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Marjah and the Bigger Picture in Afghanistan

Last week NATO forces in Afghanistan commenced a highly publicized assault on the town of Marjah in Helmand Province in the south of the country, a Taliban stronghold. It is supposed to be the paragon of the new "clear and hold" strategy of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, based on the ideas developed by Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq. Our government is clearly hyping this operation to the media, so let’s take a look at why they are doing so and the real implications of the Marjah assault.

Marjah isn’t a particularly important town. Here’s Anand Gopal (the excellent journalist who wrote the story about secret US prisons in Afghanistan for The Nation) describing the significance of Marjah on Democracy Now!:

Well, you know, it’s interesting, because Marjah isn’t a particularly strategic place or even a place that holds any really strategic value. It’s a very tiny town in the Helmand province. The official estimate is around 80,000, but I think a lot of Afghans and I also think that’s a huge overestimate.

The Taliban did not respond to the offensive by digging in for a face-to-face battle. Instead, they have elected a guerrilla strategy, as Juan Cole writes. Many of them skipped town, and those that remained have been pestering NATO forces with sniper attacks, mines, and IEDs. Cole believes that they could be hurt by the loss of heroin income from the area, but the poppy industry is so widespread I would imagine that drug lords could move operations elsewhere. Overall, the operation seems unlikely to put a significant dent in the Taliban’s operational capacity.

In an interview on Real News Network, Gareth Porter notes the absurdity of putting 15,000 NATO troops, a big chunk of their limited forces, into an assault on an agricultural town with a population of 80,000. The population of Marjah is a tiny, tiny percentage not only of the population of Afghanistan but also just the areas under Taliban control. When you consider that, according to Petraeus counter-insurgency doctrine, NATO forces don’t have sufficient troops for the size of the country, the Marjah approach cannot be scaled up to significant portions of the Pashtun areas in which the Taliban dominates. In fact, it might allow Taliban forces free reign in other regions of the country, even in Helmand Province, while limited NATO forces are so concentrated in a small area.

Then, you might ask, what’s the point? Gopal and Porter conclude that this operation is oriented toward the audience back home in the US. The Obama administration is likely attempting to utilize the Marjah operation to vindicate the strategy of the escalation and gain points at home. Porter takes that hypothesis one step further, and posits that convincing the home audience that our forces are gaining the upper hand is intended to gain the political breathing room necessary to negotiate with the Taliban, probably after a couple Marjahs at least 18 months down the road.

Robert Naiman astutely compares this potential political-military strategy with the Iraq escalation. Bush only negotiated with Sunni militias in wake of the show of force that the 2006 surge presented. In both cases, the US escalates violence to make its population think that it is winning before negotiating the same result that could have been achieved years earlier without the massive human and economic cost. As Naiman writes, "It’s a grim world in which the most powerful country kills people to look tough."

I fervently hope that Gareth Porter is right and that Obama uses negotiation to end the war, both between US and Taliban forces and between the various parties in civil war, after a period of acting tough through escalation (perhaps after the 2012 election?). Absent a strong antiwar movement in the US, that would be the best case scenario. However, thus far his administration has been adamantly opposed to negotiating with Taliban leaders. At the recent Afghanistan conference in London, the US reacted negatively to Hamid Karzai’s stated intention of negotiating with the highest Taliban leadership.

Recently the CIA and the Pakistani ISI captured Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s right hand man, Abdul Ghani Baradar. The NYT article on his arrest quotes a US official critical of the arrest, saying that the US had been involved in incipient negotiations with Baradar. The article describes Baradar as representing the moderate faction of the Taliban.

"He was the only person intent on or willing for peace negotiations," said Hajji Agha Lalai, former head of the government-led reconciliation process in the city of Kandahar, who has dealt with members of the Taliban leadership council for several years.

Here’s what the anonymous US official believes the consequences of this arrest will be:

"So it doesn’t make sense why we bite the hand that is feeding us," the official added. "And now the Taliban will have no reason to negotiate with us; they will not believe anything we will offer or say."

This suggests that the arrest has dealt a serious blow to negotiations, by removing the link between Karzai and/or the US and Mullah Omar, and by discouraging growing support for negotiation and more moderate politics among the Taliban leadership. It also raises two other important questions. First, who will take Baradar’s place? There’s the possibility of someone more hardline stepping up to fill the vacuum. Secondly, will this further fragment the Taliban and give local commanders more autonomy? If so, does that actually improve prospects for a military victory by NATO? Will it handicap potential negotiations down the road? How the US handles the arrest and its eventual consequences will be illustrative of how the Obama administration intends to move forward on the negotiation front.

During his presidential campaign, President Obama made the decision to escalate US involvement in Afghanistan and implement a counter-insurgency campaign targeted at the domestically-oriented Taliban, not just the less than 100 al-Qaeda fighters remaining in the country. In the face of a bloody stalemate lasting for years that seems quite likely to occur, he faces another decision. On the one hand, he can continue the current strategy of pursuing victory against the Taliban on the battlefield. In that case, he would likely have to push back the 2011 date withdrawal date. On the other, he can support Karzai’s effort to negotiate a peace.

Obama has an irksome propensity for taking the middle path for its own sake rather than sound reasoning, and it seems likely he will do so in Afghanistan. Even if Porter’s theory is correct, the result will be at least two more years of civilian and military casualties, as well as thousands of innocent Afghans becoming refugees in their own country. In the end, no matter how reprehensible they are, some of the Taliban will probably be part of the post-war political process or even a coalition government. In the midst of what Marshall Auerback dubs "deficit terrorism," crucial domestic programs (and possibly the so-called entitlements) will be cut while military spending continues to grow, in no small part because of the war in Afghanistan. Unless our military contingent there overcomes the limitations of its size and strategy and conclusively defeats the Taliban, which seems unlikely, even Porter’s best case scenario will have a poor result.

In conclusion, we must challenge not only the unjust nature of American militarism that President Obama has embraced, but also his failure to acknowledge the limits to US military power, which this over-hyped battle for Marjah demonstrates. Political strategies can achieve results that are the same or better than military strategies in terms of the national interest as well as justice. President Obama has acknowledged the importance of political strategies, but thus far has subordinated them to use of the military. Until that attitude ends, we will be stuck in the Long War with sad consequences for the American as well as Afghan people. I leave you with Professor Andrew Bacevich of Boston University from his interesting article entitled "Obama’s Post-Modern War of Attrition":

The revival of counterinsurgency doctrine, celebrated as evidence of enlightened military practice, commits America to a postmodern version of attrition. Rather than wearing the enemy down, we’ll build contested countries up, while expending hundreds of billions of dollars (borrowed from abroad) and hundreds of soldiers’ lives (sent from home).

How does this end? The verdict is already written: The Long War ends not in victory but in exhaustion and insolvency, when the United States runs out of troops and out of money.

Cross-posted at Arob’s View

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