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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