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‘Helmand Is a Sideshow’

One of your two Afghanistan must-reads today is this amazing Yochi Dreazen/Peter Spiegel piece reporting Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s view of the war he’s conducting. There’s too much in here for just one blog post, so you really ought to read the whole thing. A major point: while McChrystal is said to be undecided over whether to request more troops, his next big operation, following the big Marine offensive in the Helmand river valley, will take place in Kandahar. Why?

“Helmand is a sideshow,” said the senior military official briefed on the analysis. “Kandahar is the capital of the south [and] that’s why they want it.”

That’s your Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment right there. We sent thousands of Marines to a sideshow? Thousands of Marines, a meager complement of civilians, and barely any Afghan capacity? For a sideshow? A place McChrystal recently called a “critical area“? The general tells Dreazen and Spiegel that Helmand was, in fact, critical to focus on first, in order to disrupt the opium trade in the province that helps bankroll the Taliban. But then how could any halfway-responsible military official come away thinking that Helmand is a sideshow?

Perhaps even more alarming is this analysis:

Some U.S. military officials believe the Taliban have taken advantage of the American preoccupation with Helmand to infiltrate Kandahar and set up shadow local governments and courts throughout the city.

I’m open to an argument that because the Taliban seeks to hold critical territory, dispersing them isn’t the failure that it may appear at first glance. (That argument, though, also holds true for the Taliban’s efforts at repelling the Afghan government’s meager efforts at sowing its roots.) But that still calls for the constant harassment that only more troops can provide and the establishment of a political and economic alternative that only the Afghan government can provide. And here’s Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an adviser to McChrystal’s 60-day review, to say the U.S. needs to send 45,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

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