Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Americans in Helmand

Very interesting piece in the NYT today about the Marines facing a tough, imaginative foe in the Taliban in Helmand
Another example of the insurgents’ patience has been their selection of locations for hiding bombs, which the military calls I.E.D.’s, for improvised explosive devices. Many of these bombs are detonated by the weight of a person or vehicle that depresses a pressure plate.
The steppe is vast. The pressure plates are small — often covering not much more surface area than a man’s boot. To emplace the bombs where they are most likely to kill, the Taliban watch the Marines’ habits carefully, including how small units react in the first instants of a firefight
The article goes on to indicate that the US Marines are still not plentiful enough to confront the Taliban--they could take key territories but be able to hold them, so it has to wait until later this year when there are thousands of Marines to add to those already there.

For those who have not been following the Afghanistan mission closely, a couple of facts stand out:
  • As the map shows, a river runs through Helmand, making it the most agriculturally productive area of Afghanistan--so it is the heart of the poppy problem.  Much of the world's supply of heroin starts here.  Which leads to point #2:
  • Helmand has been vying with Kandahar as the most violent province in Afghanistan.
  • The British have had responsibility for Helmand since 2006, and the Americans only started to deploy there in the past year or so.  Before that, the Canadians have backed up the British on more than a few occasions.  
The article is focused on the Taliban and its capabilities, so it ignores the British entirely.  While this might be just due to the focus of this piece, it is still suggestive.  While the British have usually been seen as one of the more aggressive, forward-leaning contingents, I was very much struck last summer by an interview with a British member of parliament.  Ex-military, he would go to Helmand and stay "outside the wire."  That is, outside the base.  And he was very critical of the British effort, and I have heard others say the same. 
Still to be fair, despite having the second largest contingent in the country, the Brits probably still didn't have enough troops in the province to do clear AND hold.  Still, it does seem as if the Brits were spinning their wheels for the past several years despite/due facing a high level of casualties.

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