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Operation Khanjar – American surge in Afghanistan

July 3, 2009

This is another of Obama’s policy of CHANGE. The American approach in Afghanistan has seen a radical shift. They call this Operation Khanjar. Khanjar in Urdu is a small sword or a dagger that is usually used to stab a person. It used to be a favorite weapon in close combat in days of old. Obviously, the Americans want to engage the Taliban in close combat. They have therefore increased their strength and four thousand of the American marines have descended in the small districts of Garmser and Nawa in the Helmand province.  This took the Taliban by surprise and they melted away into the mountains. Americans want to fan out from Kabul and other towns and into the countryside to clear the area of the dreaded Taliban.

Americans under Operation Khanjar hope to take control of the small towns and villages in Afghanistan, train the local Afghans and build defense units that can keep the Taliban at bay. This means that the Americans and the British forces will have to stay put for a considerable period of time so that they can raise a credible police, para-military force that can take care of the security of the towns and villages and ensure that the Taliban will not come back. On the face of it, this approach looks to be very rational and with a lot of thought. I may add here that a similar approach in Iraq worked to the advantage of the allied forces and the violence came down.

Americans are also depending on the Pakistan forces to man the borders so that the Taliban fighters do not escape to the tribal agencies on the western border of Pakistan along the Durand Line. The other expectation of the Americans is that the Pakistan army will flush out the Taliban from their territory. This is a big ask. The Pakistanis are saying that their operations in Swat and South Waziristan have come to an end and they have declared that the Pak Taliban chief Fazlullah is dead.  They have also stated that they will not enter North Waziristan and other tribal agencies. Reminds me of the time when Musharraf was asked by Jay Leno as soon as he had settled in his chair on the Tonight Show  : ‘So Mr. President where is Osama bin Laden?”. The General turned president was taken aback, retained his composure and shot back, “I don’t know – you tell me”.

The problem with the Obama’s Af-Pak policy is two-fold. Firstly, the terrain is vastly different from what it is in Iraq. The desert itself is a shield against any attacks. Here in Afghanistan the mountains, the ravines and the valleys help any insurgent to take shelter very easily. They can melt away into the mountains and hide in the mountain caves for months without anyone getting to know of their whereabouts. It is an inhospitable land that has poppy cultivation as its main source of income. This is another cause of trouble and strife. Policing agencies the world over have waged wars against poppy cultivation and manufacture of narcotics but the figures show that the production of contraband has only increased. Americans have now decided that they will not destroy the crop but try to intercept the chemicals used to turn poppy into narcotics. They do not want to antagonize the farmers and force them into the arms of the Taliban. The fact is that the Allied Forces are not only fighting a war against the insurgent Taliban but are also fighting a war against the illicit drug trade that is the backbone of the Afghan economy. Afghanistan is many times what the Americans are doing in Bolivia with a hostile terrain, where carrying arms is a way of life and where the culture is alien. Afghanistan is perhaps the biggest challenge that the Americans have faced in recent history. The British have just lost a Lt. Colonel in Afghanistan, the highest serving officer to have lost life since the Faulkland war.

Americans plan to keep the marines in small bunches to clear the area of the dreaded Taliban, raise a local force that can keep the area secure, issue identity cards to the people so that they can vote in the elections in August. Like most observers I too am skeptical of this approach. For the simple reason that I feel the Americans are spreading themselves too thin and are inviting trouble for themselves. The basic assumption here is that the villagers and small townspeople are innocent and they have nothing to do with the Taliban. The truth may be quite to the contrary. One must not forget that this is the land which is the source of 70% of drugs that reach the west and people are generally armed and have close affinity to their clans. Taliban itself is a conglomeration of fighters from various such clans and their roots are deep into cultivation of poppy and manufacture of drugs that abound in this inhospitable land.

