In the media celebration of our "victory" over the Taliban in the Helmand Valley, little attention has been given to the nature of insurgency: the proper tactic of guerrillas is to fade away before overwhelming power, leaving behind only enough fighters to force the invaders to harm civilians and damage property. This is exactly what happened in the recent fighting in Marja. Faced with odds of perhaps 20 to 1, helicopters, tanks and bombers, the guerrillas wisely dispersed. Victory may not be quite the right description.
That battle will probably be repeated in Kandahar, which, unlike the agricultural area known as Marja, is a large and densely populated city. Other operations are planned, so the Marja "victory" has set a pattern that accentuates military action. This is not conducive to an exit strategy–it will not lead out of Afghanistan but deeper into the country. Indeed, there is already evidence that this is happening. As the Washington Post reported shortly after the Marja battle ended, not far away "the Marines are constructing a vast base on the outskirts of town that will have two airstrips, an advanced combat hospital, a post office, a large convenience store and rows of housing trailers stretching as far as the eye can see."
Since the Helmand Valley is the focal point of the military strategy, it is important to understand its role in Afghan affairs. The Helmand irrigation project, begun in the Eisenhower administration as a distant echo of the TVA, was supposed to become a prosperous island of democracy and progress. As a member of the Policy Planning Council in the Kennedy administration, I visited it in 1962. What I found was deeply disturbing: no studies had been made of the land to be developed, which proved to have a sheet of impermeable rock just below the surface that caused the soil to turn saline when irrigated; the land was not sufficiently leveled, so irrigation was inefficient; nothing was done to teach the nomad settlers how to farm; plots were too small to foster the social engineering aim of creating a middle class; and since there were no credit facilities to buy seed, settlers were paying 100 percent interest to moneylenders. In short, after the buildup of great expectations, disappointment was palpable.
Was it a portent? It seems likely. At the least, it’s striking that precisely where we carried out our first civic action program is where the Taliban became most powerful.
So what should that experience have taught us? That we should learn about the Afghans, their country and their objectives before determining our policy toward them. There is much to be learned, but I will here highlight what I believe are the three crucial issues that will make or break our relationship.
The first issue critical to evaluating US policy is the way the Afghans govern themselves. About four in five Afghans live in the country’s 20,000-plus villages. During a 2,000-mile trip around the country by jeep, horseback and plane half a century ago, as well as in later trips, it became clear to me that Afghanistan is really thousands of villages, and each of them, although culturally related to its neighbors, is more or less politically independent and economically autarkic.
This lack of national cohesion thwarted the Russians during their occupation: they won many military victories, and through their civic action programs they actually won over many of the villages, but they could never find or create an organization with which to make peace. Baldly put, no one could surrender the rest. Thus, over the decade of their involvement, the Russians won almost every battle and occupied at one time or another virtually every inch of the country, but they lost about 15,000 soldiers–and the war. When they gave up and left, the Afghans resumed their traditional way of life.