Testing the “civilian surge” in Helmand province
Possibly the biggest test of population-centric counterinsurgency is underway in Helmand province after 4,000 troops entered the territory for Operation Khanjar (Dagger) some 3 weeks ago. With the Taliban in retrograde defense – flushed from villages – US troops are moving forward, attempting to expand the central government’s reach and strengthen local government.
However, the civilian surge is considerably strained by resources and probably operating with less than 80 USAID and State Department personnel (estimates are based on this old article) . These civilians are tasked to spread development assistance over an area of almost 60,000 square kilometers, making it extremely difficult to reach major outlays of land.
Another key to the COIN strategy in Helmand is reducing the area’s poppy cultivation. To this end, US policy is now focused on crop replacement (over eradication) to create alternate economies aside from the poppy industry (Interestingly enough this is not the same approach that the coalition is taking).
However, this strategy has really only taken root in the northern and eastern parts of Afghanistan, areas which are much less reliant on the income from opium than is southern Afghanistan. Indeed, Helmand’s opium production accounts for over half of Afghanistan’s and 40% of the world’s total production. Not content with taking the time to introduce crop alternatives in Helmand, apparently the US has took its vengence on poppy plants by bombing the living sh*t out of them.
The military dropped a series of 1,000-pound bombs from planes on the mounds of poppy seeds and then followed with strikes from helicopters.
Another necessary goal for coalition troops is to enfranchise local voters and prepare them for the upcoming August 20 presidential and provincial elections. But these efforts are hampered by squabbles amongst intervening forces and the local population. As Pamela Constable writes, there are several elements that must be addressed before the Afghan government can replace Taliban authority in Helmand:
[US and British] officials said several factors, including a lack of qualified and educated workers in the remote province, a shortage of housing and office facilities for professionals from larger cities like Kandahar or Kabul, and a series of tensions and rivalries among various Afghan agencies, were impeding the kind of follow-up needed to convince residents that the Afghan government is credible, committed and a better alternative than the Taliban.
So, the outcome remains to be seen but the test is underway. The questions: Can we transform Helmand in the way we want, or will the operation become too cumbersome? If we do change it, will we need to stick around to ensure our changes remain? And if we succeed, do we want to continue with this approach to other areas of Afghanistan?