Heart of the Battle

Operation Khanjar (dagger) was finally launched on Thursday in the troubled Helmand valley, known for being the epicentre of the insurgency in Afghanistan. The intensive military offensive against the Taleban stronghold was in the offing for some time. Less than two months remain for the provincial and presidential elections of August 20 and, since Barack Obama assumed US presidency and renewed focus on the region, the operation has been a high priority on the strategic list of must do’s, in the plan to defeat the Taleban/al Qaeda alliance.

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Published: Sat 4 Jul 2009, 12:40 AM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:31 AM

Giving priority to the war in Afghanistan has been the pivot of the new US strategy. It aims to defeat, dismantle and destroy the insurgent-terrorist capability. As part of it, additional 21,000 US forces were to be deployed this year, mainly in the south and east of Afghanistan, where the insurgents control most of the territory.

The new operation in which about 4000 US Marines and some 650 Afghan security forces is expected to pursue an aggressive offensive strategy, will find support from the British counterinsurgency forces already present in Helmand. The British forces to date have been unable to make significant gains against the insurgents who, despite their presence, have retained control and minimized international troops movement to certain pockets. Insufficient number of troops was the main reason behind the unsuccessful southern operations, according to military strategists.

Part of the new operation, besides launching military offensive, will also require the creation of military outposts and stationing of US troops in villages and other locations. In addition, establishing civilian contact and helping the locals with security and other incentives against insurgents is also a high priority component of the new operation. With the new US Commander in Afghanistan, Lt. General Stanley A. McChrystal, according the highest priority to the issue and strategizing new means to simultaneously win the hearts and minds of the people, things are expected to change. War, especially given the peculiarities of a nationalist insurgency, is both unpredictable and fluid. Thus it remains difficult to determine the outcome.

The Marines have two tasks: first, establishing presence in outposts and, next, forging ties with influential locals and village heads and conferring with them on their security needs. Another important change of the new operation is the priority being accorded to minimizing civilian casualties, by relying less on air strikes and more on ground operations and better intelligence.

The main reason behind calls to increase the troop numbers was to see improvement in the operations on ground, which, to date, have suffered and forced the coalition forces to cede ground to the insurgents.

Though the number of US forces, with the deployment of the additional troops, is likely to reach an impressive 68,000 by year end, it remains to be seen how a larger troop presence will impact the outcome. There has been much criticism regarding the futility of sending additional forces in view of the nature of the insurgency and the specifics of the terrain. The defeat of a million-strong Soviet army at the hands of the Afghan mujahedeen is still fresh in memory, and a major morale booster for the insurgents.

The most positive factor emerging from the recent change in policy has been the realization that gaining the trust of civilians as well as providing them with security is crucial.

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