We should be asking some critical questions about the now, much-publicized NATO and Afghan forces operation to take Marjah district in Helmand. For starters: How does this operation fit into the overall strategy for Afghanistan — why Marjah and why now?
One can argue that U.S. and NATO forces have not had significant military success in Afghanistan since the initial invasion, despite the expansion of ISAF’s mandate across the country between 2004 and 2006. And one can argue further that the reverse is true: The Taliban’s military strategy has been successful and their territorial influence has in fact increased dramatically in recent years, as they now dominate the south and east, and are rapidly increasing their presence in the north. Taliban forces have also closed in on Kabul, as evidenced by the most recent major attacks within the capital itself.
That the world’s "most powerful military" hasn’t yet prevailed in Afghanistan is a problem to be sure, but one that should be addressed by its political architects, not its military actors. From the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, Western politicians and their domestic bases have failed to provide adequate military resources, failed to coordinate the NATO effort, and failed to tackle effectively Afghan "hearts and minds" with the necessary political, developmental and counter-narcotics policies.
The Obama administration’s troop surge — which was sorely needed and should have been matched by additional troops from other NATO countries — must be used to ensure not just military victories, but military victories which are of high-profile and also high-value in the overall conflict.
We are at a moment when the West has decided to focus its strategy on a "political solution". The troop surge should be used in a way that would have the most impressive impact on the overall political dynamics and take back some of the military initiative from the Taliban forces, which is a necessary backdrop to the any discussion about a political settlement. The military objectives should support the political objectives.
So why, of all the Taliban-controlled areas, is NATO using the recent influx of U.S. troops to seize Marjah? Clearing Marjah will be a minor symbolic military move without much of a political rationale. Although the district is considered to be a heroin trade hub, the absence of a counter-narcotics strategy means that it is not clear what actions will be taken against the area’s opium economy once it is cleared. If no alternative livelihoods are created once the district has been re-taken, resentment towards the Afghan government and international forces will only increase.
The build-up to the operation has not been encouraging. 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.
Instead of using the military to create Taliban recruitment opportunities — which this overcrowded refugee camp will surely do — why doesn’t the United States use its military power to concentrate its effort on achievable objectives with real strategic value to the West and that will have a positive impact on Afghan lives?
For example, a far more impactful use of the troop surge would be to take back control of the ring road from Kabul to Lashkar Gah from the Taliban — a strategic artery which is vital for control of the south of Afghanistan and would have an immediate and beneficial impact on the entire conflict. Currently, travel on these roads is Taliban dominated and highly dangerous, restricting local life immensely and increasing the sense of isolation of the people of the south. Further, NATO and Afghan forces should also focus on regaining control of the whole of Kandahar province. This area has much greater geographic and political significance to the Taliban than Helmand. Holding the territory — not just seizing, and then withdrawing from it — is critical for enabling vital development and infrastructure projects, boosting the local economy within the Afghan civilian community, and draw support away from the Taliban.
This U.S. "troop surge" has cost the Obama administration a good deal of political currency on the domestic front already. Using these new military resources to take the Marjah district, whether entirely misconceived or purposefully misdirected for an "easy win," could be catastrophic and drain away the military power that has just been gained at serious political cost. Any U.S./NATO effort from this point onward should be used on the ground to create critical and strategic military supremacy, bring the Taliban to the table ready to make some concessions — and improve, not degrade our relationship with the Afghan people.