Afghanistan and Pakistan: on the battle for Kandahar

December 15, 2009

arghandabIn the vast swirl of debate about Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is worth taking the time to read this piece in the Small Wars Journal by Michael Yon about the looming battle for Kandahar and the central importance of the Arghandab River Valley (pdf document).

Just as “a tiger doesn’t need to completely understand the jungle to survive, navigate, and then dominate”, Yon argues, you don’t have to master the full geographical and historical complexity of the Afghan war to grasp the importance of the Arghandab River Valley in securing Kandahar — a battle he suggests will be crucial in 2010.

Rather than do this very thoughtful piece the injustice of trying to summarise it, I’d recommend reading it in full.

We have got used to hearing that the United States will find it very difficult to succeed in Afghanistan without help from Pakistan in acting against militants based there — an argument given another airing in the latest New York Times story about Pakistan resisting U.S. demands to move against the Haqqani network in North Waziristan. What Yon’s piece does is to give a different perspective on that argument by suggesting the possibility of U.S. military successes on the ground in Afghanistan  — almost independently of what happens in Pakistan. 

The point here is not to discuss U.S. military strategy and tactics (many others are far better qualified to do so, among them Hershel Smith at the Captain’s Journal who has nearly daily entries on this).

 But let’s assume for the purposes of argument that Pakistan does not drop its resistance to tackling Afghan militants in its border regions. (Pakistan argues it cannot tackle everyone at once and has its hands full fighting the Pakistani Taliban; its critics say it is hedging its bets ahead of any eventual U.S. withdrawal, when it might want to use groups like the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan.) 

arghandab2At that point, a major U.S. military success in Afghanistan could be the only way to break the stalemate. An in that light, Yon’s focus on the Arghandab River Valley becomes essential reading.

In any case, the place has a history rich in symbolism. The Soviets, according to Yon, failed there in what was one of their last attempts to reverse their Afghan campaign. A century earlier, the British won a convincing victory there, allowing them to retrieve their dignity after an earlier humiliating defeat and to withdraw back to India, leaving Afghanistan as a neutral buffer state between British India and Russia. 

“The Battle for Kandahar is on,” concludes Yon. “Fresh troops in the United States have been given orders to get over here. The chapter called ‘Arghandab’ will be crucial.”

(Arghandab photos by Omar Sobhani)


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[…] and the Battle for Kandahar.  Myra MacDonald of Reuters picks up on Michael’s assessment and makes a salient point. … let’s assume for the purposes of argument that Pakistan does not drop its resistance to […]

Posted by The Captain's Journal » The Battle for Kandahar and Helmand | Report as abusive

This article was immensely informative regarding military operations in a relevant area. At least for me it was an education. Unfortunately I seem to have missed the point about it being a game changer. That is not to dispute that the US and other forces there cannot achieve success without Pakistan support. They can, but it will be limited in time and space -like right now as the author states “Mostly the enemy is gone for now. Each year, many Taliban migrate to Pakistan. The “snowbirds” return and fight during spring….

The enemy is not defeated, but our people were now operating among them. U.S. casualties continued during the next three months but there are indications that the enemy is today in disarray.”

Where Pakistan is really needed is in two specific roles. Ensuring a smooth logistic supply to the coalition troops, without which the entire operation is in jeopardy. Equally important is its role in not letting the Taliban seek refuge in its territory.

Somehow I don’t go along with the Pakistani reasoning that it is unable to tackle everybody simultaneously. This may be true for now. But the question is what was it doing till now? Ever since 2002 it has allowed the Taliban to seek sanctuary without doing anything to curb it. It doesn’t want to and the Quetta shura is an honoured guest.

Posted by DaraIndia | Report as abusive

@ Dara,

You wrote:

“Unfortunately I seem to have missed the point about it being a game changer. That is not to dispute that the US and other forces there cannot achieve success without Pakistan support. They can, but it will be limited in time and space.”

I was trying to make the point that this is not a static situation and that it can be misleading to think that the influences of what happens in Pakistan on Afghanistan move only in one direction. Arguably, what happens in Afghanistan will also have an impact on what happens in Pakistan.

The Captain’s Journal makes this point here: 6/the-battle-for-kandahar-and-helmand/

By contrast, many recent op-eds have tended to present the Pakistan-Afghanistan situation in static, definitive, one-way terms: ie that the U.S. military “will fail” in Afghanistan if Pakistan does not act. The most recent example of this is here: tent/article/2009/12/16/AR2009121602791. html?hpid=opinionsbox1

Yon’s article seemed to offer a way of looking at this a bit differently, if nothing else but because he is coming from a completely different vantage point.

