Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Marjah is Going Well, But Don’t Pop the Champagne Yet

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on February 18, 2010

As the battle for Marjah rages on- and as U.S. forces continue to push deeper into the Taliban bastion- I’m starting to hear signs of optimism from my friends that the war in Afghanistan is finally starting to wind down.  And I can’t really blame them for using this line of thinking.  After eight years, the Taliban insurgency is feeling the heat of the American war machine with the utmost fury.  And going by current casualty rates in the battle for Marjah, the good guys (the U.S. and NATO) are clearly on top; around 140 insurgents have been killed, compared to the coalition’s six deaths.

But as Tom Ricks and Stephen Walt say, maybe we should chill out and wait to see if the overall mission is successful.

Apart from the capture of the Taliban’s No. 2 in Pakistan (which is a remarkable achievement for U.S. and Pakistani forces), the United States really hasn’t accomplished anything in Afghanistan yet.

The fact that U.S. and NATO forces (and Afghan soldiers) are taking back the Taliban strong-hold of Marjah is not necessarily a surprising thing. This was never an issue.  In every battle the United States has waged in Afghanistan, the Taliban have either fled back into the mountains and poppy-fields or have retreated to other friendly towns. This is what a typical insurgency does…they withdraw and reorganize to fight another day.

Real success will come when the U.S. and NATO actually make good on their promises of peace and stability to the Afghan people, especially in a province as crucial as Helmand. Clearing is never a problem for the United States. In some cases, holding a city is not really an issue either. The real test comes in the building aspect of the strategy, and whether some semblance of local governance can be created. Step 1 is almost complete. Now we wait for steps 2 and 3.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Dr. Stephen Walt**


9 Responses

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  1. Janbekster said, on February 18, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    Of course, Pakistani ISI as well as that Army are collaborating in the US efforts against Taliban, however, the military doctrine of the Pakistani Army remains to be India-centric rather than Taliban-centric. Therefore, in this dimension, it is highly unlikely that the Pakistani Army will comply fully with what the US wants it to do. One would say also, the NATO success in Afghanistan will ultimately depend on, whether the NATO forces will be able to break the back of Taliban, to an extent that they would prefer to talk to the regime of Mr. Karzai rather than continue with the war. Eliminating Taliban totally as a force is really highly unlikely, and the Washington administration would by highly advised, not to consider success in terms of eliminating Taliban. I would say, stay away from “Mission Accomplished” talk in this respect.
    khairi janbek.paris/france

  2. Moonofa said, on February 18, 2010 at 6:20 pm

    1. Mistake

    Marjah is not a “city”, not even a village. As one easiliy can tell from the satellite picture in Google Maps it is a big agricultural area with some 5000 compounds strewn over the fields. Its strategic value is about nil. No important road runs through it. It is not a major center of population.

    Meanwhile Kandahar is still not under control and the ring road is still blocked by bandits and Taliban.

    2. Mistake

    The “top Pakistani Taliban commander” that captured was a top Afghan Taliban commander who was captured in Pakistan.

    3. Mistake

    The biggest problem with the police is not that they are incompetent and such, but that too often Tajik policemen are used in Pashtu areas. Same problem with the army. It has lots of Tajiks in the upper ranks and is therfore disliked by the Pashtu.

    This is a civil war in Afghanistan and the U.S. has taken the Northern Alliance/Tajik side against the Pashtu.

    That is the real issue the U.S. analysis is missing (or does not want to admit).
    Sorry Professor, usually I love your writing but please get facts straight.

    • Dan said, on February 18, 2010 at 6:20 pm

      Actually, the strategic value of Marjah is extremely high for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Marjah used to serve as a main base for the Taliban insurgency, during which they had a steady stream of recruits among the CITY’S 125,000 inhabitants. The fields surrounding the CITY were primarily used to grow the poppy used to finance the Taliban’s operations. Sure, the Taliban still have a firm grasp on Kandahar Province, but Helmand Province is just as vital to the overall U.S. strategy…weaken the Taliban enough to push them to the negotiating table.

      As far as your comment about the Afghan Army and Afghan Police, I have to question your simplicity. The fact that a vast majority of Afghan soldiers and policemen are Tajik is not the only problem. If the ASF is not incompetent (which you seem to be saying), then why is President Hamid Karzai claiming that it will take at least another ten to fifteen years before Afghanistan can firmly take control of their nation’s security? If they are as effective as you claim, then you would think that the ASF could simply fight the insurgency on their own.

      • Moonofa said, on February 18, 2010 at 6:24 pm

        please look at this Google satellite picture of Marjah, Helmand, Afghanistan:


        There are some 15, 20 compounds mostly empty on a sand plane. That is the “city” or “village” of Marjah.

        But the real Marjah is the green are south of that which can easily see when zooming out. Some 5000 plots of lands with each a compound on them and lots of canals between them.

