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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Don't Panic!: What happened to the planned U.S. offensive in Kandahar?

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Maybe I’m just an old fuddy duddy, but back when I was coming up, surprise was considered an essential element of successful warfare.

In fact, I can still recall that glorious day when I learned about the importance of surprise in war. It was 1832 and, just for fun, I downloaded the great Prussian military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz’s then-newly published “On War” to my Kindle. We didn’t have TV then, so we read German books for fun.

Anyway, it’s right there in Book Six, Chapter Three. That’s where Clausewitz lists “surprise” as one of the main factors of strategic success in warfare. In case you’re curious, the other five elements are terrain, strength of forces, popular support, morals, and an uplifting, jingoistic tune, preferably by Lee Greenwood.

Why the heck should you care what an old, dead German dude thinks of war? Well, before they were only good at cars and spicy mustard, Germans were also awesome at war. In fact, Clausewitz is probably the most influential western military thinker of the past 200 years after Edwin Starr. Though the modern battlefield would be almost unrecognizable to Clausewitz, his strategic principles still enhance our knowledge of how wars work.

To understand the importance of surprise, consider three of the most pivotal battles of the 20th century. Would Nazi Germany have so quickly trounced the French if Hitler had broadcast six months ahead of time that he was sending his blitzkrieg around French defensive fortresses? Of course not.

Would the German army have stranded itself in Russia during the winter of 1941-1942 if Stalin had distributed leaflets announcing he had massive reinforcements waiting to pounce once the Germans got close to Moscow? Nyet.

And would the D-Day invasion France of have been successful if General Eisenhower had made hotel reservations on the beaches his forces landed on?

Ha! Trick question! There weren’t enough hotel rooms in Normandy in 1944 for 160,000 allied troops.

I mention all this because a) this column always begins with a long, weird intro b) because for a long while I’ve been puzzled by the plenty-talked-about-but-hasn’t-yet happened battle of Kandahar.

The Kandahar offensive is the planned climax of the Obama escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Kandahar and the countryside surrounding it are the so-called Taliban heartland. If the U.S. is to begin a hoped-for (and Obama-promised) drawdown of U.S. troops next year, it’d be mightly swell if we could first loosen the Taliban’s grip on Kandahar.

The offensive has been publicly talked about in vague terms since last year, and in more specific terms since March — when several news outlets said the offensive would begin in June 2010.

But doesn’t announcing the offensive ahead of time give the Taliban time to prepare? Of course. But also, so what.

The Taliban can’t actually beat the U.S. and its NATO allies on the battlefield, no matter how much of a heads-up they get. In reality, the Kandahar offensive is a political battle. To win, the U.S. and Afghanistan’s central government need to convince the area’s residents they’re better off if they side with the U.S. during the battle and its aftermath.

To that end, the U.S.’s top man in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, met with 1,000 local tribal leaders in Kandahar in April to sell them on the planned offensive. But the locals refused to bless the offensive. They’re worry (correctly) the Afghan central government is just as nasty and corrupt as the Taliban. They also worry (just as correctly) that siding with the U.S. will make them targets for assassination by Taliban militants.

McChrystal says the battle won’t start until he gets the local okay. He’s now scrambling to put together a compelling development and security package (government offices, schools, police, troopss etc.) that he can immediately deploy into areas U.S. forces capture from the Taliban. Until and unless local leaders are convinced McChrystal’s “government in a box” plan is workable, the Kandahar offensive might remain the Godot of U.S. military operations — much talked about, but never seen.

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