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12 February 2010


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Have not we been here before? Yes, that is what you have pointed out in this post.

Charlie Wilson passed away this week. After the Russians left Afghanistan, he argued for money for schools, sheep, etc. to get the place back on its feet.

In your opinion, sir, would that have made a difference as to where we are now?


One other military force in history was obsessed with fighting "decisive battles," but they weren't given such until their adversaries decided to fight them on their own terms. That force, of course, was the Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II. Having fought and beaten them, one might think the Marines should have learned that the other side has a hand in deciding when, where, and how "decisive" battles will be...

Patrick Lang


Unless you are willing to work for generations and spend a lot of money such problems yield little to foreign interventions. The Afghans are not looking to be "improved."

They like themselves. pl


Thank you for the response.

I started laughing because I've been reading about irrigation projects from the 50s and 60s by the US in Marja.


I don't know. I'm sure the "Battle for Marjah" will be won decisevely by our guys,but from what I understand, we're only throwing a couple 1000 troops into this battle, why couldn't we have done this sooner and what are the other 178,000 troops there for?


There is zero strategic value to Marja. It is not a city, not even a town. (Any report claiming such is bogus.)

Marja was created in the 50s/60s by a U.S. development racket that left the Afghan state deep in debt.

Some 5000 dispersed compounds on two/three acres of land each and a lot of irrigation canals that will be destroyed when the Marines drive over them.

Meanwhile Kandahar is still in Taliban hands as is the road from Kandahar to Kabul. Those are strategic assets.

This whole show is laughable but, unfortunately not funny.

Adam L Silverman


I've got the USAID precursor organization's manuals from the 50s and 60s (and the 80s) for what to do in Helmand - the water project, the road network, rail lines, everything linking up to the new airport being built in Kabul. Aside from the fact that the pictures are in black and white, and the language reads like it was written by whoever wrote the copy for the WW II news reels that used to play at movies, they line up very nicely with the proposals for what is being proposed to be done in Afghanistan today. Also, if you haven't done so, read the book "Charlie Wilson's War" that the movie was adapted from. They left a lot out of the movie for the variety of usual reasons, but one of the big things that didn't make the adaption was the greasing of the armament wheels by the Reagan Administration for General Zia in Pakistan and how that is still reverberating throughout the region.

Not to sound too anti-colonial, but I want to follow on to COL (ret) Lang's remark about the fact that the Afghan's "like themselves". The question we, as Americans, should be having in our discussions about what to do in Afghanistan or Iraq or anywhere else is: 1) what can we do that is in our interest? and 2) what can we do, if it is in our interest to do something, that is in line with the best interests of Iraqis or Afghans or Haitians? and 3) How can we do whatever it is that we'll do, if we decide it is in our interest to do something, that achieves those goals while doing a minimum of damage? Just to define our or American interests - this doesn't have to be simply parochial or what's best for Americans or the US economy, it could and should mean sometimes recognizing moral obligations to assist with catastrophes like in Haiti. That said when considering these a very close and very good reading of past interventions, why and for what reasons they took place, who actually benefited, and how they were done needs to be kept in mind. Far too often development or stabilization programs make things far worse largely because I really don't think the policy makers really understand the multitude of conceptual and practical moving parts at work and can't set aside the short term interests of the constituencies clamoring for the intervention.

A good example of this, or as COL (ret) Lang emphasized about the "Afghans liking themselves" is the security force training. The mission objective is popularly presented as "we need to teach the Afghans to fight". If there's one thing that anyone and everyone who has ever encountered Afghans (in all their various socio-cultural groups) say is that the Afghans know how to fight. This then changes the dynamic. The mission end state should be (and my guess, though I have no special knowledge, that it really is): 1) Afghan military or police units trained to function as a cohesive group responsive to orders from higher and 2) Afghan military or police units oriented in their allegiance not to their individual socio-cultural groups, but rather to the Afghan state and the entire Afghan people. The issue then becomes does trying to achieve these two goals amount to us trying to change the Afghans, which is not something that will ever happen as a result of external pressure. Or at least it won't be a permanent change. If not, then its potentially doable.


Bill, the tip of the spear very thin. The number available for offensive action will always be small further limited by the need to hold and secure ground.

The other issue is the Taliban. It's unlikely that that they'll stand and fight coalition forces. The last time Taliban massed in any size was back in 06 (?) when they attempted to expel the Canadians from Kandahar.

Air support just devastated the Talibs.

Cato the Censor

How big a proportion of Afghanistan (or even just the part predominantly inhabited by Pashtuns) is 75 square miles? If there are ten or even just five thousand Taliban insurgents scattered over hundreds or even thousands of square miles of the country, what good are a few thousand Marines occupying one city and the surrounding area? It only takes one Taliban to detonate a suicide bomb and possibly take out several US servicemembers, if not a good chunk of a whole convoy. This is very discouraging, like virtually everything nowadays, it seems.

