactical problem in having its troops move in a different direction? Wasn't Rumsfeld supposed to be "modernizing the military" to make it "sleeker"? In contrast, it took the Allied forces six months from the invasion of Normandy to drive the Nazi army entirely out of France. As one Afghanistan war veteran commented at the Washington Post, it's in part as simple as there not being roads in most of the country. There is also the whole upcoming winter- a military planner spoke of holding off until "the spring fighting season."

For now, the battle in Kandahar rages. "The Taliban own the night, slipping death threats under the doors of those who would cooperate with the government." As the capital city in the Pashtun region of the country, and the home of the Karzai family, Kandahar's fall to the Taliban would be a major setback. If McChrsytal gets more troops, they are probably going to Kandahar.

And the beat goes on...

In case anyone was in the mood for a bonus anecdote about conditions on the ground, Klein provides this hand-wringing nugget:

A member of the Barakzai tribe was recently installed as a district leader in a Pashtun area. He was told to hire his top staff by merit. Instead, he hired only Barakzais — which caused the tribe's leaders to switch sides from the Taliban to the government ... and caused most of the other tribes in the district to switch from the government to the Taliban.

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