Thursday’s operation by 4,000 US marines in southern Helmand marks the start of a critical new phase in America’s Afghan strategy. For years, western leaders have feared that Nato is losing the fight against the Taliban, that the US-led operation is under-resourced, that President Hamid Karzai’s government is too weak. Now, hopefully, things are about to change. Barack Obama began as president making clear he wanted to devote more resources to Afghanistan, despatching 21,000 extra US troops to the country. In southern Helmand on Thursday, those troops began the fightback.
The Obama administration is right to have begun this full frontal assault on the Taliban’s strongholds. Of course, as Mr Obama recognises, many of Afghanistan’s problems can only be solved by action outside the military sphere. The security of the region depends on stability in Pakistan as much, if not more, than Afghanistan. Success in Afghanistan also depends on boosting civilian and humanitarian assistance from the west.
But the administration also knows that no progress can be made on any front unless there is first a major improvement in the security situation on the ground – above all in the Taliban’s southern heartland. If the Afghan people are to back the country’s civil institutions, they must see clear evidence that the core Taliban is either being eliminated or won round. The uneasy stalemate that has reigned for so long in Helmand between British troops and Taliban insurgents is simply not good enough.
Thursday’s action is only a start. There are big challenges ahead. US public opinion must accept that this more proactive phase of the war may bring a sharp increase in American casualties. The fight to evict the Taliban from its sanctuaries will be bloody. Once the Taliban are evicted, the task of securing communities against roadside and suicide bombs will be tough, as the British know to their cost.
The biggest challenge, however, will be to convince Afghans that progress will be sustained. Two things are critical. There must be many more members of the Afghan National Army on the ground, taking the lead on security issues. In Helmand, there are still far too few ANA in evidence. The US must also make clear that it has the determination to stay the course. Mr Obama says he wants to see visible progress in Afghanistan one year from now. But in all truth, it will take more than a year to turn Afghanistan round.
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