One detail that struck me is where he talks about how the militants were so pinned down by the Soviet attack that they were unable to get back to Pakistan, nor to get supplies in:

“The battle raged for days, then weeks. The guerillas began to crack. According to Commander Akhtarjhan, they had plenty of ammunition but were starving and would take food and supplies from soldiers they fought.”

It’s also interesting that they seem to have been disappointed in their Arab allies:

“Commander Akhtarjhan recounted: “During the siege, however, we could not send our wounded to Pakistan. We could not remove the shrapnel and so many of our seriously wounded died of their wounds. We had a few Arabs in our base at this time. They were there for Jihad credit and to see the fighting. ‘If you are Muslims, help us collect the wounded,’ we would tell them. They would refuse.”

Posted by Myra MacDonald | Report as abusive


Thanks for the lead. I also agree with your contention regarding Pakistan’s role and its effects.

Pakistan role is to keep the pressure from the other side. It is like what good camouflage is to the final result in a military operation.. It does not ensure victory by itself but can effectively prevent a defeat.

Posted by DaraIndia | Report as abusive

There were many with famous names and titles, bravest of all in their homeland and fearing no one and had intruded into the blessed and the beautiful land of Pushtoons. They suffered humiliation and defeat on the battlefield and those who did not perish were happy with consolation prize of having taken part in the combat. And despite the decisive defeat others were sent by their masters with new military strategies and again they lost. Today we have the combined forces of the US and the NATO and now joined by the Pakistan Army. The new afro american Chief of the US and Nato armies is calling for additional crusaders for the eight years old campaign. If one were to study the history of previous campaigns in detail one would note that today’s military commander Genera McC…. is simply applying the same strategies which were used previously by his scottish ancestors.
We must ask ourself one question, how come that the Afghan Pushtoons are the only nation on earth who have remained undefeated.The secret of overpowering these warriors of the valleys lies in the answer. Have a nice day.

Posted by rexminor | Report as abusive

@We must ask ourself one question, how come that the Afghan Pushtoons are the only nation on earth who have remained undefeated.The secret of overpowering these warriors of the valleys lies in the answer. Have a nice day.
Posted by rexminor

Rexminor: Good question.
Scratching my head I state:
If you take away one variable “the terrain of the region”, these warriors will not remain undefeated.

As a corollary, replace Hamas in Palestine with these Pushtoon warriors, Israel will still achieve whatever it has been achieving (not to be taken as complement to Israel).

one cannot change the terrain. Rest all are minor variables.

Posted by RajeevK | Report as abusive

“We must ask ourself one question, how come that the Afghan Pushtoons are the only nation on earth who have remained undefeated.The secret of overpowering these warriors of the valleys lies in the answer. Have a nice day.
Posted by rexminor”

The Pashtoons were converted to Islam by the invading Arab armies under Mohammed Bin Qasim. Mongols ran over them in the 12th century. Tamarlane has run over them as well. Alexander the Great established a Greek satrapi over the region that is Afghanistan today. They had a famous Greek general named Megasthanis who was defeated by the Indian emperor Chandra Gupta Maurya.

Pashtoons were Buddhists once upon a time. They have remained mostly undefeated after converting to Islam, excepting the time when Genghis Khan’s armies ran over the place. When Babar moved towards Kabul, the Afghans ran away from Kabul. Babur simply walked into Kabul and staged his war into Hindustan from there, defeating Ibrahim Lodhi. Babur was buried in Kabul.

It is not that the Pashtuns cannot be defeated. The Russians did. But the Americans and Pakistanis did not allow them to complete the conquest. It would have been brutal. But Pashtuns live by the same. The US could have run them over as well. But then the US has some moral responsibility as a super power and an image to maintain. If it so desired, it could take on both Pakistan and Afghanistan and decimate the two countries. They were about to do that in 2001. Had they done it, it probably might have resolved most of the problems that have crept up now.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