The second assumption is that the Pakistanis will keep the area sealed from their end. This presumption is again a fallacy. The topography is such that the Pakistanis cannot seal the borders. To say that the Pakistan army will enter FATA to keep the Afghan Taliban at bay is expecting too much. They do not have the resources, the will or the capability to do any such thing. The Afghan-Pakistan border has been porous for centuries and will remain so in the years to come.  The Taliban, were the Americans really able to push them hard, could very easily cross over to Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA). And the culture there is an extension of the Pashtun culture of Afghanistan.  The Af-Pak policy and those who have thought this out have not taken the feedback from the ground. They have made certain assumptions and have said that since such a surge was successful in Iraq therefore it should work in Afghanistan. What is good for the goose may not be good for the gander.

Here I would also like to ask a fundamental question – what are the strategic objectives of the Americans in Afghanistan? If it is to clear the Taliban and install a western style democracy, I am afraid they are up against a culture that is centuries old and that is just not good politics. The tribes have their own headsmen and all these Pashtun tribes have a parliament called the Loya Jirga. What is decided at the Jirga is law for these tribesmen. That is the Afghan-Pashtun style of governance and that is as democratic as they are going to be. Rest they do not understand. These tribes have fierce tribal loyalty and feuds carry on for decades. They are ferocious and defend their honor with their lives. Imposing a western style democracy on such a system may not be prudent. Besides an uprising against the foreign forces is just a rumor away.

It is felt that the Americans are really after Osama bin Laden and once they can get their hands on the al-Quaeda chief the Afghan operations will end. Well, if that is the focus, then they should ask the Pakistan government what Jay Leno asked Musharraf a few years ago – where is Osama? The answers are really in Islamabad and not in Kabul, or Herat or Kandahar. It is also true that the Pakistanis will never hand over Osama. Musharraf had declared some year back when the heat was on Pakistan, that Osama is dead. Later Osama’s messages surfaced warning the west of more strikes by the al-Quaeda. Now the Pakistanis are saying that Pakistan Taliban chief Fazlullah has died. The fact is that the Pakistan army and defense forces are trying to push the Pakistan Taliban out of their territory and into the FATA. They do not want the Taliban to infiltrate into the towns and cities of Pakistan. The bad news for Pakistan is that the Taliban have entrenched themselves in Karachi and Peshawar in a big way. The intermittent bomb attacks in the various cities of Pakistan are a reminder to Islamabad that they are very much alive and can strike at will. The fact is that Pakistan is in no position to fight the Taliban. It will lead to a civil war. What has happened in Swat has shaken Islamabad and they do not want to continue with this surge. They are afraid that this will devour them.

For the Americans, the surge in Afghanistan may seem a pretty smart move, but they should be ready for strikes from the militant Afghans who do not like outsiders to meddle into their way of life. The one good thing which might happen is that the marines will come in close contact with rural Afghanistan and experience firsthand the poverty and lack of basic necessities in these remote lands. This will be an education for them. What they must be acutely aware of is the need to keep a respectable distance with the locals. These proud, rugged people of one of the poorest nations in the world are also one of the most ferocious fighters. If Obama is looking for Osama bin Laden, Operation Khanjar may be an effort out of proportion to the task at hand. All he needs to do is pick up the phone at the White House and ask the Pakistanis what Jay Leno asked not too long ago – where is Osama?

Update 07.07.2009: Four Americans were killed in a bomb explosion in Kunduz province along with two Afghans. Two Americans were killed in southern Afghanistan and one in north eastern Afghanistan. Total toll in one day: 7 killed and four wounded.

July, 11, 2009: Five more British soldiers have died in Afghanistan, bringing to eight the total killed over 24 hours, the Ministry of Defence has said. The five, from the 2nd Battalion The Rifles, were killed in two separate blasts while on foot patrol on Friday. Their deaths take the number killed in Afghanistan since 2001 to 184 – more than those killed in the Iraq war. Source: BBC News

August 15, 2009: The Taliban claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb that killed seven people on Saturday in the heart of the Afghan capital’s most secure district five days before an election the Islamist group has vowed to disrupt. The bomb went off very near the NATO headquarters in Kabul. Source: Reuters.

