The South Asia Channel

Strategic withdrawal

Strategic withdrawal

I have a new post on my New Yorker blog about the current offensive in Marjah.

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, armored task forces of Soviet and allied Afghan troops repeatedly launched violent sweep operations, accompanied by indiscriminate aerial bombing, against valleys, transportation arteries, and towns occupied by mujaheddin guerrillas. Often the guerrillas melted away, to fight another day on territory of their own choosing. In one legendary instance, in the northeastern Panjshir Valley, the guerrilla commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, notified in advance of a Soviet-led assault, evacuated not only his fighters but much of the Valley’s civilian population.

It is tempting to note these and other examples of strategic withdrawal by guerrilla forces now that reports are pouring in from Marja, in Helmand Province, where many of the Taliban fighters holed up in the town appear to have fled before the U.S. Marines arrived. Of course, in the name of counterinsurgency strategy, the American commander, General Stanley McChrystal, deliberately encouraged the Taliban to withdraw by publicly signaling his plans. If the bulk of the Taliban pulled out before the Marines arrived, the thinking went, that would reduce casualties and damage to civilian property during the seizure of Marja, and it would allow U.S. and Afghan forces to establish control of the Helmand River Valley, open transport routes, and facilitate the deployment of Afghan and international civilians to provide previously absent government services — an approach referred to as the unpacking of “government in a box.” If they succeeded, the Taliban would find it impossible to return.

Routing the Taliban from Marja, where they had established a vicious and increasingly unchallenged shadow government, was undoubtedly necessary. I’m no military strategist, but it remains unclear to me why surging U.S. forces continue to invest their efforts and their numbers so heavily in Helmand. The axis of Taliban power, guerrilla infiltration, and money flows in southern Afghanistan lies somewhat to the East, along the routes between Kandahar and the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Karachi, which serve as sanctuaries for senior Taliban leadership. Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban and a historical seat of power. From their birth in 1994, the Taliban have relied upon their ability to move freely between Kandahar, Baluchistan and Karachi. The Times recently carried a good piece about just how porous the border remains between Kandahar Province, in Afghanistan, and Baluchistan Province, in Pakistan. It is true, of course, that U.S. forces cannot operate in large numbers in Pakistan, and are dependent on Pakistan’s fitful, ambivalent cooperation against the Taliban. Yet that still raises the question of why the thousands of U.S. Marines available in southern Afghanistan are concentrated largely to the west of Kandahar, rather than reinforcing struggling Canadian troops in the province itself.

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Steve Coll is the president of the New America Foundation and a staff writer at the New Yorker.