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Some 12,000 US and Nato troops alongside 7,000 Afghan soldiers are involved in the surge in Kandahar province. Here the ongoing operation, fought in outlying districts such as Zhari, Panjwayi and Arghandab, is attempting to smash the critical structure of the insurgency to such an extent as to provide "irreversible momentum" to the counter-insurgency. Hopefully, the Taliban will then be herded to eventual negotiations having been tenderised, even pulped.

In Zhari, rather than sweep through and withdraw, the traditional tactic of the various forces who have fought through the district's vineyards for 31 years, the surge troops intend to stay and build. The 101st Airborne Division had committed a brigade to the operations west of Kandahar, backed by a Canadian battle group. Two ANA brigades had been deployed to the fight alongside them. Another ANA brigade was inbound. These are huge numerical assets, which for the first time allow the coalition truly to fight an insurgency while simultaneously developing civil infrastructure around Kandahar.

Units are establishing a series of strongpoints across the territory as they clear it, then changing focus in accordance with the principles of counter-insurgency warfare. In Zhari's case this means quitting killing and blowing things up and instead creating jobs and good governance; upgrading irrigation systems; building roads, a farmer's market and trade school. This is a familiar mantra by which commanders hopes to alter local affiliations and secure support for the government.

Ignore all the niceties though, the promises of roads, water and civil amenities, and there is no mistaking some of the sentiments behind the surge strategy. "Even should the Taliban suddenly make loud noises like ‘We've had enough'," one senior Western diplomat in Afghanistan told me, "the US would say: ‘We haven't given you enough yet.' They're getting hit by technology they've never seen before, not in 30 years. They're on their heels and we're going to kick their arse." 

Britain's role in "kicking arse" in the south was a major one. The Headquarters 6 (UK) Division, headed by Major General Nick Carter, had more than 35,000 Nato troops under command in southern Afghanistan and presided over much of the autumn surge in the Taliban heartland. Indeed, the recent handover of command to the US 10th Mountain Division at the start of November marked the end of top-level UK military influence in southern Afghanistan. Yet despite British command involvement in the Kandahar surge and the gravity of the operation there you may seldom have heard of Zhari, of Operation Dragon Strike or its parent operation, Ham Kari. 

This is partly intentional. The era when Nato boasted of its Afghan offensives, when commanders used phrases like "tipping-point" and "turning tide" to describe their efforts against the Taliban, ended last summer at the behest of General David Petraeus, the commander of Nato and US forces in Afghanistan (ISAF), who have been burned too many times before by a reversal of their fortunes. The failure of the information campaign around last February's Marjah operation lay at the heart of Petraeus's decision to mask the progress of subsequent operations, at least until a time of his choosing.

Marjah, a large area of dispersed rural communities that had become a staging-post for the Taliban in Helmand, was the subject of daily press releases by Nato and intense media scrutiny as the insurgents were cleared by US marines, the first troops of Obama's two-phase "surge" package of 30,000 reinforcements. Marjah was a resounding tactical success and achieved what it was intended to do, clearing a major Taliban concentration from Helmand and critically weakening its power base there.

But the US Marine Corps overextended its information campaign, promising quick and effective governance on the back of clearing the Taliban. The subsequent re-infiltration by its cells as well as paralysis among local authorities allowed the operation to be drubbed by critics, denying these first surge units their fruits of victory.

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December 9th, 2010
12:12 AM
How wishful can one make wishful thinking?

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