Even more than the combat under way in strategic Helmand province, what comes after this first major battle of President Barack Obama‘s Afghanistan surge will test his strategy to blunt the Taliban and begin to withdraw U.S. forces next year.
There are questions about whether meaningful numbers of Taliban fighters can be scared off by U.S. firepower or bought off in a future amnesty outreach. U.S. Marines are meeting stubborn resistance and slower going than some expected in the early days of the offensive around the rich farming district of Marjah, although it is too soon to say whether the Taliban intend to mount a prolonged battle.
Ambitious plans to install a responsible local government once the fighting stops raise questions about how long the Americans intend to stay. On its face, the campaign to make Marjah independent and strong enough to resist the Taliban commits the United States and other countries to a lengthy stay in a bad neighborhood.
Obama has promised to begin bringing U.S. forces home in July of next year. He has set no deadline for ending the war outright, but military analysts assume U.S. forces will have to remain in volatile southern Afghanistan far beyond that initial drawdown.
A longtime hotbed of Taliban activity, Marjah is likely to be dominated by thousands of U.S. and Afghan forces in the short term. The U.S. military plans to remain for as long as it takes to make sure the Taliban cannot return, and commanders have set no deadlines either for the duration of the fighting or the duration of the holding operation that will follow.
Experts say that the next couple of months should reveal whether the operation worked.
“The center of gravity is the Afghan people,” said Richard “Ozzie” Nelson, a former White House counterterrorism expert now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The Afghan government has to maintain security and operate on its own,” Nelson said. “But the Afghan people have to accept the government” and reject the Taliban.
In a bid to try to win over the local population, U.S. officials waited to launch Saturday’s operation until they had explicit permission from the Afghan government and were able to storm the town with significant numbers of Afghan forces. About 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops are taking part in the big offensive around Marjah.
Military officials say they are learning from past mistakes. The offensive is designed with an “Afghan face,” meaning more and better trained Afghan soldiers and a reserve of some 2,000 trained Afghan police slated to take the lead in policing the town after shooting subsides.
Economic development will quickly follow, with military and civilian workers striving to “show a better way of life” to the town’s inhabitants, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday.
Gibbs said the operation “demonstrates the security forces of Afghanistan in the lead, working with others as partners to make progress against the Taliban.”
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, says he is ready to unwrap an Afghan “government in a box” to take over in Marjah after the Taliban are expelled as a fighting force. Police, courts and local services are at the top of the to-do list.
It’s all part of the counterinsurgency theory Obama has adopted that says if people feel safe and fairly treated, they will reject the insurgents who oppress them while also providing services the ostensibly legitimate government cannot.
Implicit in the Marjah strategy is the assumption that the Taliban cannot be defeated in a military sense, only marginalized and hollowed out. It also depends on a steady flow on international aid and development expertise that has been promised but over which the Obama administration does not hold full control.
For McChrystal, Obama’s hand-picked commander, the Marjah offensive is the first large operation planned and run under his command and with his changes to military rules of engagement and mindset in place. For example, he has forbidden certain kinds of assaults on occupied dwellings that would make the Marjah offensive easier in the short run but raise the likelihood of civilian casualties and thus the likelihood of losing the support of the local population.
“What’s important about this operation is that it is the first major operation in which we will demonstrate, I think successfully, that the new elements of the strategy” will work, White House national security adviser James Jones said on “Fox News Sunday.” Jones, a retired Marine general, listed economic reform and good local governance in the same breath with the security bought with military might.
“That’s where I get really skeptical,” said Georgetown University professor C. Christine Fair, a former U.N. official in Afghanistan.
“I don’t know where they found 2,000 Afghan police who are competent” to lead security for such a large and strategic place, Fair said, and she doubts the U.S. assertion that most Taliban foot soldiers are motivated by money or expediency instead of ideology.
“Where is the data coming from to support that optimism?” she asked.
A Taliban spokesman claimed Tuesday that insurgents retain control of the town and that coalition forces who “descended from helicopters in limited areas of Marjah” were now under siege.
Spokesman Tariq Ghazniwal extended an invitation by e-mail to foreign journalists to visit Marjah, saying the trip would “show who have the upper hand in the area.”
Anne Gearan has covered national security affairs for The Associated Press since 2004. Anne Flaherty has covered military affairs for the AP since 2006.