Here's some interesting reading about Helmand today, and my brief notes regarding the things I would highlight.
First off I shall link to Michael Yon's dispatch from Sangin, Helmand - a post that is in general very informative about British operations there. Nothing too unfamiliar brought up there - but more discussion of the enormous challenge southern Afghanistan's socio-spatial evolution holds for anyone looking to centralise social control there, with all the walls of fortress-like compounds around ("if the people spent as much time building roads as they do building walls, this place would have more roads than California," Yon notes at one point); and more discussion of the IED threat. Regarding the latter, here is an excerpt revealing the extent of the collateral damage caused by the insurgents.
"Word came that a local person was pulling parts from one of the vehicles that were dragged off Pharmacy Road. He encountered a Taliban booby-trap and he was killed. EOD had not cleared the vehicles of booby-traps; the two vehicles had merely been pulled off the road. Next day another local was killed on a parallel road that he thought the British had cleared. It had not been cleared. The Taliban blows up a lot of local people in Sangin."
Secondly then, I want to refer to Stephen Grey's good overview of the situation in Helmand, from Prospect magazine, which can also be read as an update to Grey's excellent book about Operation Snakebite (which I have mentioned in a post before). Some of his conclusions are very-well formulated, and I want to include them here.
"A lesson of Helmand that seems to have gone unlearned is that it is often better to do less than to risk interventions that stir up, rather than snuff out, conflict. In great swathes of the country Nato and the Afghan government may just have to accept an accommodation with hostile forces: not a truce or a climbdown but a recognition that western intervention has limited value. Not all enemies can be dealt with at once. If a notoriously bad man runs a village, valley or region but poses a limited threat to anyone outside, then leave him be, for now at least. Forget dreams of imposing “governance” on the entire nation."
This is relevant, for example, with regards to evaluating what the elections meant in Afghanistan in general. Being surprised about the little details of how they went amounts to an admission of being ignorant about Afghanistan. (Which is not to say "Afghans" don't know any better. Of course they do. The question here is what is realistically possible.)
Another thing I would remark, and to a degree this is debating what Grey says: he contradicts himself in the above passage, as earlier on he himself claimed that one has to take a more consistently confrontative stance on the issue of the drugs trade (i.e. the key agro-industrial sector of the local economy). To be less certain about these things, just look at what the south of Afghanistan looks like since people like Jan Mohammed Khan, Gul Agha Shirzai, Sher Mohammed Akhundzada and Haji Bashir Noorzai were either removed from earlier positions, or, like Bashir, removed from the picture altogether. JMK, GAS, SMA - they all alienated a lot of people with their nepotism, for sure. And as to HBN, he was very likely playing a double game of dealing both with the Pentagon and mullah Omar. Yet weakening their influence in the south apparently didn't bring great benefits. Of course it is not too easy to judge the exact impact of their departure. For that, one would need to be able to know counterfactuals as well. Like, what if the old Karzai-nurtured, post-2001 southern elite would have remained untouched and ISAF's Stage-3 expansion would not have occurred. If U.S. counterterrorist operations would have been more careful. If Pakistan's policy would have been/would be different. If the Kashmiri earthquake would not have happened in 2005, opening up a critical gap in Waziristan. Or if Iraq would not have ceased to be such a permissive area of operations for al-Qaida. And so on. Let it be the point that there are difficult questions to answer, and one cannot totally break free of moral considerations (some misplaced, some important) in the name of pragmatism and policy efficiency. And probably there wouldn't have been a perfect solution in any case, anyway.
For now, this one of Grey's conclusions is very important to keep in mind:
"...all of these dreamed-of reinforcements would never be enough to garrison all the areas of rebellion, never mind the whole country. Unlike in Iraq, we have reinforced before we know how to win."
Building up a robust albeit still insufficient force against all that looks like enemy in Afghanistan, without the resources to commit to real population-centric counterinsurgency, and without the means to address what is going on across the border in Pakistan really effectively, the perverse arithmetics dynamic appears to apply.
Grey, for his part, refers to sources within British intelligence who estimate that "after three years of battles, which the Taliban were always said to lose, British intelligence estimated that the number of active Taliban fighters had actually doubled in the province." The new COMISAF COIN guidelines try to address this as well - rather inappropriately (IMO) identifying family ties as about the key and only reason why this dynamic can be observed, apparently believing that one dead Afghan insurgent only makes more because Afghans are like these revenge-making machines in its view.
On the other hand, one should not develop learned helplessness. Pick battles more carefully and see if the math works against you to the same extent. Or if it does, at all. That's what Grey suggests in the end as well.
As to strategy, I will again have up here a post with some truly basic remarks about teh strategy, in a couple of days. No shit, I will.