Cato the Censor

Apropos of my previous comment, see the excerpt below from Juan Cole's blog:

(Hundreds of miles to the east of Marjah, a suicide bomber wearing an Afghan police uniform wounded 5 US troops when he detonated his payload on Friday.)

Cold War Zoomie

Best of luck to them, even if the long term strategy may be flawed.


I dont know what it is about these military adventures that make me feel unamerican to be associated with them, the thought that these military interventions or invasions are part of the america i grew up admiring and being proud off as a kid rather repulse me now.


Now the marines are once again following their instinct to seek a decisive battle.

It's more than instinct. It is what they train themselves to do at Quantico. Decisive battle is the holy grail for field grade Marine officers. And you're right, they think they've won many of them in the past few decades.

I wonder tho' were there any voices of caution like we heard from USMC leaders ahead of the FIRST Fallujah fight in April 2004? Remember, until some mercenaries got themselves killed and strung up? I recall the Marines were all about working with the good folks of Fallujah to root out the insurgents making it hard on everyone.

After their repulse in April though, the November 2004 re-engagement was destined to be about revenge.

And decisiveness.


Patrick Lang


"a U.S. development racket that left the Afghan state deep in debt."

That is unfair.
nobody has ever expected that credits advanced in USAID projects will be repaid.


grae castle

Could you please explain what you mean by "decisive" - both for Fallujah and for Marja?

I may be missing you point.

Everything I've read here (and at Informed Comment) speaks of asymmetrical theatres in both countries.

Wouldn't that suggest "decisiveness" is illusion?

Thanks as always.

Patrick Lang

grae castle

The US command and government have made the offensive in the Marja district "decisive." Why? Simple. The struggle for Afghanistan is being decided in the minds of the American people.

"Assymetric warfare" will never defeat the United States, but CNN and MSNBC reporting that is focussed on the "4 phase battle for Marja" will defeat McChrystal if is perceived by the general run of Americans that it is not possible to "pacify" such a place and make the
Karzai government's writ run there. Much is being made of the increased participation of Afghan Army soldiers in this operation. What is not being said is that these men are mostly not Pushtuns like the inhabitants of the Marja District. They are mostly Tajiks, ancient rivals of the Pushtuns.

The Cronkite shift in public relations defeated us in Vietnam. BOHICA. pl

William R. Cumming

Off post but wondering PL if you saw obit of General Weyand?

Patrick Lang


"That's what they train for at Quantico." Yes, and the question should be asked why the United States maintains a separate second army devoted to that task. That second army is much larger than the whole British Army.

The marines are devoted to amphibious warfare. One must ask, what's the chance that there will ever be another big amphibious operation?

This orientation towards the amphibious mission gives the US Marine Corps an inclination towards the mind set that is supposedly needed to make frontal, opposed beach landings. It remains to be seen how well that mind set "fits" with the present world and the new marine participation in special operations. Gates has demanded that they take part in SOF. They have not been eager for the task. pl

Patrick Lang


I never knew Weyand, but my long gone doctor, Les Upton, was his physician and friend and swore he was a great man and a fine gentleman. pl


Cronkite simply expressed the recognition by the segment of society that produces tangible goods that the political/military class could, and would, spend every bit of surplus produced over the next 20 years in a futile effort to do whatever it was they think they were doing.

The Middle East will be no different. If they couldn't occupy and hold a smaller place like Vietnam they have no hope of occupying and holding Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, etc. MSNBC and/or CNN won't be the ones doing the shifting, they'll just be reacting to the shift that has already occurred.


@pl - "That is unfair.
nobody has ever expected that credits advanced in USAID projects will be repaid."

The problem wasn't USAID loans that had to be repaid.

Thanks to the incompetence and greed of the Texan company running the Helmand Valley Project (HAVA) the USAID plans/credits were not enough and left unfinished projects and other problems for the state. The king than had to take out huge foreign loans to get at least some of the problems fixed.

Additionally there were lots of screw ups. Imported wheat seed that had higher yield but was not drought resistant led to hunger.

A rising watertable from the canal projects brought salt up to the upper soil and made the land unusable.

Eventually the screw ups of the HAVA project was a reason for the communist takeover.

There are two interesting papers about this available here.

There are also two more recent papers (2007, 2009) about the more current screw ups in the anti-narcotics projects in Helmand at that link.

Patrick Lang


Yes, but without the information passed to the people by the media there would be no shift in public opinion. pl


Dr. Silverman,
Thank you for your explanation. I'll read "Charlie Wilson's War". I saw the movie the same week Benazir Bhutto was killed. That event dredged up a lot of history.


Ups - mistake

The HAVA company was from Idaho (Morrison-Knutsen Construction) not from Texas.

Russ Wagenfeld

Pat wrote: The marines are devoted to amphibious warfare. One must ask, what's the chance that there will ever be another big amphibious operation?

Between WWII and Korea the same question was being aggressively asked by budget cutters who were seeing the Marine's amphibious capability as increasingly irrelevant in the atomic age

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