Whatever We’re Doing In Helmand (Still) Isn’t Working

We, as humans, are gluttons for punishment. We will put up with all kinds of abuse, self-inflicted or otherwise, because some days it’s just easier being part of the herd. Because we’re comfortable going along with whatever’s driving the internet’s rage bus today. And because it’s just easier thinking that Justin Bieber’s a rare talent instead of the embodiment of everything Darwin got wrong.

It’s why we’ll go see all the Twilight movies, why we’ll eat at Chipotle, and why we’ll sniff the milk carton even after someone’s given themselves whiplash doing the exact same thing. For those of you too young to remember what it was like staring into the lifeless eyes of some poor kid who by that point was a funny smell in someone’s crawlspace while you mainlined enough refined sugar to power Willy Wonka’s magic factory of creepiness for a week, a milk carton is something they used to put milk in.

And because on top of humanity’s masochistic leanings we like to share each other’s misery, if someone’s head snaps back so hard it would make Tony Romo flinch after getting a whiff of bovine secretions that are well past their sell by date, and then they hand that carton to you, you will, invariably, take a whiff. Which is pretty much what’s happening in Helmand. Again.

Helmand province is Afghanistan’s milk carton/bong water/t-shirt left in a locker/whatever thing you can relate to that smells bad and if you’re the first one smelling it your second reaction after suppressing your gag reflex will be to share that joy with someone else. It’s the one place everyone can agree is a problem, and something should be done about it. But in this scenario, instead of throwing the carton out, we keep putting Helmand back in the fridge.

The “S” stands for “special,” not “super”

Marines Versus Conex

Rest easy…we’re ready for the Connex War.

Which brings us to the latest from Helmand in the New York Times, which is reporting that once again there are American troops directly involved in combat in Helmand. And have been for the last several weeks. Which, if it’s true, runs somewhat counter to the messaging that combat operations are over, and the only combat missions the Americans are running are to counter terror.

And, since the United States have yet to define the Taliban as a terrorist organization, if American troops are engaged with the Taliban, then we’re stretching “Train, Advise, and Assist” into something unrecognizable by people who define things like words. Which is a problem, but one that’s no surprise given the Obama administration’s bent toward finishing up Operation GTFO sometime before the next US election cycle. What should worry us, a lot, is that they’re doing it in Helmand.

There’s little question that Helmand is a contested area. But the Afghan National Security Forces have conducted no fewer than five major operations there to disrupt insurgent and Taliban activities. Col. Michael T. Lawhorn, spokesperson

Col. Lawhorn’s non-answer to the question about the kind of US troops that are engaged in direct combat with the Taliban misses a larger question: No matter who’s doing the fighting, in 2015, doesn’t it bother anyone in senior leadership that the good guys have to commit assets to Helmand? That a place the British and the Americans both spent a whole lot of time trying to stabilize over the years still requires “major operations” should be an indicator of something. Something bad. Like milk we should have thrown out years ago.

The troops involved are all from special operations, to include Air Force assets. Which is another hallmark of Obama’s war-after-the-war: trying to leverage special operations forces (SOF) rather than commit the personnel and firepower that wouldn’t make for a long-term change, but would at least drive back the Taliban enough to give Afghan forces enough breathing room. Conventional forces do that really well, because there are a lot of them. And that means covering a lot more ground than the SOF ever could.

Cleared it…what were those other 2 again?

Royal Marines

We call these Marines. Royal Marines, I suspect.

That doesn’t mean that a whole lot of troops would solve anything. A whole lot of troops and humanitarian advisers committed to a 30 year plan and deployment with the accompanying resources and oversight that could be possible with a long-term commitment? That…that might start to solve something.

What’s happened in Afghanistan wasn’t one long campaign. It was 15 or more campaigns that did little or nothing to support the one before it. And that brings us back to Helmand.

The Brits did Helmand one way. US Marines another way. The Afghans are doing it their way. And since their way involves an army that can barely keep itself supplied, the Helmand fight is one they’ll be fighting for a long time to come.

NATO’s going for the win in the perception war. If Afghan and coalition forces withdrew from Helmand and places like it tomorrow, and let the Taliban control it, what harm comes to the rest of the country? Make them bring the fight to places where Afghan forces can fight in force. Where you can mass personnel and equipment in a way that makes it impossible for the Taliban to break through.

Helmand is strategic because the generals have decided that it is so. That the optics of the Taliban taking over towns and districts where US and British forces lost so many over the years is unacceptable. And since there’s more than a few in charge that think it’s time the Afghans take it on the chin for a while, the fight to keep Helmand will continue.

Maybe this time it’ll work. Maybe this time the Afghans with the assistance of US SOF will win the day. Maybe this time the good guys win. And maybe it’s just time to buy some more milk.


Originally published at Sunny In Kabul.