Ramtanu Maitra is a regular columnist with the Executive Intelligence Review (EIR), a news weekly published from Washington DC. He writes columns for Asia Times of Hong Kong, Frontier Post of Peshawar and some other newspapers in Asia on South Asian political economy and Asian security. He has written on terrorism in a number of publications in the United States and India.
Less than three months ago, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A), unleashed amidst loud drumbeats the Operation Moshtarak. It was identified as the biggest battle of the eight-year war in the town of Marja situated in the Nad Ali district of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. Highly impressionable foreign media persons said out loud that its outcome will reveal the chances of “success” for President Obama's revamped Afghan strategy. Three months since, little is heard of Operation Moshtarak. From time to time reports from that corner of the world assure the Westerners that the ISAF troops were doing fine in Marja, but the area has not been fully secured. Some progress is visible, but the process in achieving it was tougher and slower, it is said.
However, what cannot be denied is that the ISAF is moving in thousands of very well-equipped military to Kandahar province – a hop, skip and jump away from northern Iran. It has set up a number of forward operational bases to accommodate a surge of troops close to Iran borders. It was known at the outset that the troops will not go after the massive opium production that is now harvested in the area, but what was not known is that the troops may not fully engage the insurgents, who dominate the area.
Meanwhile, war of words between Iran and the West, and Israel, of course, has sharpened since. And, talks among some in the corridors of power in the West is that all instruments, barring an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, to squeeze Tehran to give up its uranium enrichment program is close to getting exhausted, has become more audible now than before. In other words, why U.S. and NATO are amassing troops near a sensitive border remains a moot question. If indeed Operation Moshtarak was a false flag, it is likely that thousands of ISAF troops getting assembled under that false flag will stand-by waiting to participate when the war against Iran is launched.
Operation Moshtarak was launched with the objective of taking control of major towns of southern Afghanistan by driving the “Taliban” out and installing “good governments”, who will work hand-in-glove with the ISAF to “win the hearts and minds” of the ethnic majority group of Afghanistan, the Pushtuns of Helmand and Kandahar province. At the time, media persons pointed out that Operation Moshtarak will be the first big show of force since President Obama ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan last December. NATO and ISAF forces were under pressure to achieve decisive military gains this year to turn the tide in the war, before troops begin to withdraw next year.
It was said that the assault on Marja, a densely populated warren of desert canals, will demonstrate NATO commander Stanley McChrystal's counter-insurgency strategy, which emphasizes seizing control of population centers. The town's role as an infiltration route for fighters coming from Pakistan and centre of opium production, which provides much of the tax revenue that has fueled the insurgency, makes it particularly significant. It was also pointed out that the pacification of the area is seen as critical for reversing Taliban gains in and around Kandahar, the country's second largest city.
While the western audience lapped up the stated objectives behind launching of Operation Moshtarak, Asma Nemati, a researcher working at the American University of Afghanistan, in her Kabul dispatch in the Foreign Policy magazine online on Feb 22, reported some Afghans she had spoken with were wondering why Operation Moshtarak has been talked about so much -- and those were the ones who have heard of the offensive at all. Some Afghans in Kabul, where she was based at the time, were clueless about what was going on in a province 400 miles from where they live. Some Afghans, like other observers, were also wondering what the strategic importance of Marja is to Afghanistan overall, and criticized the operations. Nemati reported. Some believed the hype around Operation Moshtarak is all part of an elaborate American publicity stunt to bolster support for the Obama administration's 30,000-troop surge, announced in late December, she noted.
Meanwhile, a new report, Operation Moshtarak: Lessons Learned, released in May by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS), an international policy think-tank with offices in London, Brussels and Rio de Janeiro, said 61% of Afghans interviewed feel more negative about NATO forces after Operation Moshtarak than they did before the February military offensive in Marja. Of those interviewed, 95% believe more young Afghans have joined the Taliban in the last year. 78% of the respondents were often or always angry, and 45% of those stated they were angry at the NATO occupation, civilian casualties and night raids. This report reviewed the local perceptions of the operation from more than 400 Afghan men from Marja, Lashkar Gah and Kandahar, interviewed by the ICOS in March 2010.
97% of Afghans interviewed said the operation had led to new flows of internally displaced people. Thousands of displaced Afghans were forced to move to overcrowded refugee camps with insufficient food, medical supplies or shelter. Aid agencies were overwhelmed and under-resourced. In addition, 68% of Afghans questioned by ICOS believe that the Taliban will return to Marja.
