“WHERE WE go we will stay and where we stay we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces”. So said Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, commander of the 4,000 US marines sent yesterday into Afghanistan’s Helmand province to bolster the existing largely British force fighting Taliban guerrillas there.
The policy reflects the military doctrine adopted by the new US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. He wants US and other Nato forces to give greater protection to civilians rather than measure their success by how many Taliban guerrillas they kill. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to execute such a policy with the extra 21,000 US troops President Barack Obama has committed to Afghanistan, which will bring their numbers to 78,000 next year, and the Nato force as a whole to about 100,000.
A nation-building approach is implicit in this strategy, but that would need many more resources than are currently on offer from the US and its allies. The ineffectual government led by President Hamid Karzai is riddled with corruption and so far has seemed incapable of rising to the task. The Taliban are not popular but are able to claim a patriotic role by resisting invaders and harnessing discontent. If this operation is successful it would allow Mr Karzai campaign in Helmand for next month’s presidential election with a more convincing case that he can deliver security and safety to villagers there.
Mr Obama has given high priority to defeating the Taliban and thereby al-Qaeda, both of which are based in this part of Afghanistan and in the northwest of neighbouring Pakistan. This campaign is being coordinated with the enormous one taken against Taliban control of the Swat valley by the Pakistani army, in which some two million people have been displaced. The Afghan-Pakistan border is to be sealed against escaping Taliban, so it is hoped, building up military pressure on them. But they are a formidable enemy, fighting on home ground and well financed by the booming opium trade they control.
This new US policy faces grave obstacles if it cannot deliver on its promises to improve security for ordinary Afghan citizens. It is hoped to transfer military responsibility to the Afghan army gradually, although this is acknowledged to be a long game. In opting for a dramatic military escalation Mr Obama hopes to reverse the recent impression of slow defeat or stalemate afflicting the Nato operation.