Without the political will for an enduring campaign, operations like those being undertaken in Marjah at present remain strategically futile.
Initial indicators are that Operation Moshtarak, ISAF’s (International Security and Assistance Force) current surge into south-eastern Afghanistan, has met with little resistance. This is to be expected.
Forewarned that more than 6,000 US, British, Danish, Estonian and Afghan soldiers would be landing in waves of helicopters into the Marjah area of central Helmand, Taleban resistance melted away.
This is exactly the outcome that General Stanley McChrystal will have hoped for. This operation is the flagship of President Obama’s renewed commitment to Afghanistan and McChrystal’s population-centric military strategy.
Having identified the Marjah area as not only a centre of Helmand’s population and infrastructure, but also of the poppy trade which funds the insurgency, McChrystal will now look to hold and build on the ground that the troops have taken.
This is where the real test of ISAF and the Afghan authorities will come.
Many of Marjah’s and its environs 80,000 inhabitants have already left their homes for safety in other towns and villages. ISAF must now convince them that it is safe to return, and if and when they do, they must also provide real signs of improvement in their daily lives.
‘Super hot’ Quick Impact Projects, like the refurbishment of mosques and distribution of aid, will be identified and implemented to influence those who do decide to return.
The Afghan National Army and Police will establish and maintain their presence in order to project their government’s writ into a previously Taleban-controlled district.
For the first time since operations began in 2001, ISAF troops are fully resourced for their task and prepared to stay for its duration. For the first time they have the correct troop density to deliver success.
It is hoped that these factors will prove conducive to political reconciliation with those who had previously aligned themselves with the Taleban. Perhaps Marjah can become an example to the rest of Afghanistan that the Afghan Government is ready and able to govern them.
But when the summer fighting season arrives the Taliban will attempt re-infiltrate. They will try to lay improvised explosive devices on Marjah’s tracks and roads. They will attack ISAF and the Afghan authorities where and when they can, whilst exposing their Muhajideen to minimum risk.
They will endeavour to influence and coerce the population. The farmers will still grow their poppy crops where they can because they are paid more for them than other crops. And the Taliban will continue to tax their profits and buy their radio controlled detonation devices.
Marjah is just one town of many in Afghanistan that lacks government influence. For McChrystal’s strategy to work, and for the influence of the Afghan government to expand, such operations will need to be repeated and maintained throughout Afghanistan.
The operational art must be linked to the strategic aim. This involves an enduring commitment in soldiers, resources and political will, long after the glares of the media’s cameras have gone.
Most important is a commitment in time. And time is the one thing Afghan’s have much of and ISAF little.
Although Moshtarak may be the largest operation yet undertaken by ISAF in Afghanistan, it does not represent any great change in the military approach to Afghanistan’s insurgency – McChrystal’s population-centric approach is nothing new.
What is new is the amount of resources being allocated to enable it. But without the political will for an enduring campaign, operations like those being undertaken in Marjah at present remain strategically futile.
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