In a recent (April 15) article, McChrystal Backtracks on Troop Veto for Kandahar Shuras, Gareth Porter of IPS reported the U.S. military has now officially backtracked from its earlier suggestion that it would seek the consent of local shuras, or consultative conferences with those elders, to carry out the coming military occupation of Kandahar city and nearby districts – contradicting a pledge by Afghan President Hamid Karzai not to carry out the operation without such consent. Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, a spokesman for Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, told IPS that local tribal elders in Kandahar could "shape the conditions" under which the influx of foreign troops operate during the operation, but would not determine whether or where NATO troops would be deployed in and around the city. Asked whether the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is committed to getting local approval before introducing more troops into Kandahar and surrounding districts, the McChrystal spokesman said, "We're not talking about something as simple as a referendum."
At a Mar. 29 briefing in Kabul on plans for the Kandahar operation, however, an unnamed senior U.S. military official told reporters that one of the elements of the strategy for gaining control over the Taliban stronghold is to "shura our way to success" - referring to the Islamic concept of consultative bodies. In those conferences with local tribal elders, the officials said, "The people have to ask for the operation... We're going to have to have a situation where they invite us in."
In end-April, NATO commanders scrapped a helicopter assault by hundreds of US and Afghan troops. The decision to cancel the assault, designed to prepare the ground for the biggest offensive of the nearly nine-year-old war, has frustrated US officers on the ground, who say their local partners are not ready to lead. “It wasn’t Afghan enough ... approval was denied,” a US Army officer with knowledge of the plans told Reuters. “The implication is that the Afghans are in the lead. The bottom line is we’re nowhere near the stage where they can be in the lead.”The assault in a rural part of Kandahar – due to take place in March and repeatedly postponed – would have been one of the biggest operations so far in the province, where US troops are massing to carry out a major offensive beginning in June.
These actions or the lack of it, and statements clearly suggest how to go ahead with the large-scale military operation scheduled to begin in June is far from being resolved. It is clear that the support of the elders is hard to come by. Afghan President Karzai said NATO's Kandahar operation would not be carried out until the elders themselves were ready to support it, according to a number of press reports.
In other words, a full-fledged military operation to take control of the city of Kandahar is getting increasingly off-tracked. President Karzai, who hails from Kandahar, is strongly opposed to the expected bloodbath that would follow such an operation. On May 3, speaking to reporters via video conference in Kabul from Kandahar, provincial governor Tooryalai Wesa, "I have to say it is not a military operation. No tanks, artillery, aircraft or bombings are discussed."
“It is very much contrary to the operations we conducted in Marja," he said, referring to the military campaign by thousands of Afghan and foreign troops in villages in neighboring Helmand province earlier this year. "As we agreed, and as President (Hamid) Karzai said earlier, no operation will be conducted without the agreement of Kandahar's people," Wesa said.
At the same time, all reports indicate that ISAF troops are massing in large numbers in Kandahar, the spiritual homeland of the Taliban, in what will be ostensibly the largest offensive of the nearly nine-year-old war. But then, it is not a military operation, as Governor Wesa says, one wonders why the troops are being massed in such large numbers.
This August, when all 30,000 US troops promised by President Obama get stationed in Afghanistan, foreign troop numbers, not counting the more-than-100,000 private contractors many of whom are “unofficial” arms bearers, will reach 150,000. Reports indicate that in fact, Kandahar, which housed 9,000 coalition troops as recently as 2007, is expected to have a population of as many as 35,000 troops by the time President Obama's surge is complete.
With the objective to induct such large number of foreign troops in the area, U.S. has also speeded up building bases to house them and secure them. In an article, Totally Occupied: 700 Military Bases Spread Across Afghanistan, by Nick Turse of Tomdispatch.com, on Feb.10, said, according to official sources, approximately 700 bases of every size dot the Afghan countryside, and more, like the one in Shinwar, are under construction or soon will be as part of a base-building boom that began last year. Such bases range from relatively small sites like Shinwar to mega-bases that resemble small American towns, Turse said. One such mega-base emerged recently in the desert land of Helmand Province. According to Captain Jeff Boroway from the 25th Naval Construction regiment, "This place was desert at the end of January. I mean nothing. And now you've got a 443-acre (179-hectare) secure facility," he told reporters. Boroway said engineering units were rushing to finish work on the camp to accommodate the deployment of thousands of additional troops, including most of an 8,000-strong brigade of US Marines.
On the other hand, the Shinwar site, located in the eastern Afghanistan bordering Pakistan, will be a small forward operating base (FOB) that will host both Afghan troops and foreign forces. A small number of the coalition sites are mega-bases like Kandahar Airfield (KAF), which boasts one of the busiest runways in the world, and Bagram Air Base, a former Soviet facility that received a makeover, complete with Burger King and Popeyes outlets, and now serves more than 20,000 U.S. troops, in addition to thousands of coalition forces and civilian contractors.
