Of Horns and Beaks and the Afghanistan War

NATO Afghanistan“Troops were poised to retake the most nefarious area of all, the horn of Panjwai, an area 19 miles long and 6 miles wide where the Taliban had built up a redoubt of command posts, courts and mined areas over the last four years. Afghan and American troops mounted an airborne assault into the region last weekend.”
New York Times, 10.21.10

Dial the calendar back to April 1970, and shift the scene from southern Afghanistan to South Vietnam. Then the all-important piece of turf was the “Parrot’s Beak,” a slice of Cambodia jutting into Vietnam’s Kien Tuong Province, just 40 west of Saigon. The “Beak” was the supposed dwelling place of the elusive COSVN, the headquarters of the North Vietnamese army. Take the “Beak,” said the U.S. military, and we will break the back of the insurgency.

So, following the screening of the Movie “Patton,” President Richard Nixon sent tens of thousands of U.S. and South Vietnamese Army troops (ARVN) troops into Cambodia on April 30 to turn the tide of the war against the insurgents.

But COSVN wasn’t there, nor were any North Vietnamese troops. It seems that two weeks before the attack, COSVN sent out a memo detailing the U.S. operation and pulled everyone out. What the Parrot’s Beak operation did accomplish was to further weaken the Lon Nol dictatorship in Cambodia and pave the way for a Khmer Rouge victory. It also killed a lot of Cambodian peasants, who, of course, went into the U.S. “body count” of dead insurgents for the month.

Those North Vietnamese troops did not vanish, however, they just followed Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap’s dictum of “Disperse where the enemy is strong, concentrate where the enemy is weak.” They went somewhere else. Five years later the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese took Saigon.

Jump ahead 35 years to the current U.S. and NATO offensive going in Kandahar Province, southern Afghanistan.

“We now have the initiative. We have created momentum,” says British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan and in charge of the Kandahar operation. The police chief of the local district, Hajii Niaz Muhammad added, “We broke their [the Taliban's] neck.”

But the fighting has been low key, and few weapons have been seized. A Taliban fighter told the Times, “We are not there anymore.”

Where did they go?

PUL-E-KHUMRI, Afghanistan — The Taliban’s influence in northern Afghanistan has expanded in recent months from a few hotspots to much of the region, as insurgents respond to the U.S.-led coalition’s surge in the south by seizing new ground in areas once considered secure.
Wall Street Journal, 10/18/10

In recent weeks the Taliban have been launching attacks in Badakshan, Balkh, and Samangan, formally among the most peaceful in the country. “Day by day, the Taliban are advancing into new districts,” Baghlan provincial council chief Mohammad Rasoul told the Journal. Attacks have more than doubled and the Taliban recently assassinated the governor of Kunduz Province.

Disillusionment with the government has helped fuel the insurgency.

“People don’t love the Taliban—but if they compare them to the government, they see the Taliban as the lesser evil,” Baghlan Governor Munshi Abdul Majid told the Journal.

While Gen. Carter is calling Kandahar the key to defeating the insurgency, his counterpart in Northern Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Hans-Werner Fritz, commander of NATO’s 11,000 troops in the north, sees it differently: “The northern part could become the game-changer for all of Afghanistan,” he says, because much of the fuel for the U.S. and NATO passes through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as does Kabul’s electricity.

U.S. Col. Bill Burlson, commander of the 1st Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, sums up the dilemma of the Afghan War: “In order to deny the terrain to the enemy, you’d have to have people all over Afghanistan in combat outposts. But since that would take hundreds of thousands of troops, ‘You’ve got to pick and choose where you hold.’”

And when you “pick” one place, the Taliban will “choose” another.

There is always a Parrot’s Beak, a Fish Hook—yet another “strategic” battle in the Vietnam War—a horn of Panjwai, a hill, or a valley that is the “key” to winning a war against an insurgency. But there are millions of hills and valleys and horns and beaks, and they are as meaningless in Afghanistan as they were in Vietnam and Cambodia.

All this talk about the “horn of Panjwai” would be laughable were it not for the fact that this nonsense translates into a lot of pain, death and destruction. It also tends to harden positions on both sides, making peace that more elusive.

More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches from the Edge.