Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Offensive in Marjah a Turning Point in the War?

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on February 15, 2010

Over the weekend, U.S. and NATO soldiers- backed by a large contingent of Afghan troops- conducted the biggest offensive operation against the Taliban since the start of the Afghan War nine-years ago.  To Americans, it seems hard to believe that it took close to a decade for the United States to get its act together in Afghanistan, but you know what they say…“better late than never.”

The operation- code named “Moshtarak”- is rather conventional; rid the Taliban in the Southern Afghan town of Marjah and quickly establish a semblance of government control to woo locals from the insurgency.  It’s a pretty clear-cut military campaign, a type of operation that the U.S. Military has performed many times in the past (Iraq in particular).  In fact, the invasion of Marjah in Helmand Province is a perfect illustration of President Barack Obama’s new counterinsurgency doctrine for Afghanistan as a whole; clear the area, hold the town, and build local institutions that can actually function for the people.

But as is clear in counterinsurgency, saying and doing are two completely different things.  The joint U.S./NATO offensive in Helmand Province- the primary opium producing province in the entire country- will test the limits America’s military and diplomatic talent.  Naturally, defeating the Taliban is not the primary concern.  More often than not, Taliban fighters simply retreat into the mountains or into another town in order to regroup and harass American soldiers with unconventional attacks, such as roadside bombs and sniper-fire.  This is the easy part for the United States.

The hard part will come after the fight, when American, NATO, and Afghan troops will have to explain their intent to the local population.  Are foreign troops here for the long-haul, or are they simply trying to eliminate a deadly insurgency for the sake of the Afghan people?  Is there a hidden motive involved?  These are the kinds of questions that must be answered to the fullest extent, particularly if the coalition is intent on gaining the trust of Afghan tribes and realigning them away from Taliban influence.

Of course, this is a difficult task on its own.  In Helmand Province, where a majority of the population shares the same ethnicity as the Taliban Movement, the task becomes even harder.  But hard is not impossible.  People can be won over if promises are kept.  Creating stable governance for the citizens of Marjah, promoting jobs for the working-class and introducing education for the up-and-coming generation are the ultimate keys for success.  The United States and their NATO allies already understand this.  But again, whether it can be fully implemented is up for debate.  After all, the United States, Great Britain, France, and Germany have not necessarily backed their words of hope with action in the past.

The offensive in Marjah is only the beginning of a long journey towards reestablishing Afghan Government control across the country.  In a nation as diverse and fragmented as Afghanistan, stabilizing the entire area and governing from a single power-center is not entirely possible. Tribes and warlords in the south and east may always exert authority over certain towns and villages.  But this is precisely why the United States must pick its fights.  Starting with Marjah, a city of 125,000 in a volatile district, is a good start.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of the Economist**


4 Responses

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  1. Winchester73 said, on February 15, 2010 at 10:09 pm

    I have no problem with General McChrystal’s strategy. It’s the strategy blindspot the next level up. Why is he being asked to fight the losing War on Drugs in addition to the war against the Taliban? Create a legitimate market for opium. Cut off the Taliban’s revenue stream. If you’re going to chase them around, out “exit corridors,” make it cost them more.

    Even if we just used the opium for legal opiate-family pharmaceuticals that are made synthetically now, it would be a hell of a lot better than the unneccessary drug war we’re fighting now. Do we want to take casualities for this?

  2. anan said, on February 16, 2010 at 3:12 am

    Daniel R. DePetris, this is the largest ANA offensive since 2001. You should write about them too.

    The ANA now has 28 or more combat companies in Helmand province, including Canadian mentored 1-205 units from Kandahar, probably Turkish mentored 1-1-111 from Kabul, 1-3-201 from near Kabul/Kapisha, 4 combat battalions from BG Ghori’s and Col. Sharin’s 3-205 ANA (now being converted to 215 ANA Corps) and many new combat ANA companies straight out of 5 weeks regional unit fielding.

    The ANA is now graduating 1400 from its regional field setting training centers a week. [5 regional centers, each of which train 1400 per class for 5 weeks each.] Their privates come straight out of 8 weeks boot camp.

    Note that 1400 a week means at least 5 overstrenght combat companies being formed a week. This is in addition to adding soldiers to existing unit structure as part of the effort to reach Assigned/Authorized = 117%.

    You might be interested in an Afghan perspective on Operation Moshtrak:

    • Dan said, on February 16, 2010 at 4:16 am

      This is definitely a great point. It is true that the ANA is participating in the Marjah offensive. In fact, I heard something from a news source earlier in the day (I don’t exactly remember which one) reporting that around half of the soldiers currently in the fight are Afghan. If this is indeed true, this would be a remarkable victory for Afghanistan’s armed-forces in general and President Hamid Karzai in particular.

      The test is not whether the Afghans can fight with courage and fortitude (they have demonstrated this against the Soviets in the 1980’s). Rather, the test for the ANA is whether they can withhold from deserting the army or police force when the mission gets tough. The fact that approximately 25 percent of Afghan soldiers and policemen quit after a relatively short-period of time is not necessarily a good figure in this regard.

  3. anan said, on February 16, 2010 at 6:16 am

    “The fact that approximately 25 percent of Afghan soldiers and policemen quit after a relatively short-period of time is not necessarily a good figure in this regard.”

    The 25% number is misleading for several reasons:
    1) you are lumping the ANA with the ANP
    2) ANP takes more than 10% casualties a year
    2a) in 2009, ANP lost 2120 dead in the first 11 months of 2009 alone, not to mention the wounded.

    Excluding the casualties, the ANA and ANP have remarkably low attrition rates. To take the ANA:

    5% AWOL rate + 5% casualty rate + 66% reenlistment rate after each 3 year term = 22% leaving the ANA per year.

    The ANP has serious challenges:
    The ANP is 4 to 5 years behind the ANA. ANP only had 3,000 trained in early 2008; and still has only 20,000 trained ANP.

    However, I would defend the ANA’s performance.

    “Rather, the test for the ANA is whether they can withhold from deserting the army or police force when the mission gets tough.” Why does this concern you?

    Notice that 203 ANA Corps in Loya Paktia has the lowest AWOL rate in the ANA. It has a tough battlespace along the Pakistani border where it fights the most capable Taliban units (Haqqani, Lashkar e Taiba and other Punjabi Taliban, Hakimullah’s TTP.)

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