April 29, 2009

Poppylationcentric Counterinsurgency

The folks at 1301 Pennsylvania Avenue NW enjoyed a good staff debate on Afghanistan and Pakistan yesterday morning. (I'm speaking of CNAS here -- not Ducks Unlimited.) We were talking at one point about what it would really mean to engage in population-centric COIN in Afghanistan and how you would have to make some tough calls -- perhaps, just to give one example, you would pull out of the Korengal Valley to better protect Wardak Province. What none of us discussed, though, was that U.S. and allied commanders would -- instead of pursuing a population-centric strategy -- pursue a counter-narcotics strategy.

American commanders are planning to cut off the Taliban’s main source of money, the country’s multimillion-dollar opium crop, by pouring thousands of troops into the three provinces that bankroll much of the group’s operations.

The plan to send 20,000 Marines and soldiers into Helmand, Kandahar and Zabul Provinces this summer promises weeks and perhaps months of heavy fighting, since American officers expect the Taliban to vigorously defend what makes up the economic engine for the insurgency. The additional troops, the centerpiece of President Obama’s effort to reverse the course of the seven-year war, will roughly double the number already in southern Afghanistan. The troops already fighting there are universally seen as overwhelmed. In many cases, the Americans will be pushing into areas where few or no troops have been before.

Through extortion and taxation, the Taliban are believed to reap as much as $300 million a year from Afghanistan’s opium trade, which now makes up 90 percent of the world’s total. That is enough, the Americans say, to sustain all of the Taliban’s military operations in southern Afghanistan for an entire year.

“Opium is their financial engine,” said Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, the deputy commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. “That is why we think he will fight for these areas.”

But then, in the next breath...

The Americans say that their main goal this summer will be to provide security for the Afghan population, and thereby isolate the insurgents.

Well, which is it?

But because the opium is tilled in heavily populated areas, and because the Taliban are spread among the people, the Americans say they will have to break the group’s hold on poppy cultivation to be successful.

Oh, well, okay. I guess that makes sense.

Incidentally, real "War in Afghanistan" nerds are keeping their eye on BG Nicholson. He is a highly respected up-and-coming officer who was hand-picked for his position as deputy commander in RC South. That said, "John Nicholson" is an awesome if tragic name for a brigadier general wandering around South and Central Asia looking for ass to kick. That's why this one's friends call him "Mick."