The administration’s Afghanistan surge strategy strikes me as a questionable allocation of national resources. But the strategy-qua-strategy has sounded perfectly reasonable to me, and I think there’s reason to believe that an adequately resourced population-centric strategy can be made to work. And given that the decision has been made to allocate vast resources to this endeavor, I’m certainly hoping it works even though if it were up to me we wouldn’t be going down this road.
But the new operation currently underway — dubbed “Cobra’s Anger” — an offensive in Helmand Province seems to have a somewhat problematic relationship to the overall strategic concept. We’re attacking a sparsely-populated area (NYT: “an effort to finally secure what was once a bustling village but what years of fighting have turned into a ghost town”) where public opinion is more hostile to us than is the case in most parts of the country. The strategic objective sounds enemy-centric (to re-occupy “Helmand, a Taliban stronghold whose huge opium crop provides a large portion of the insurgency’s financing”) as do the tactics (“assault Taliban sanctuaries in Helmand”). And as Mike Crowley wrote yesterday a wide range of people, from COIN guru John Nagl to Senator Carl Levin, are on record as thinking this Helmand focus is misplaced.
One assumes that part of the background here is simply that there was an unsuccessful campaign in Helmand earlier this year. If a renewed assault can be made to work, that will help vindicate the earlier effort, whereas if Helmand is abandoned in favor of some more promising area that might be seen by some as conveying the idea that those who lost their lives earlier this year died in vain. I don’t think that’s the right way to think about the situation, but you can see how it would exert a powerful pull over people in the field.
Strategically, the risk is that by focusing on places where the Taliban is well-entrenched rather than places where its gains are recent and tenuous, you ultimately undermine the objective of producing a short-term change in momentum that alters the political calculus.