Forward Operating Base Delhi, Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan—December 7
|Flying into Snake’s Head the name given by the US and British soldiers to a patchwork of canals in Helmand province, Southern Afghanistan. Photos © Ed Girardet.
We’re in the Snake’s Head , the name given by the U.S. and British soldiers to a bulbous patchwork of canals in the Helmand desert in Southern Afghanistan, part of a ribbon of fertile land running south from the Malmand Mountains and commanded by the irrigation network built with U.S. assistance in the 1960s . The Helmand River valley is at the frontline of the current episode in Afghanistan’s Thirty-Year War.
Field Marshall Gerald Templer  said of the 1952-4 conflict in Malaya, “The answer lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the people.” This philosophy animates the counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan set out in General Stanley McChrystal’s recent Initial Assessment . McChrystal is quoted  as saying that "the shot you don't fire is more important than the one you do."
British forces have fought in this area since 2006. In July this year, in the biggest airlift operation since the Vietnam War, the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force joined them and drove the Taliban further down the snake’s tail.
On our way to Helmand where U.S. and U.K. forces are fighting Taliban and over 93% of the world’s raw opium is produced.
Although the intensity of face-to-face combat in Helmand has diminished in recent months, on the day the journalist Eddie Girardet , my World Bank colleagues Hugh Riddell  and Susanne Holste  and I arrived at the Provincial Reconstruction Team  (PRT) HQ in Lashkar Gar , over 80 IED incidents were reported throughout the province.
It’s winter now, there is no standing crop and the fields look dry and blasted. This undistinguished landscape, though, produced 93% of the world’s raw opium supply in 2007 according to UNODC (more about drugs and violence in another post).
The insurgency is a lot more complicated than the ‘Taliban ’ tag suggests. More an association of various people fighting the government and/or the foreign soldiers than a discrete organization, some are motivated by jihad , some by the humiliations and hurts they and their families have experienced, some by anger at official corruption and high-handedness, some by local feuds, some by the drug trade. Many are Helmandis. Some are travelling warriors from other parts of Afghanistan. And some are another sort of foreigner—Pakistanis, crossing over Helmand’s southern border, or international mujahidin from Chechnya, Saudi and elsewhere.
War on two fronts
Wherever the physical epicenter of jihadi thought and command may be, the Marines and the British in the PRT are clear that this isn’t a fight over territory: in Afghanistan, it’s a war about the way people react to different governance alternatives; a war of perceptions, to use WDR -terminology. However effective the 42-nation International Security Assistance Force  may be, this is what gets you worried. Andrew Wilder , the Research Director for Policy Process at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, wrote recently in an op-ed , “As one tribal elder in the southeastern province of Paktika put it, the very real “lack of clinics, schools, and roads are not the problem. The main problem is we don't have a good government”….Not only are foreign aid projects unlikely to make either the Afghan government or its international backers more popular, but reconstruction assistance seems in fact to be losing—rather than winning—hearts and minds….the single overriding criticism of aid was the strong belief that it was fueling massive corruption, which undermined some of the positive impacts it may have otherwise had.” While we were in Afghanistan, a Guardian story  by Aram Roston was doing the rounds, describing how the US army secures its logistics convoys by paying protection money to a cast of the dubious and malign—including various Taliban commanders.
If “the snake of corruption” delegitimizes both the Afghan government and its international supporters, so also do appearances of foreign domination, be they military or political. Martine van Biljert  writes of the recent presidential election “The focus by international actors in following a precarious—almost imaginary—process in order to insist to their domestic audiences that ‘the system worked’…confirmed [Afghan] suspicions that the electoral process…is mainly an elaborate cover for decisions made elsewhere.”
I couldn’t yet discern a clear international strategy on how to win the governance war, but even ten days in a country I don’t know told me this was the battlefield that matters most, and that international actors face a potent dilemma. We can’t stand back from something we have helped create, but a crudely-conditioned approach will risk further government delegitimation in the eyes of Afghanis.