Yon: Brits losing Helmand; McChrystal: Need more troops, new strategy
posted at 12:58 pm on August 31, 2009 by Ed Morrissey
Michael Yon just got his embed privilege with British forces canceled, perhaps as a result of a little too much truth-telling. In his last two dispatches, Yon reported that Taliban efforts to push back against NATO’s latest forward efforts in Helmand province, a key Taliban stronghold, had been finding success. In his last dispatch from his embed with 2nd Rifles, a “truly professional force,” Yon underscores the problems facing the Brits in Helmand:
We need more troops. The leadership tells us that the Taliban and associated groups control only small parts of the country. Yet enemy influence is growing, and so far, despite that we have made progress on some fronts, our own influence is diminishing. For example, an excellent British infantry unit that I embedded with in Iraq and now Afghanistan, the “2 Rifles,” is staked out in the “Green Zone” around the Helmand River. HQ for 2 Rifles is at FOB Jackson near the center of the map above. There are several satellite FOBs and Patrol Bases, each of which is essentially cut off from the outside world other than by helicopter or major ground resupply efforts (which only take place about once a month). The latest ground resupply effort from Camp Bastion resulted in much fighting. The troops up at Kajaki Dam are surrounded by the enemy, which has dug itself into actual “FLETs.” FLET is military-speak for “Forward Line of Enemy Troops.” In other words, the enemy is not hiding, but they are in trenches, bunkers and fighting positions that extend into depth. The enemy owns the terrain.
The British are protecting Kajaki Dam but otherwise it’s just a big fight and no progress is being made. The turbine delivery to the dam, which I wrote about last year, was a tremendous success. Efforts to get the turbine online have been an equally tremendous failure. Bottom line: the project to restore the electrical capacity from Kajaki Dam is failing and likely will require multi-national intervention to bring it online and to push back the enemy.
We need more helicopters. Enemy control of the terrain is so complete in the area between Sangin and Kajaki that when my embed was to switch from FOB Jackson to FOB Inkerman—only seven kilometers (about four miles) away—we could not walk or drive from Jackson to Inkerman. Routes are deemed too dangerous. Helicopter lift was required. The helicopter shortage is causing crippling delays in troop movements. It’s common to see a soldier waiting ten days for a simple flight. When my embed was to move the four miles from Jackson to Inkerman, a scheduled helicopter picked me up at Jackson and flew probably eighty miles to places like Lashkar Gah, and finally set down at Camp Bastion. The helicopter journey from Jackson began on 12 August and ended at Inkerman on the 17th. About five days was spent—along with many thousands of dollars in helicopter time—to travel four miles. Even Generals can have difficulty scheduling flights. Interestingly, when I talk with the folks who reserve helicopter space, they say the Generals are generally easy-going about the lack of a seat, but that Colonels often become irate.
This is very disappointing, but perhaps not unexpected. We need a push to get the Taliban out of Helmand, as their funding comes from the drug trade in that province and their political influence is strongest there. That makes it key for the Taliban as well, and they were not going to simply walk away. Yon predicted that the initial success of the NATO forces portended a change in strategy for the Taliban, who now operate more clandestinely after the NATO forces have stopped their advance and try to hold positions.
Be sure to read it all, especially for the photo essay that is always an essential part of Yon’s reporting. Don’t forget to hit the tip jar, too, as Michael relies entirely on reader donations for funding his front-line reports.
Update: The US commander in Afghanistan shares Michael’s assessment:
The top commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan said Monday the situation in the country is “serious” and a new strategy is needed to defeat the Taliban.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal sent his strategic review of the Afghan war to the Pentagon on Monday.
He did not ask for more troops but is expected to do so in a separate request, two NATO officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter. …
“The situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort,” McChrystal said in a statement Monday.
This will present Obama with some tough political choices. The left wing of his party wants the US out of Afghanistan, regardless of the status of al-Qaeda. The military wants to keep pursuing AQ, and most of the country would agree with that position. Republicans will support Obama’s effort overseas as long as he remains flexible on strategy and tactics.