National Security Network

Maintaining Focus on Strategy is the Real Challenge in Marja

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Report 3 March 2010

Afghanistan Afghanistan military


After more than two weeks of operations, the military offensive in Marja has begun to wind down.  The coalition of American, international and Afghan forces appears to have succeeded in its initial goal of seizing territory from the Taliban, a first step in the larger effort to constrain the insurgency's movement and limit its effectiveness.  At the same time, the first phase of the operation has introduced and exposed new challenges, including significant civilian displacement and humanitarian issues as well as problems with the professionalism of Afghan security forces. 

The real test of the Obama administration's new strategy for Afghanistan is whether the Afghan government and international forces can continue to deny territory to the insurgency after the fighting stops.  As Afghanistan expert and military intelligence analyst Joshua Foust observed in an op-ed in today's New York Times, achieving that objective rests not on military action, but on sustained attention to the issue of governance.  For the U.S. to bring the mission in Afghanistan to a successful close, it is critical that the administration follow through on its commitments, maintaining focus on its core goals and resisting the calls for limitless military engagement that America's extremist enemies are happy to promote.

As first stage of Marja offensive winds down, it is time to take stock of both progress and setbacks.  A recent piece in STRATFOR lays out NATO-ISAF's rationale behind the Marja offensive.  Describing Marja as a "critical node" in the Taliban's operations, STRATFOR's authors explain that "denying the Taliban control of poppy farming communities like Marjah and the key population centers along the Helmand River Valley - and areas like them around the country - is the first goal of the American strategy." 

So far the military phase of the offensive has enjoyed initial success while exposing long-term concerns.  The coalition and Afghan forces involved in the offensive seized the initiative quickly.  Al- Jazeera English reported that after a week of fighting, "Afghan sources said the [gun] firing had died down."  By February 27th, "Marines and Afghan troops fighting in the center of Marja had connected with American soldiers clearing the town's last major pocket of resistance."  As the Washington Post reported yesterday, the Afghan flag now flies over the town center.  Brigadier General Lawrence D. Nicholson told General McCrystal that "There has not been a shot fired in Marja for seven days," reported the Post.

At the same time, there are indications that the initial phase of the operation had exposed or introduced several challenges.  The UN's IRIN news service reported that "over 4,000 families were displaced by a major anti-Taliban offensive by NATO and Afghan forces which began on 13 February, according to the provincial authorities."  While some families have begun to return home, conditions remain difficult due to lagging relief efforts and lingering insecurity, particularly due to IEDs left behind by the insurgents. 

Questions also remain about the efficacy of the Afghan security forces, who were expected to play a key role in the offensive.  According to a report in the New York Times, 8 days of observations by two Times' journalists "suggest that the day when the Afghan Army will be well led and able to perform complex operations independently, rather than merely assist American missions, remains far off." 

Additionally, the Post points out that "whether the Taliban has fled or just chosen to stop fighting remains an open question."  In the past, the insurgents have melted away in the face of superior numbers, only to return once the fighting had subsided.  As the authors of the piece in STRATFOR observed, "The bottom line is that this battle does not mark the turning of the tide of the war."  [STRATFOR, 2/16/10. Al - Jazeera English, 2/21/10. Washington Post, 3/02/10. IRIN, 3/02/10. NY Times 2/20/10]

In Marja, instituting good governance in the wake of the military phase of the operation remains the true test.  According to STRATFOR, "The American challenge lies not so much in assaulting or capturing Marjah but in continuing to deny it to the Taliban. If the Americans cannot actually hold places like Marjah, then they are simply engaging in an exhausting and reactive strategy of chasing a dispersed and mobile target."  American military leadership appears to recognize the importance of establishing sound governance and legitimacy.  Surveying the results of the military offensive, General McChrystal stated: "The government of Afghanistan is in the position now of having the opportunity, and the requirement, to prove they can establish legitimate governance."  

