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Military and political efforts in Afghanistan flounder as no one is in charge
NATO Launches Operation Sar-dard (سردرد،)
Thursday 15 April 2010, by
In Pashto and Dari, “Sar-dard” ﺳﺭﺩﺭﺩ means “headache.” Because the West has no unified military/civilian command in Afghanistan, the resulting chaos has given this reporter a headache. As a result he has dubbed NATO’s operations: Sar-dard.
There is a popular American movie called “The Time Bandits.” In one scene, ten generals give conflicting orders to one lowly soldier. Unable to comply with all their orders, he ignores them and does what he wants. That is the situation today in Afghanistan. No one is in overall command of Western efforts.
The United Nations Assistance Mission - Afghanistan (UNAMA) is managed by the Special Representative of the Secretary General SRSG) for Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura. He presides over an umbrella of various U.N. agencies. They operate independently of NATO.
The European Union is present in Afghanistan. Its efforts are directed by its Special Representative of the European Union for Afghanistan (EUSRA). Currently that position is being filled by Ambassador Ettore Francesco Sequi. He has his own programs and priorities.
The major donor countries constitute the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF). Its steering committee is apparently managed by Nicholas Kraft, Afghanistan Country Director for the World Bank. It pursues its own programs and projects.
The Canadians have an Ambassador in Kabul and a ROCK (Representative of Canada in Kandahar). The former is William Crosbie and the latter Ben Rowswell.
The Americans have an Ambassador in Kabul and a Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The former is Karl Eikenberry and the latter is Richard Holbrooke. They have not embraced several key NATO projects, including a plan to arm local village militias. They also do not support the planned moves to improve security in Kandahar. The Embassy has decided not to join the military in Kandahar at the present time. It will instead be opening its first consulate in Mazar-e Sharif and its second in Herat.
Next we have NATO. It has rejected the concept of a unified management team. Political authority is vested in Ambassador Mark Sedwill, who is NATO’s Special Civilian Representative in Afghanistan. Military authority is vested in General Stanley McChrystal.
General Stanley McChrystal would appear to be the undisputed western military commander in Afghanistan, but upon closer examination, that would not be true. He has limited authority over the German and Italian troops who take their orders from Berlin and Rome. The former will not aggressively patrol and the latter reportedly had been paying the Taliban not to fight them. British forces continue to suffer due to substandard armored vehicles and inadequate helicopter support, but there is nothing General McChrystal can do about any of these problems. All key decisions are made by the Ministry of Defense in London.
While British, Australian and New Zealand special forces units have long been under NATO command, American special forces units have been operating independently of General McChrystal. They have been reporting to Special Operations Command in the United States. General McChrystal also has no authority over CIA paramilitary forces within Afghanistan.
Surprisingly, General McChrystal has only nominal control over the U.S. Marines stationed in Afghanistan. By this summer, 20,000 Marines will be in the country, but the Marines have strong political support in the U.S. Congress and the Pentagon and they have been successful in having a rule adopted which permits the Marines to operate independently of the U.S. Army. As a result, the Marines do not have to join U.S. Army efforts to secure Kandahar province and city. The Marines have reportedly been given authority to operate in Helmond and Nimruz provinces where they will fight their own private war.
One example which highlights the nonsensical Marine deployment is the fact that 3,000 Marines are scheduled to move into a forward operating base near the tiny village of Delaram, which is in western Afghanistan and sits on the boundary between Farah and Nimruz provinces. This planned deployment is detailed in an article entitled: “Marines Gone Rogue” which appeared in the Washington Post on March 14, 2010. The Marines will be protecting some sand dunes and apparently seeking to intercept Iranians smuggling pistachios into Afghanistan. There is little else to do in Delaram.
The Marine deployment to Nimruz simply cannot be defended. While this area was once part of ancient Seistan and its capital Zaranj was renowned as the breadbasket of Asia, the whole province was destroyed 1,000 years ago by the Mongols and then again by Timur-e Lang (Tamerlane) in 1383 A.D. Together they smashed the incredible network of windmills, dikes and canals that used to make the desert bloom. Today, Nimruz is a province consisting of 54,000 square kilometers of desert and some farmland. It is populated by only about 120,000 people, most of whom are Baloch. Many of the rest are descendants of the ancient Sakzai.
In an attempt to justify their remote desert strategy, the Marines have told reporters that Delaram is important to the war effort because the Taliban have an “underground highway” running from the Buji Bhast Mountains through the town. This statement is reminiscent of the Vietnam War where North Vietnamese troops were using Laos as an actual highway for supplies into South Vietnam. It was dubbed the Ho Chi Minh trail. Upon closer scrutiny, there is no “underground highway” in Delaram. Some local Taliban are simply hiding supplies in the various “karez” or “kariz,” which are ancient underground irrigation tunnels. In summary, while the Taliban are attacking population centers in Kabul, Kandahar, and Khost, the American Marines are protecting a few hundred farms in a remote region of desert that has no apparent strategic value.
The Marines have recently claimed that their massive assault on the small district town of Marjah in Helmond province was a success, despite the heavy losses they suffered. Such a claim is premature at this time. Even if Marjah does turns out to be an eventual success, there is an old Afghan proverb:
“One flower does not bring spring.”
A solution to these problems may be found by going back in history sixty years. In 1950, American President Harry S. Truman, with the approval of the United Nations’ Security Council, appointed General Douglas MacArthur as the Supreme Commander of all U.N. forces in Korea. His formal title was “Commander-in-Chief of the United Nations Command.” That should be the model for Afghanistan. President Barack Obama should insist that NATO and the United Nations agree once again to a unified command. They should name General Stanley McChrystal as the Supreme Allied Commander for Afghanistan (SACA). General McChrystal needs to have authority over all foreign military, civilian, marine and special forces units in Afghanistan. He needs to be vested with authority to order NATO and American forces to undertake any operation and deploy to any location in Afghanistan as needed. He needs to have full control over the operations of the U.N., the EU, the dysfunctional U.S. Embassy and the embarrassing USAID staff.
The war in Afghanistan, at the present time, is not a success and too many metrics are moving in favor of the Taliban. The current military/civilian effort is fractured and it is unlikely to succeed within the narrow timeframe dictated by President Obama.
If President Obama truly wants to prevail in Afghanistan, he needs to support his commander in the field and provide him with the ability to order unified action. This reporter believes that there is still a chance to salvage this war. To quote another Afghan proverb:
“There is a path to the top of even the highest mountain.”
That path though is being steadily eroded and may soon disappear unless the West acts quickly to unify its efforts. Until then, it is simply a Sar-dard.