August 18, 2009: There have been a series of bomb and rocket attacks in Kabul and some were very near the presidential palace. The Taliban have warned that they will chop off the fingers of those who go out to vote on the 20th. The good news is that there is enthusiasm among the people. There have been charges of corruption and bribery but these will happen. The main fight is between Karzai and the Tajhik Abdullah Abdullah. Abdul Rashid Dostum has descended in Kabul to help Karzai sail through the elections. It appears that more than anything else it is the access to resources and the power that is attracting politicians to these elections. I wonder if there will be the same enthusiasm among the candidates if the ISAF were to withdraw tommorow. Having said that, I believe that west has already won a decisive victory by conducting these elections. It is an effort by the west that needs to be appreciated. That does not mean that I have changed my mind about the Afghan way of life and their traditional system of governance, it just means that this is an effort that is truly heroic.

Update 26th of August, 2009: A car bomb explosion in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar has left about 40 people dead. Tuesday’s blast came as official preliminary results for last week’s presidential elections were released, giving incumbent Hamid Karzai a slight lead over nearest rival Abdullah Abdullah. Police said the blast on Tuesday was a suicide attack near a wedding hall in a residential area of the city. Two hospitals said 90 people were injured in the blast. Source: Al Jazeera (English)

Update 22nd of September, 2009: ‘The top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan has warned President Barack Obama in a confidential report that the war against the Taliban could be lost within a year without more troops.  In a blunt assessment of the eight-year conflict, obtained by The Washington Post and published Monday, General Stanley McChrystal said a new strategy was needed, and warned that “inadequate resources will likely result in failure. “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible,” he wrote. The report was presented to Defense Secretary Robert Gates on August 30 and is being reviewed by the White House, with McChrystal widely expected to make a formal request to increase the 62,000-strong US force. McChrystal, who assumed command of international troops in Afghanistan in June, said the campaign in Afghanistan “has been historically under-resourced and remains so today.” This fact risks “a longer conflict, greater casualties, higher overall costs, and ultimately, a critical loss of political support. Any of these risks, in turn, are likely to result in mission failure,” he wrote.’ Source: AFP

This demand for ‘more boots on the ground’ has been doing the rounds for a long time now. The problem is that Obama adminstration has been roundly criticized on so many counts, most notably the healthcare reforms that it is in no position to take steps that are only going to make him more unpopular. It is clear that the options are not too many and the road ahead in Afghanistan is rough.

Update 25.10.2009: On Sunday, a crowd estimated in the high hundreds marched through Kabul – chanting “Death to America” – to protest at the alleged desecration of the Islamic holy book earlier this month. There were some clashes with security forces, and Afghan police fired in the air to scatter the crowd. But protesters said they would not give up. “We are demonstrating because American soldiers burned our holy Koran in Wardak province,” said one man. “We will keep going to embarrass the Americans for their actions.” Source: BBC

It is so easy to instigate a sensitive population against the western forces in a country as orthodox and out of sync with times as Afghanistan. This one war is really a mountain to climb. The other fact is, that the mountain is not worth climbing, for the simple reason that there is no Shangri La on the other side.

Update 30.10.2009: Hillary Clinton on her recent trip to Pakistan was put some difficult questions on the American drone attacks. She however wondered as to where the al-Quaeda was because according to American intelligence they should be somewhere in Pakistan, she said. The New York Times reported this remark by Mrs. Clinton thus:

I don’t know if anyone knows, but we in the United States would very much like to see the end of the al-Qaida leadership, and our best information is that they are somewhere in Pakistan.” In an interview broadcast Friday on ABC’s ”Good Morning America,” Clinton was asked about the bluntness of her remarks. ”Trust is a two-way street. There is trust deficit,” she said. ”It will not be sufficient to achieve the level of security that Pakistanis deserve if we don’t go after those who are still threatening not only Pakistan, but Afghanistan, and the rest of the world. And we wanted to put that on the table. And I think it was important that we did.”

It is good that the US and the west realize that Pakistan is the center of terrorism the world over. The capture of two LeT operatives in Chicago and the recovery of passports of an al-Quaeda operative who was helping Muhammad Ata, the 9/11 bomber and that of his Spanish wife by the Pakistan defense forces in South Waziristan has further convinced the world that terrorism emanates from Pakistan. It goes to the credit of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that she told the Pakistanis on their face what the world thinks of this menace.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 7, 2009 2:32 am

    Perfect!

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