Achieving the goal McChrystal outlined will depend on whether the Afghan government, with international military and civilian assistance, can address a series of challenges - both short-term and persistent - that impact how Marja will be governed. 

Addressing this issue in an op-ed in the New York Times, Afghanistan analyst Joshua Foust raised several concerns.  In addition to stressing solutions for the displacement caused by the military offensive, Foust urged policymakers to clarify the precise type of governance that would be established in Marja; promote quality Afghan leadership; and aid impoverished Afghan farmers making the transition away from the opium economy. 

In conclusion, Foust expressed concern that the Marja offensive "looks like part of a familiar pattern: troops move into an area, kill anyone firing a machine gun, then move on to the next, bigger target hoping they have left behind a functioning government."  For the operation to be considered a success, Afghans and the international coalition must break with this past history. [STRATFOR, 2/16/10. General Stanley McChrystal, via Washington Post, 3/02/09. NY Times, 3/2/10.]

Obama administration must maintain focus on core objectives of Afghanistan strategy.  The operation in Marja represents the first stage in the tough process of implementing the strategy laid out by the Obama administration.  For the U.S. to bring the mission in Afghanistan to a successful close, it is critical that the administration remain focused on its core objective.  It must follow through on its promise to hold the Afghan government accountable, creating the conditions for a transition to a U.S. - Afghan partnership that will endure without a military presence.  More importantly, the administration must hold itself accountable, communicating its progress to Congress and the American people, and remaining true to the President's pledge that "that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan." 

Gen. Paul Eaton (Ret.), the National Security Network's Senior Adviser, explained that if the President's strategy is to succeed, it must bring "the full power of the United States -- diplomatic, economic and military-to bear on our foreign policy challenge in Afghanistan." Eaton further emphasized that, "A description of an end-game to our direct military involvement in the region is essential.  Without one, continued drift is the only outcome."  Marc Lynch made a similar remark, saying that the best way "to help this strategy to succeed is to keep a sharp focus on the proposed mechanisms of change, demanding evidence that they are actually happening, and to hold the administration to its pledges to maintaining a clear time horizon and to avoiding the iron logic of serial escalations of a failing enterprise." [Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton (Ret.), 12/1/09. Marc Lynch, 12/02/09]

What We're Reading

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's public invitation to the Taliban to attend a peace conference this spring has sparked disagreement and confusion among the many players in Afghanistan over the shape and speed of negotiations and what they should ultimately accomplish.

The Pentagon has announced it will transfer sophisticated laser-guided-bomb kits, a dozen surveillance drones and 18 late-model fighter jets to Pakistan, in an effort to further arm Islamabad to fight militants.

At least 30 people were killed in suicide bombings in Baquba, northeast of Baghdad. American leaders are having trouble figuring out who's behind the attacks.

Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a former Pakistani lawmaker and a leading scholar of Islam, issued a rare religious edict condemning terrorism and denouncing suicide bombers as "heroes of hellfire" in an effort to help prevent the radicalization of young British Muslims.

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said Tuesday that the Pentagon's plan for the service to use the Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the F-35 Lightning II, will probably cost more than originally expected and be delayed by two years.

Aid began arriving in devastated areas of Chile on Tuesday amid growing complaints the government was slow to respond to Saturday's 8.8-magnitude earthquake-prompting many Chileans to take stock of how one of Latin America's most developed countries measured up in a time of crisis.

The U.S. effort to repair ties with Beijing after a series of rows continues.

The Obama administration is concerned that Burma is expanding its military relationship with North Korea and has launched an aggressive campaign to convince Burma's junta to stop buying North Korean military technology.

The Greek government Wednesday approved another round of tax increases and pay cuts for public employees as part of new austerity measures aimed at reducing the country's huge budget deficit.

An upstart militant group more radical than Hamas is causing headaches for the group who runs Gaza.

Commentary of the Day

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John Prendergast and Omer Ismail show how Sudan continues to cover up human rights abuses.