Marine Major General Richard Mills is a bold man and we thank him for providing us a specific example of information warfare, but he better be real. President Obama should pass the hard lesson of raising expectations down to his military commanders in Afghanistan.
Mills, commanding general of Camp Pendleton, California’s 1st Marine Division, will have authority over all Marines in Afghanistan when they land in force. He’s been in the country since December prepping the ground for 1,500 Marines that arrived before Christmas; another 6,200 scheduled for arrival in the first half of next year.
Said to be well-versed in counterinsurgency, Mills’ statements are that much more confusing. On the same day that General McChrystal proclaimed, “you sense the tide is turning," Mills told USA Today in regards to Helmand province, "They've [the Marines] taken on the Taliban, the insurgency, right in the heartland and they've defeated them.”
That was quick - but is Mills being real?
Start with the premise that Helmand province is flooded with US and British troops, estimated at about 20,000; another 6,000 Marines will soon raise this total. This makes for about 1.18 ISAF soldier for every square mile in Helmand, steep pressure on local insurgents who operate according to half that ratio.
Estimated at around 4,000, the Taliban are incapable of challenging the territory, nor is it America's job to kill them all since protecting the population has taken priority. But two disturbing signs stand opposed to General Mills’ confidence.
The first is how the Taliban came to be “defeated,” which is the wrong word entirely in a counterinsurgency. Maybe the Taliban suffered a blow and must regroup, but defeat is laughable. We aren’t sure what Mills is referring to in particular, but Operation Khanjar (Strike of the Sword) must be revisited.
Last July 4,000 Marines pushed into the Helmand river valley, a month after Britain launched Operation Panchai Palang, or Panther's Claw. The first stage of both operations' - “clearing” - were declared a success and the second stage - “holding” - has taken over.
Mills is likely referring to these operations as he prepares to, “move away from the clear phase and into the ‘hold and build’ phase.” He also claims that last year produced dramatic results and believes the gains can be achieved elsewhere (even though Helmand is sucking up many of Obama’s new troops).
Yet the success of Operation Khanjar is up for debate. Afghan defense officials told McClatchy that Taliban fighters and their commanders escaped the Marines' big offensive by moving out of the central valley and into the north and western areas of Helmand. Germany and Italy protested after insurgents moved into their relatively peaceful AO’s.
US officials expected clearing the valley would take about seven weeks, which is about when the operations ended. But a senior coalition officer was quoted as saying, “The sense is that many of the Taliban have left but they have not gone very far. They are not abandoning the Helmand River Valley.”
One must question whether this is the reality of Helmand - if US and ISAF forces control the central valley and the Taliban control the rest. They certainly weren’t defeated during Operation Khanjar or anytime since. One of the main goals was to secure the province before Afghanistan’s presidential election.
Helmand was one of the hardest hit by low turnouts and ghost-polling. Where, “Reports that about 150 people voted in Babaji district, out of an eligible population of 55,000, have not been disputed by officials in Afghanistan.”
On top of this, a US intelligence official recently described the Taliban as "increasingly confident, increasingly effective, and growing more cohesive."
"They've increased their capacity," the official said, who joked, “whoever is logistics chief, we ought to take lessons from them.”
To be fair Mills warned that Taliban forces remain dangerous and they could mount a resurgence. "It's the dramatic strike that I worry about," he said, referring to Iraqi-style bombings - and without any idea how right he was about to be.
Helmand saw a big strike today. It marched down the streets of Gamshir “chanting death to America,” 40 miles down river from Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand and home to Camp Leatherneck, where 19,000 Marines are about to be stationed.
Without getting too deep in the messy details of what happened last Sunday night, US and ISAF forces made a night-time raid on a nearby village. The next morning villagers were outraged over a desecrated Koran. The Taliban can’t that far away, but in the rare event that they are, they still have Mullah Mohammed Naim to lock it down.
The Taliban’s shadow governor in Gamshir quickly arranged a mass protest which reportedly drew over several thousand Afghans. Soon a riot broke out and a school was set on fire. As protesters marched on the local office of the National Directorate of Security. N.D.S. officers opened fire, killing at least 8 Afghans and wounding dozens more. Two Afghan police officer and an intelligence official were also killed.
The New York Times reported, “Much of the town of Gamshir blamed the Americans.”
These events are extremely odd if, in fact, the Taliban had been defeated in Helmand. Like Afghan’s happiness, shadows lurk beneath the surface of General Mill’s optimism.
The tide can be turned if all goes right, but hard fighting is ahead.