@KP Singh,
Last night I responded to your ill informed and aggressive note, bur somehow it got lost in transit. I did nor ask for anyone’s confirmation of history but raised a question. What is the reason for their victories over the invaders. Like me You have no idea. You state that after converting to Islam they have more or less remained undefeated. Good enough for me. My reserarch would eventually give me the clue.
I am sure there are many who advised George W and are now councilling Barrack H how to defeat the Pushtoons. You say that the US has some moral responsibility as a super power and an image to maintain. It could take on both Pakistan and Afghanistan and decimate the two countries. Sir, you are living in a cuckoo land, The US tortures people, violates human rights, is engaged in criminal activites including randitions and target killings and destruction of civilion houses and its dwellers using flying Drones. The Super Power is bankrupt, owes more than two trilions to Saudis and Chinese, have no health insurance coverage for 30 million odd Americans, and you say that they are able to decimate. Perhaps you will tell us about the kenyan magic or the Indian rope climbing trick that he is going to make use of. Today there are several powers including China, Russia, India, Pakistan, North Korea,Iran etc.who could strike deadly blows to ths super power. You believe that George was about to do in 2001, but did’n. And I thought that in this year the US was a victom? Have a nice day!

Posted by rexminor | Report as abusive


I sense an element of pride in your question about Pashtuns. Hence my reply sounded thus. Pashtuns do not have any exclusive might that makes them hard to defeat. They have survived because of various reasons in which they were not the direct target. They happen to be in the battle zone. The Soviets did not specifically target Pashtuns. The rest of the world considers Afghanistan as a single entity which is wrong – it is made up of various ethnic groups which would eagerly slit each others’ throats. If the British empire had another 50 years at their disposal, they surely would have exploited that animosity between the ethnic groups and subdued them as well. They did in the case of Punjabh which had a modern military under Ranjit Singh. They just waited for him to die and then took over Punjabh. They had conquered the whole sub-continent by turning people against each other. I am sure you have never heard of Tipu Sultan who had missiles that wreaked havoc over the British troops. The British allied themselves with the Nizam of Hyderabad and brought his army to defeat Tipu Sultan. Then both Hyderabad and Tipu’s empires were merged with the British India. The British would have done the same in Afghanistan. It is just that they ran out time and the world had changed. After WW II their empire itself retreated and disappeared. There is enough evidence in history that every militant tribe has been subdued and defeated. The Zulus under Shaka in South Africa was another formidable opponent and the British could not subdue them while Shaka ruled. They had to wait for 70 odd years and once the empire weakened due to internal strife, they knocked them out and South Africa became a British colony. There is nothing special about the Pashtuns. They are surviving because of support from parties that have their vested interests. Keeping the Pashtuns on their side is a strategic tactics. If you remove their supporters, they can be surrounded and defeated very easily. Any modern military can do that. That was my point. Pashtuns have survived. That is all. That does not make them conquerors of mighty militaries. I think they are getting unnecessary praise for what they are not.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

@KP Singh
your knowledge of history is very detailed and accurate with one exception;
The Brits did have time of almosst one hundred years from the two hundred years stay in India, did use their divide and rule strategy and advanced inch by inch in the Pushtoon territory. They lost three afghan wars and many campaigns in and around the Pushtoon territories and were decisively defeated, massacred and degraded. They were not ready to give in.The only consolation prize was that they managed to cut the Pushtoon territory in half thereby separating the so called NWFP from the other half which remained intact in the Afghan territory. Yes, I do take a sense of pride in my research work about these people and have still not fully understood the secret of their stregnth other than establishing no go areas in their territory disallowing access to other tribes and be able to manufacture their own weaponry.It is surprising for me to note that they have never in their history initiated any campaigns on their own to expand their territory, and have always defended their own homes and tribes. I do not foresee that they are likely to remain in the fature a passive force as in the past. My prognosis is that inview of the latest intrusion of foreign forces in their land,they are likely to break out of their bunkers and spread across the whole of the sub-continent. I am not sure if any of the powers would be in a position to use them for strategic gain. Time will tell us. Anyway , many thanks. as astrategic