In addition, Lance Cpl. Dwight Henderson, Regimental Combat Team 7, in a report, Marines establish new patrol base in Southern Afghanistan, on April 19, said Marines and sailors with Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, established a new patrol base in the area of Laki, Garmsir District, Helmand province, Afghanistan, March 30. A platoon from Weapons Co., known as Combined Anti Armor Team 1, moved into the large, concrete compound that was a former hospital, to more easily conduct patrols and operations in the more southern portion of their area of operations.
To facilitate U.S. base construction projects Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) has launched the Maintenance, Repair and Operations Uzbekistan Virtual Storefront website. From a facility located in Termez, Uzbekistan, cement, concrete, fencing, roofing, rope, sand, steel, gutters, pipe, and other construction material manufactured in countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan can be rushed to nearby Afghanistan to accelerate base-building efforts. “Having the products closer to the fight will make it easier for war-fighters by reducing logistics response and delivery time," Chet Evanitsky, the DLA’s construction and equipment supply chain division chief told the media.
While most of these bases are small, and abandoned as the troops get yanked out to assemble at larger bases, Rowan Scarborough, in his article, U.S. Adds Eight Bases in Afghanistan, with the Human Events published on Jan 7, 2009, said the U.S. Army is building eight major operating bases in southern Afghanistan in an expansion that underscores a new, larger troop commitment to try to defeat the stubborn Taliban insurgency. The planned network of new bases shows the degree to which U.S. commanders will step up operations to hunt down bands of Taliban insurgents from multiple staging points as part of the Iraq-style troop surge.
Scarborough said two defense sources told Human Events the company will build eight of the largest Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) in Afghanistan in the Kandahar area and other southern Afghanistan locations. This area is the birthplace of the radical Taliban movement that seized control of the country in the 1990s and was ousted from power by the U.S. in 2001. "The earlier bases were meant to hold hundreds. These will house thousands," one source said. FOBs are typically comprised of prefabricated buildings for dining, barracks, headquarters, recreation and training.
While Operation Moshtarak, which followed bombarding the western population with a propaganda campaign of the “Taliban” takeover of southern Afghanistan and their cooperation with the opium traffickers of Helmand province, is a recent event, the plan to set up permanent large bases in Afghanistan was set in place years before. On Mar 30, 2005, Asia Times article, U.S. scatters bases to control Eurasia, pointed out that Washington had decided to set up nine new bases in Afghanistan in the provinces of Helmand, Herat, Nimrouz, Balkh, Khost and Paktia. Provinces of Helmand, Herat and Nimrouz are close to Iran’s northern borders.
The article noted US Army spokesman Major Mark McCann saying the United States was building four military bases in Afghanistan that would only be used by the Afghan National Army. On that occasion, McCann stated, "We are building a base in Herat. It is true." At the time, the US had three large operational bases inside Afghanistan; the main logistical center for the US-led coalition in Afghanistan was Bagram Air Field north of Kabul - known by US military forces as BAF. Other key US-run logistical centers in Afghanistan include Kandahar Air Field, or KAF, in southern Afghanistan and Shindand Air Field in the western province of Herat. Shindand is about 100 kilometers from the border with Iran, a location that makes it controversial.
The proximity of Shindand to Iran is cause for concern of Tehran, says Paul Beaver, an independent defense analyst based in London. Beaver pointed out that with US ships in the Persian Gulf and Shindand sitting next to Iran, Tehran has a reason to claim that Washington is in the process of encircling Iran.
At the time, the top U.S. military officer, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Richard Myers told reporters in Kabul the Department of Defense was studying the possibility of setting up permanent U.S. bases in Afghanistan. He said: "At this point we are in discussions with the Afghan government in terms of our long-term relationship, remembering that for the moment, the coalition has work to do here, the United States has work to do here, and that is where our focus is right now."
Retired Pakistani Lieutenant General Talat Masood, responding to Gen. Myers’ statement pointed out then that while Pakistan will not be upset about this, but Iran, Afghanistan's neighbor to the west, would be upset. Iran sees the United States as one of its enemies, and President Bush has criticized it as being part of an "axis of evil." General Masood said a U.S. decision to keep bases in Afghanistan could be partly out of a desire to contain Iran and monitor its forces. He says the United States also wants to keep as many bases near the Middle East as possible to ensure stability in the region, which has vital petroleum reserves.
That was in 2005 and things have much further forward in 2010. It is safe to say that with 35,000 foreign troops in southern Afghanistan, and more small and large military bases in place, the process to encircle Iran has advanced a few more notches.