        Assuming ten inhabitants per compound the “city” or “village” of Marjah has some 200 people while the area of Marjah has some 50,000 people.

        The U.S. soldiers down there are not fighting for the “city” of “village” of Marjah – that has been bombed before and was cleaned on the first day of the operation.

        The issue is to get a grip on all those compounds who’s inhabitants ARE the small-t taliban.

        CNN and others using “city” or “village” to describe the area are simply to dumb to correctly report on the operation.

      • anan said, on February 18, 2010 at 9:10 pm

        Umm, you might want to research the ANSF a bit:

        The ANA is 43% Pashtun with a fair number of Hazaras and Uzbeks. It is not a “Tajik” force.

        Dan, Karzai says that the international community will need to pay for the ANSF for 15 years. Actually, he might have said 15 years; but the ANSF will need to be paid for by the international community longer than that in my view.

        As far as transitioning full security responsiblity to the ANSF; that will happen a lot quicker.

        Moonofa, the ANA is genuinely popular among Southern Pashtuns.

        PS. a major ISAF offensive for Kandahar is planned soon.

        What I worry about is that so much of the ANA’s and ANP’s scarce resources are being tied up in Helmand; and soon Kandahar. The rest of Afghanistan is being sacrificed on the alter of Helmand especially; and soon on the alter of Kandahar as well.

        Helmand with 835,000 out of Afghanistan’s 33 million people is less than 3% of the population.

  3. Martinmedinc said, on February 18, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    For my education, what makes Nato killing of 12 civilians to date “accidental” and Israeli killings of civilians a war crime?

    Thank you

    • Kassandra said, on February 18, 2010 at 6:22 pm

      For your education, as distasteful as the Afganistan enterprise is, the NATO forces are not deliberately, yes deliberately shooting at schools using white phosphorous, deliberately shooting civilians holding a white flag, locking the gates on Gaza and refusing the civilians an escape route while directly bombing them, ad infinitum. And NATO does not provide their forces with religious who write books entitled “The Complete Guide to Killing Afgans” vs Rabbi Yitzhak Shapiro’s “The Complete Guide to Killing Non-Jews”, a book popular among the IDF.

  4. Tonjos said, on February 18, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    It is now clear how the Pakistani Army decided to give up Baradar — and others such as Mullah Abdul Salam, Taliban’s shadow governor in Kunduz who was captured in Faisalabad around the same time as Baradar. This turn of events is the result of the Pakistani Army calculation that Afghanistan is once again within their grasp.

    The Americans desperately want out of Afghanistan, and have been seeking a deal with the Taliban that will allow them to go home. But the Taliban have been under no real pressure to come to a settlement till now – they have been winning and they think the Americans will give up and go home soon like the Russsians did, and they only need to wait a little while more before the whole apple falls into their lap.

    The Pakistani Army’s calculation goes this way: weaken the Afghan Taliban enough to make them want to come to the negotiating table under Pakistani tutelage and protection like in the nineties; use this leverage to be in a commanding position during the negotiations that follow; and as the Americans and their allies hot-foot it from Afghanistan, start ruling Kabul by proxy once again. The only difference this time is that the Pakistani-rule-by proxy will have a greater semblance of legitimacy, with the Americans and their allies supporting the arrangement – at least as long as the Pakistanis and their protégés in Kabul deny any space for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. To put it in another way, Pakistani generals think this could be a nice protection racket to run: make Afghanistan safe for the Americans and their allies, and keep the change … err, country.

    But after such a deal, what kind of credibility will the US carry around the world, when it talks of standing up for such things as democracy and human rights? Or when it criticizes China’s record on human rights? And will this indeed protect the interests of the US? What will a theocratic, extremist Islamic country in Afghanistan mean for Muslim radicalisation in the region and around the world? In other words, what exactly is the price being negotiated now for the temporary relief that the Pakistani army is offering? Those are the questions to ask.

    • Sin Nombre said, on February 18, 2010 at 6:23 pm

      Boy do I ever think this is an intelligent post. That’s not to say it’s true (in terms of what the Paki calculations are), but it sure makes lots of sense.

      And indeed I hope it’s true in that it will allow us to get out of Afghanistan, although I’d worry about “what kind of credibility [] the US [would] carry” thereafter differently than Tonjos does. He seems to feel that if the US gets out and the Paki’s essentially take over and keeps the Taliban in check that this would be a blot on the US internationally, and to a degree it would be but it’s still us getting out of an occupation so that I think the net is a benefit for us. What I don’t like is the idea that the promoters of our Afghan occupation will be claiming victory even though it will be a false one: We won’t really have loosed liberal democracy on Afghanistan, we will have just handed it over to someone who will sit on it for us.

      Regardless, and again, what a keenly perceived thesis this is on Tonjos’ part. Wonder if he has any evidence besides the circumstantial supporting it?

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