- A Week in the War: Afghanistan, March 15-21, 2011
- Military Doctrine, Guerrilla Warfare and Counterinsurgency
Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced March 22 the first seven areas of the country where responsibility for security would be handed over completely to Afghans: the provinces of Panjshir, Bamian and Kabul (except the restive Surobi district, though the rest of Kabul’s security effectively has been in Afghan hands for years) and the cities of Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, Lashkar Gah and Mehtar Lam.
Consistent with the American exit strategy of “Vietnamization” of the conflict, the real trick will not be the first areas handed over. The first are the easiest to hand over, like the already relatively calm and safe areas of Kabul. The main issue will be discovering whether Afghan forces are sufficient to hold the line against the Taliban in more contested areas. And in this sense, Mehtar Lam (not far from the Pakistani border in the east) and particularly Lashkar Gah (the capital of Helmand province in the country’s restive southwest) will be the most important to watch.
Cell Phone Towers and Taliban Intimidation
In Lashkar Gah, there have already been signs of a successful intimidation campaign by the Taliban ahead of the anticipated spring offensive. Cellular service providers in the capital have shut down service in compliance with Taliban demands, and that shutdown appears to be entering its second week. A shutdown of cellular towers at night has long been a common demand by the Taliban to prevent locals from informing on the Taliban’s nocturnal movements and activities, whether those be emplacing improvised explosive devices or other intimidation efforts. Despite assurances from Afghan security forces that cellular service providers, their families and their infrastructure, in particular the cell towers, would be protected, the providers have remained united in their observance of the Taliban demands.
Lashkar Gah has been a focal point of the U.S. Marine-led campaign in Helmand to push out the Taliban and deny them the support of the population. In many ways, this has been considered a success. However, one of the most pervasive problems of providing security for the population is the insurgents’ inherent ability to move among the population and threaten retribution if their demands are not met.
The Taliban’s successful intimidation campaign in an area where Afghan government officials and security forces’ operations are concentrated is an ominous indication for International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) efforts as the fighting season heats up. It not only speaks to the Taliban’s ability to provoke fear and to the population’s susceptibility to intimidation but also serves as a potential indicator of the local population’s confidence in the Afghan security forces’ ability to provide for that security.
Here is where community police can be particularly effective. Armed locals deny the insurgency some of the advantages that a guerilla movement enjoys against a foreign occupier. There have been many attempts at establishing coherent community police programs. Kabul has opposed them several times as they were often created outside the aegis of the Afghan government in arrangements made directly between ISAF forces and locals.
The attempt now under way in Logar province reportedly started on the governor’s initiative, which intended integration with the Afghan government in Kabul. It trains individuals nominated by the local elders who would be responsible for them (if, for example, they are caught fleecing the local population) and keeping them in their local communities — maximizing the utility of their unique knowledge of the local landscape. This is not unlike the Interim Security Critical Infrastructure (ISCI) program in Marjah, though ISCI was more directly facilitated by the ISAF).
Meanwhile, Helmand’s border with Pakistan remains a concern. Raids and screening efforts by the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance battalion last year are resuming, aiming to provide a more sustained presence to deter the flow of fighters, weapons and material to and from Pakistan in a more coherent way. As Lashkar Gah and other portions of Helmand are turned over to Afghan security forces, Marines freed up from those efforts could be shifted south to reinforce efforts to lock down the border.