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Afghanistan surge: Is the 'clear, hold, build' strategy working?

The influx of U.S. troops to Afghanistan aims to 'clear' Taliban from population centers, then 'hold' them until Afghans can 'build' normal lives. The Pentagon looks to the Iraq surge for lessons.

By Gordon Lubold/ Staff Writer / May 8, 2010

A US soldier instructs a member of the Afghan National Police during target practice in Helmand Province. American military leaders want to have an Afghan face on everything they do.

Tim Wimborne/Reuters



The surge of American forces President Obama directed to Afghanistan is under way. So far, 17,000 of the 30,000 additional forces are there, bringing the US total in Afghanistan to 86,000. The rest are expected on the ground by December, for a total of 100,000.

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How have things been progressing so far, and what can be expected during the next year?

Has the surge had an impact yet?

The increase of Marine forces enabled the United States to conduct operations in the Marjah district of Helmand Province this winter, the first operation since the beginning of the surge. The Marjah offensive drove out some insurgents and tempered their influence in the area, at least somewhat.

In Afghanistan, where progress is expected to be incremental, the offensive has been seen as a success. In the wake of initial operations, markets opened, villagers returned, and some semblance of security emerged.

The next major operation is now beginning in Kandahar, arguably the second most important cultural, political, and economic city in Afghanistan after Kabul, and considered the spiritual home of the Taliban.

Those operations have begun quietly in recent weeks as more surge forces arrive.

How will the surge be different from the first eight years of the war?

The Marjah offensive offered clues. It employed some key new strategies that will be implemented by surge forces.

First, in an effort to encourage insurgents to leave, coalition forces telegraphed their intentions very publicly. It worked. For the most part, the offensive was anticlimactic. Insurgents either left or went into hiding as the US and coalition forces arrived. This points to the coalition's shift from an emphasis on killing insurgents to protecting populations.

After arriving, coalition forces essentially built a ring around the area. This contrasts with many presurge offenses, in which troops attacked and then mostly returned to their bases.

The goal of the surge is to "clear" key population centers of insurgents, then "hold" them to prevent insurgents from returning. The next step is to maintain law and order to allow Afghans to "build" normal lives. This is called a "clear, hold, build" strategy, which US forces also used in Iraq.