The past week has witnessed two actions billed as possible turning points for the war in Afghanistan: the launch of Operation Moshtarak in Helmund and the capture of Mullah Baradar, the top military commander of Mullah Omar’s Taliban. Could either event be a potential game changer? The capture of Mullah Baradar is significant, especially if it leads to the arrest of Mullah Omar and/or more of his top tier commanders. But I doubt whether taking Mullah Baradar out of action will make a drastic difference at ground level in Afghanistan. After all, Mullah Omar’s Taliban is just one insurgent group fighting the coalition. Mullah Baradar’s arrest is unlikely to curtail the operations of the Haqqani network (which many consider the most capable militant group in Afghanistan at present) or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami.
The impact of Mullah Baradar’s capture on Operation Moshtarak, the joint NATO-Afghan offensive in Helmund, is more difficult to gauge. Having lost their top military commander, Mullah Omar’s Taliban must now scramble for a replacement whilst under fire. They are on the back foot. But with an estimated ratio of fifteen coalition troops to one insurgent, Moshtarak was never a battle the Taliban were going to win anyway.
The bigger question is whether Operation Moshtarak will, in the words of one US commander, mark ‘the beginning of the end of the insurgency’ in Afghanistan. NATO forces, as always, appear to be doing their jobs to the best of their abilities in very difficult circumstances. But the clear, hold and build strategy laid out by General Stanley McChrystal has a major weakness in my view. Keeping the locals on side has been a key feature of the so-called ‘new war model’ that has shaped Moshtarak; hence why civilians living in and around target areas were given ample warning to evacuate.
I first travelled to Helmund back in 2004 when I drove with a small team of journalists unilaterally from Kabul to Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital. I’ve visited the province several times since then through military embeds with the media and while accompanying other actors. My interactions with civilians in the province have admittedly been brief. But one, unmistakable message I have gleaned through the years is that the people of Helmund are tired of outside forces destroying their villages and interfering with their lives.
While I’m confident that the coalition will succeeded in driving the Taliban out of strongholds in Helmund, the plan to have ANA forces hold those areas will do nothing to win the hearts and minds of the civilian population. The people of Helmund are ethnic Pashtoon. The ANA by contrast is dominated by Tajiks. Don’t forget that back in 1992, a bitter civil war erupted between ethic Pashtoons and the Tajik-led Northern Alliance. Many Afghans still regard that period as the worst in living memory. A Tajik-led ANA force will not be well received in Helmund or any other part of southern Afghanistan. It will be seen as alien as NATO and possibly more hostile. General Stanley McChrystal’s ‘government in a box’ that is ‘ready to roll in’ after the offensive is also unlikely to impress the locals. You cannot impose a government on people and expect them to embrace it.
Operation Moshtarak will definitely change the game in Helmund, but to whose long-term advantage?