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February 09, 2010

The Contradictions of Marjah - UPDATED
Posted by Michael Cohen

So have you heard about this big Marine offensive in Marjah? Of course you have, because the US military and ISAF practically can't stop talking about it! 

Why you might ask is the military taking away any element of surprise in attacking a major Taliban stronghold; because we want to spare the lives of Afghan civilians.  In fact, according to smooth-talking Stanley McChrystal the element of surprise really isn't as important "as letting Marjah's estimated 80,000 residents know that an Afghan government is on its way to replace Taliban overlords and drug traffickers."

Of course, for this to work one needs an Afghan government to actually come in and replace the Taliban. But is seems worth remembering the last big Helmand offensive - a mere six months ago - and the words of the Afghan governor there:

“I don’t get any support from the government,” said the governor, Massoud Ahmad Rassouli Balouch. Governor Massoud has no body of advisers to help run the area, no doctors to provide health care, no teachers, no professionals to do much of anything. About all he says he does have are police officers who steal and a small group of Afghan soldiers who say they are here for “vacation.”

The Afghan government has been unable to provide sufficient security, justice, and basic services to the people. Although the capacity and integrity of some Afghan institutions have improved and the number of competent officials has grown, this progress has been insufficient to counter the issues that undermine legitimacy.

. . . There is little connection between the central government and the local populations, particularly in rural areas. The top-down approach to developing government capacity has failed to provide services that reach local communities. GIRoA has not developed the means to collect revenue and distribute resources. Sub-national officials vary in competency and capability and most provincial and district governments are seriously undermanned and under-resourced.

What has changed in the past six months to make anyone believe that these issues won't be serious problems in Marjah and that the Afghan Army and government is able to support the "build" and "hold" elements of a counter-insurgency effort in Helmand Province?  This is contradiction #1. (Perhaps instead of wasting time with breathless reports of how the US military is doing in clearing Marjah reporters might want to come back in 6 months or a year or 18 months and see how the "hold" and "build" part is going.) 

Over at the Danger Room, Noah Schachtman isolates contradiction # 2. After weeks of telling residents to leave Marjah, the message from NATO headquarters is now "Please, please, pretty please don't leave the warzone." Hmm. I would note a further contradiction (#3); we're telling the residents of Marjah that the US has come to bring security and stability at the same time that we are telling them to get the hell out of Dodge. I wonder if the Afghan citizens of Marjah are perhaps getting a mixed message. As Josh Foust notes, "it doesn't seem the Coalition cares much about how its activities hurt and terrify the Afghans. Only the Taliban's intimidation matters. That doesn't strike me as a very sustainable way of designing operations." Clearly Josh is confused here; when America intimidates it's for the greater good.

But for all the talk about civilian casualties; what about the Taliban? Here we have contradiction #4. The Taliban appear to have adopted a military strategy that - wisely - avoids, at all costs, direct combat operations with American troops and focuses instead on ambushes, IED attacks etc. Yet here we have a military operation that plays directly into the Taliban's hands; gives them fair warning to avoid engaging with US troops and provides them ample opportunity to lay tons of IEDS and set ambushes against US troops.

Of course, overarching this entire offensive is contradiction #5; waging a major military offensive without sufficient support from the Afghan government in a densely populated province directly contradicts the President's guidance that no troops should be sent into places that cannot potentially be handed over to the Afghan security services by June 2011.

UPDATE: Over at the Af/Pak Channel, Norine MacDonald makes another smart point about the strategic incoherence of the Marjah operation
Although the political decision to provide advance warning of Operation Moshtarak has allowed civilians to leave the conflict zone, steps to resettle these people temporarily are nonexistent. Thousands of Afghans are fleeing to Lashkar Gah and the ungoverned refugee camp outside it. This camp does not have sufficient food, medical supplies, or accommodations for the families who have already fled there -- a shocking state of affairs which has persisted since March 2006 -- and is already far beyond any original holding capacity, full of unemployed and angry men unable to provide for their families. Creating a situation which will lead to thousands more to take refuge at this camp is not only disastrous from a humanitarian point of view; it is a very poorly conceived plan from a counter-insurgency viewpoint.

How a mission oriented around convincing Afghans that ISAF and their government will guarantee security  - and has pushed Afghans to leave Marjah before escalation - could ignore the issue of temporary refugee resettlement is truly beyond me. 


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Success in Marjah, however, will not be judged on who wins the battle. Late in the day, military commanders have accepted that the solution to the eight-year war will be political, not military....

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