Operation Moshtarak: 'The message needs to be clear: we are staying until the job is done.'
Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, argues that Operation Moshtarak will only succeed in the long term if Afghans living in Helmand are convinced that we will not desert them.
By Richard Kemp
Published: 7:36PM GMT 14 Feb 2010
Well before Operation Moshtarak was launched, the Taliban knew that a sledgehammer was about to hit them. Many commentators with a little military learning were horrified at this blatant sacrifice of surprise. But General Nick Carter, commander of Operation Moshtarak, knew that didn’t matter because the Taliban would be powerless to respond.
While British, American and Afghan forces continue the hazardous task of clearing the ground they have occupied, the Taliban, unseen, are stalking them. Through lethally experienced eyes they are weighing up our forces’ actions, identifying their dispositions and calculating vulnerabilities.
The next few days will be very dangerous. The Taliban must strike back fast. At both military and civilian targets. To show their own fighters, their supporters and the world that they are not cowed by the might of the infidel war machine. And to demonstrate to the people of Marjah and Nad-e Ali that their reign of terror has not gone away.
The Taliban will try to use improvised explosive devices, mines and booby traps as well as hit-and-run gunfire and suicide strikes. How many get through will depend on the effectiveness of our forces at stopping them. Initially they will depend on vigilance, speed of reaction and the vast array of air and ground firepower at their disposal.
But with no shortage of fighters or munitions, the Taliban will seek to continue attacking in the long term. Intelligence from the locals will become critical to breaking them. Although early signs of support among some of the people is encouraging, it will only be maintained and expanded if we can persuade them that our forces are there to stay and are capable of protecting them.
The Afghan security forces will have to bear much of this burden. Although its capability is increasing impressively, the army is still not ready to stand alone. Understandably the Afghans prefer their own troops to ours, which is why commanders on Operation Moshtarak have where possible put them at the front in dealing with the people. But the locals don’t yet fully trust them to protect against the Taliban. And the Afghan National Police have yet to prove they will not simply replace Taliban oppression with their own form of corruption and abuse.
Through lack of numbers rather than capability or will, British forces don’t have a great track record either, often moving in for a fight then redeploying to deal with problems elsewhere, allowing the Taliban back in with a vengeance.
All of these perceptions will have to be changed, and this includes stopping our constant talk at home of withdrawal and exit strategies. The message to the people of Afghanistan, and to the Taliban, needs to be clear: we are staying until the job is done.
The minute there is adequate security – within days – district governors will be brought in and local councils set up. They will be rapidly resourced for quick impact reconstruction projects to show the local people that life is going to improve. In the medium term, their role should be to identify and direct substantial aid programmes, resourced via the Kabul government. The Afghans must be seen to be in the lead, but we must remain watchful and ensure these bodies do not come to abuse their power or resources.
Operation Moshtarak has been called the beginning of the end of the conflict in Afghanistan. If its gains are properly consolidated it could certainly make a major contribution to turning the situation round. But no matter how effective the combined Afghan and Nato forces are in Marjah and Nad-e Ali, we must brace ourselves for continuing bloodshed. The Taliban are far from ready to give up. And in the circumstances of southern Afghanistan no security can be watertight, however many troops are deployed.
Whatever success, however, we achieve in Marjah, Nad-e Ali or elsewhere in Helmand, the insurgency will not be broken until we develop an effective, co-ordinated cross-border strategy with Pakistan, whose territory provides refuge and support for the Taliban. There is not yet any sign of that on the horizon.