Posted by rexminor | Report as abusive


I think your knowledge of Afghan history seems to be limited to pride. Mohammed of Ghor set up the first Islamic Sultanate in Delhi and the 12th century after defeating Prithivi Raj Chauhan. Mahmud of Ghazni raided Hindustan several times and razed the place down. Interestingly the region he razed down happens to be present day Pakistan mostly which had a lot more Hindus and Buddhists during his time. These two were from the core of the Pashtun land. Ahmed Shah Aftali was another Pashtun tribal leader who lay Delhi to waste much latter before the British came on to the scene. Therefore your claim that Pashtuns never ventured out is not correct. Post colonial period surely they had not ventured out much. But that is true for many such societies. Many expand and run over others and then retreat into small segments. The Mongols are another example. There are many valiant groups of people who can compare with the Pashtuns. The Gorkhas are one. They consist of brave warriors who do not flinch. They are fiercely loyal subjects and the British loved their loyalty. Punjab regiment is another one which is as valiant and brave. Pakistan’s military is made up of Punjabhis mostly. And Indian military has a large section of Sikhs and Hindu Punjabhis. If these people could be subdued and made to work for an empire, it was only a matter of time before the Pashtuns would have been subdued. It is just that the British ran out of time. The world changed suddenly after WW II. The British would wait for decades to weaken their enemy and then take them over. NWFP was the last region to come under the British dominance. It took close to 200 years to bring the entire Indian subcontinent under the British. It is a huge region and the British had even Burma under their belt. The Pashtuns lucked out. The Central Asian ethnic groups are equally fierce and belligerent. Ahmed Shah Masood ran a very successful campaign against the Taliban which is made up mostly of ethnic Pashtuns. Both sides had support from rival countries – India in the case of Northern alliance and Pakistan in the case of the Taliban.

In general Pashtuns are polite people who like to be left alone. They settle their tribal disputes in different ways amongst themselves. And they do stand up to outside powers. But they can be crushed if there is no external help for them. Modern militaries can crush them with superior air power and military strategy.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

What a load…

It’s truly ignorant to suggest that the Canadians got their butts kicked in the Argandab and that’s why they are leaving Afghanistan.

Canada had one reinforced combat battalion for all of Kandahar until a year and a bit back. This is why they could not dominate they Argandab. Every time they did come into contact with the enemy, they decimated them.

Unfortunately, nobody else seemed to be interested in taking on the Taliban in their heartland until very recently.

As for leaving, the only reason we’re out is because of the partisan political games at home playing out with a minority government in power. You can bet if either one of the major parties was in a majority, we’d be staying until the yanks leave.

It is absolutely maddening to read trash from Americans fighting in the East or Brits who spend all their time in Helmand, with the luxury of significantly more resources, who somehow conclude that all is lost in Kandahar. With friends like these….

Posted by kEiThZ | Report as abusive


You might want to read this article on Kandahar (pdf): e_Talibans_Campaign_For_Kandahar.pdf

The focus is very much on how Kandahar was under-resourced while the Taliban gave it high priority. (ie the issue is not about blaming the Canadians, but the overall plan for Afghanistan).

Posted by Myra MacDonald | Report as abusive

Mr K Singh
You are completely off track now. you are now talking about Afghan history or about the individuals who have ventured and about the bravery of Gorkha, Punjabis and sikhs soldiers. I am researching about Pushtoon tribes who have never been defeated in history and still attracted foreigners from all over the world to visit them with superior weaponary and were very happy to perish. Yes Sir, PERISH. The afghan mountains and the valleys are the living witness. For comparison you are referring to very ordinary conscripts or soldiers who are fighting for no more than pennies for their masters. You mention Gorkhas and their loyalty, loyalty to whom? To their masters, who are paying them. I see your Gorkhas distributing sweets to the Pashtoon children while the young lads of under twenty Brits. are being killed. And on top of that you mention colonial armies of India and Pakistan, they have not got the stomach to fight. When they are sorrounded they surrender, this is the training they received from their masters, and this is what they have in they possess today. No sir, the brave sikhs and Punjabis of the pre colonial period have disappeared. Let us elevate the level of debate to talk about invincible tribesmen, and the reason why the Americans and the Nato armies are taking thee beating. I have no patience to learn about the causes of the failures. The US congress is the right venue for such discussions. I wish you a happy new year!

Posted by rexminor | Report as abusive

If the mind actively generates perception, this raises the question whether the result has anything to do with the world, or if so, how much. To the extent that knowledge depends on the structure of the mind and not on the world, knowledge would have no connection to the world and is not even true representation. just a solipsistic or intersubjective fantasy. ( A quotation from Immanuel Kant, the metaphysic German Phisopher) . The PDF on Kandhar is typically a corporate oulined paper, provides details of the Pashtoon tribes and in the writers opinion ” how the south was lost” to Talibans, or how the talibans gained due to the shortfalls of ISAF. Why did’nt he contact Mullah Omar, who could have given him more accurate details about their strategy?

Posted by rexminor | Report as abusive