Last week, NATO and Afghan forces launched the largest offensive since the 2001 invasion into Marja, a city in Afghanistan’s Helmand region. The offensive is intended to dislodge the Taliban from the area, thereby severing their access to bomb manufacturing and opium production facilities. Both American and NATO troops have previously attempted to uproot the Taliban from the area, but neither enjoyed permanent success. Under the umbrella of Operation Moshtarak (Pashto for “Togetherness”), this offensive marks the first major employment of General McChrystal’s “population centric” counterinsurgency strategy.
The offensive against Marja is markedly different from previous military operations, namely Fallujah. Among the differences, NATO forces publicly announced that the assault was imminent, moved troops in by foot due to mines and other obstacles, and are minimizing the use of air-strikes and artillery. Most importantly, though, the Marja offensive is being distinguished by its “government in a box” that will be set up as soon as Taliban insurgents are cleared. The insertion of a new government apparatus is intended to prevent the return of Taliban insurgents once NATO and Afghan military units move on to new objectives. In addition to government personnel, several hundred Afghan paramilitary police will be deployed to facilitate the transition from war zone to civilian life. By establishing sustainable institutions and reliable law enforcement, insurgents can be captured and tried as criminals, thereby undermining the legitimacy of their cause. The prosecution of insurgents will also strengthen the Afghan government’s legitimacy in the eyes of the population by publicly exposing insurgent activities as detrimental to community well-being.
Marja stands in stark contrast to the assault on Fallujah. Though Coalition forces were able to kill as many as 1,200 insurgents, the civilian population suffered immensely and contributed significantly to continued instability in the area. Speaking last week, McChrystal said, “We don’t want Falluja . . . . Falluja is not the model.” To emphasize this point to the troops, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marines in southern Afghanistan, told a group of troops this week, “The population is not the enemy, the population is the prize — they are why we are going in.” Keeping in line with this approach, NATO forces urged civilians to leave the area last week. Now, with operations underway, NATO forces are urging civilians to remain indoors and out of harm’s way. Despite these efforts, though, at least 11 civilians have been killed by coalition forces. In comparison, approximately 800 civilians died in Fallujah over a month and a half long span.
We here at NSLB previously laid out our take on the Afghan debate and what we thought President Obama’s priorities should be. Among them were an emphasis on rule of law initiatives and the targeting of Afghanistan’s out of control drug trade. By striking at the heart of both drug production and bomb manufacturing, Mr. Obama, through General McChrystal, has sent a clear message that his commitment to Afghanistan is serious. Moreover, the implementation of a transition government led by Afghans and restraint on the use of firepower reinforce America’s prioritization of good governance and protecting the population. A victory in the Helmand could be a turning point in the war in Afghanistan and a long awaited validation of population-centric COIN. Oppositely, a defeat could be the end of the West’s latest affair with Afghanistan.