Offensive in Marjah a Turning Point in the War?
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
**Comments courtesy of the Economist**