Illustration (Wikipedia Commons): almond, uncracked (left) and cracked (right)
The title serves one very basic function: to move away from any play on words referring to hell, in connection with Helmand. This is the first step towards moving away from a narrative that I do see spreading myself as well: that the additional U.S. troops moving in to Helmand are supposedly there to take over from the non-Americans (in general) who proved to be incapable of handling the situation and are not really good at either COIN or even at shooting (back) at the enemy. That is a fundamental misconception, and if you wish to study the British counterinsurgency effort thus far, you should not try to work around Theo Farrell and Stuart Gordon's COIN Machine: The British military in Afghanistan. The link I am providing does not take you to the text proper: that can only be accessed (for credits) if you are registered with RUSI as a user.
COIN Machine is concise and comprehensive reading. Theo Farrell needs not being introduced to those familiar with Strategic and Security Studies, while Stuart Gordon, Senior Lecturer at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, was one of the authors of the Helmand Road Map (the current British strategy in the province).
Firstly, the authors argue the obvious: that U.S. soldiers are not moving into Taliban country, but into a province where British forces have already done what their resources permitted them. They also argue that British troops have done so with increasing efficiency as they gradually re-learned some of the institutionally lost knowledge about counterinsurgency; as forces came to be better equipped; as a strategic approach was at last developed in the place of the initial rather non-strategic one; and as whole-of-government cooperation, especially between the MoD and DFID, improved. This process is extensively detailed in the paper. Go get it.
I have two basic, critical comments to make regarding the following issues:
- "Eighteen months of strategic drift" (as the authors themselves put it), the almost two years while the British government tried to maintain that peace-keeping was the required task in Helmand, was not a point from which improvements to strategy can really be identified - with, let me remind you, then defence secretary John Reid publicly hoping for "no shot" being fired by British troops during their peace-support vacation in southern Afghanistan, after which almost 4 million bullets were (unsurprisingly) fired by British troops in the period between August 2006 and September 2007 alone. Such flawed, wishful thinking, staunchly maintained in the face of reality, was a point from which fundamental corrections needed to be made, for progress in this dimension to begin at all. It is with that in mind that the latter should be measured.
Another passage which I simply do not like is the one referring to Pashtun xenophobia. Such remarks should not find their way into a quality paper such as this one, and yet this occurs twice. Xenophobia is "fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign" (source of quotation). It is really not a bunch of embedded psychologists that Helmand needs for success, rather ways of addressing sources of any villagers' lack of trust in the contested (and also in the held) areas on the one hand, and addressing all cross-border sources of the troubles on the other (I know the latter takes us waaaaaaay beyond British strategy).
Otherwise, I have no more objections. And I would especially endorse the finishing passage of the paper, suggesting that the current troop levels are still only adequate rather for a counter-terrorist mission (a robust one, as opposed to the earlier light-footprint mission), than for real, actual counterinsurgency, one with any hope of a successful, textbook, clear/hold/build evolution.
"Shelling" in itself will not unshell the almond, I'm afraid.