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February 10, 2010

The Contradictions of Marjah - pt.2
Posted by Michael Cohen

As DA readers are no doubt aware, the US counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan is focused, above all else, on protecting the lives of Afghan civilians and providing them with security. The people are the center of gravity we are told. In fact, General McChrystal has put in place rules of engagement in Afghanistan that restrict the use of airstrikes in order to limit civilian deaths and McChrystal has made clear that if protecting civilians means letting enemy fighter escape - then so be it.

Clearly that's why the US and ISAF has for several weeks now been telling civilian to get out of the town of Marjah before they attack it. And tens of thousands have fled their homes and many others are trapped in the town. 

Forgive me for asking, though, if the goal was to protect civilians . . . shouldn't we not be attacking Marjah in the first place?  Take a look at how some of this is playing out on the ground. According to Nasima Niazi, an MP for Helmand:

“We do not have the facilities to cope with war. The plans are good, but the civilians are farmers and we cannot keep their lives safe or protect their agriculture and fields, and we cannot care for the refugees or those who stay inside Marjah.”

Beyond that the article notes that "Hundreds of refugees from southern Afghanistan already inhabit a squalid camp on the outskirts of Kabul. They often accuse both the Taliban and foreign troops of showing little regard for civilian life and complain that nothing has been done to improve their miserable living conditions."

And here are the calming words of the spokesman for Helmand's governor

Speaking via telephone, Daoud Ahmadi acknowledged that civilians could suffer in the short-term. “It’s a war, and war is war,” he said. However, he added that those fleeing Operation Moshtarak would be offered adequate temporary shelter and would benefit in the long run.“We will have some fighting, but we will bring opportunities and chances to the people of Marjah with our reconstruction programs.”

So you see, we have to destroy Marjah to save it. 

But there's more; this according to the AP:

The U.S. goal is to quickly retake control of Marjah, a farming community and major opium-production center, from Taliban forces. That would enable the Afghan government to re-establish a presence, bringing security, electricity, clean water and other public services to the estimated 80,000 inhabitants.

Over time, American commanders believe such services will undermine the appeal of the Taliban among their fellow Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in the country and the base of the insurgents' support.

Calling his hometown of Marjah a "ghost village," resident Mohammad Hakim said he tried to leave with his family this week before the military offensive began but he was stopped by a group of 30 to 40 Taliban fighters who were patrolling the area.

"I already packed. My family was ready. It was difficult to find a car but I got one," he said in a phone interview. "But the Taliban stopped me and told me not to come out because they had already planted mines on the road. 'It's safer for you to stay in your houses.'"

Does any of this make sense? How will "supplying services" undermine the appeal of the Taliban when American forces are forcing Afghan civilians to leave their home and bringing violence to a town that is today relatively peaceful.  Add that to the fact that the Taliban have, according to this report, trapped much of the population in a war zone marked by "belts of improvised bombs, which have rendered the road network impassable."  This is not to mention the fact that there is precious little evidence to suggest that the Afghan government is up to the task of supplying services to Marjah or anywhere else in Southern Afghanistan.

Look, if the US believes that it must attack Marjah to undermine the Taliban in Helmand that's one thing; but the notion that we are doing this to "protect civilians" is a completely bizarre.  How is what we are doing not, in the near term, driving more Afghans into the Taliban's arms? We're causing civilians in Marjah untold suffering . . . in the name of protecting them from the Taliban. This is nothing more than an absolute contradiction of our declared mission in Afghanistan.


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I heard that ten of thousands of Afghan civilians are abandoning an area of central Helmland where UK and US forces are set to launch one of the biggest operations of the year. The evacuation of most civilians from the town of Marjah and surrounding areas will give commanders greater leeway to use mortars-and-air-to ground missiles which have enraged Afghans in the past when responsible for civilian deaths....

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