On War in Pakistan and Afghanistan

July 8, 2009

If you were to apply the advice of 19th century Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz that one of the objectives of war is to destroy the effective strength of the enemy, it is still not clear how that aim is to be achieved when it comes to fighting the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Predictably, the Taliban has melted away in the face of offensives in both countries, retaining its capacity to live to fight another day and to open new fronts in other areas.

In Pakistan, the army has driven Taliban militants out of towns in the Swat valley and won control of the main lines of communication after launching an  offensive at the end of April. But clashes are still flaring daily in some areas, writes Reuters Islamabad correspondent Robert Birsel in this analysis. “Unless you eliminate the leadership, however much damage you do, the command structure will manage to grow back,” he quotes security analyst Ikram Sehgal as saying. “As long as that leadership exists, low-intensity guerrilla warfare will keep going on.”

In the meantime, the Pakistani Taliban are expected to try to open up other fronts to distract the Pakistan Army both from cleaning up Swat and launching an offensive in South Waziristan, the base of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.

In Afghanistan,  U.S. Marines have met with little resistance after launching an offensive last week in Helmand province.

But Josh Foust at Registan.net writes that the decision to go in force into Helmand could leave other parts of Afghanistan vulnerable.

“By now, I thought it had become conventional wisdom that the Taliban learned they can never win on the conventional battlefield—that, rather than staging defiant but futile battles, as they did in the 2002 time frame, they instead slink away when there is a major operation, bide their time, and filter back in when the troops leave to intimidate, harass, and punish the collaborators NATO left behind,” he says. “So here we have the Helmand insurgency behaving exactly as it does in other provinces, while safe provinces show increasing signs of fracture and violence…”

“One of the methods of doctrinal counterinsurgency is to start in the easy areas, make them models, and move into increasingly more difficult ones.” So why, he asks, did the U.S. army choose ”to jump right into the hardest province in the country to manage….”

Presumably there is an overall gameplan to destroy the effective strength of the Taliban, by winning over the hearts and minds of the local population in both countries by providing security and development; by cutting off the militants’ source of funding by targeting opium-growing areas in Helmand; and by co-ordinating operations between Afghanistan and Pakistan so they can no longer hide by going back and forth across the border.

What is worrying though, is that it does not yet seem clear how that gameplan is meant to fit together.

And in the meantime, the Taliban has had plenty of time to come up with a rival plan of its own. Perhaps it’s worth considering what the Taliban might do if its aim were to destroy the effective strength of the enemy.

(Photos: U.S. Marines in Helmand/Ahmad Masood)

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