This past weekend began the largest offensive operation in the history of the war in Afghanistan. The objective of this operation is the city of Marja, which has been under effective Quetta Shura Taliban occupation and administration. But a further objective is to implement a Petraeus-influenced counterinsurgency strategy, which helped stabilize Iraq. Although it is too soon to tell whether this strategy — a litmus test of sorts for Obama — will produce the desired results, if this week is any indication, it may find moderate success.
The new plan is designed to contrast the recently sustained American and allied campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq: as General Stanley McChrystal stated, “Falluja is not the model” (“Afghan Offensive Is New War Model,” Feb. 12). Unlike the 2004 battles in the Iraqi city, NATO soldiers currently conducting the assault in Afghanistan are not forcing entry into every house and are operating under a set of rules of engagement designed to reduce the use of air strikes and artillery in order to limit non-combatant casualties. In addition, the operation incorporates two battalions of the Afghan National Army and a sizeable component of police and civil servants which McChrystal called “a government in a box,” or a ready-made political establishment ready to assume governmental responsibilities after NATO forces secure the city.
Although there has been steady criticism, both from those fighting and from other commentators looking on, this new tactic is the right one. The Falluja operation left hundreds — if not thousands — of insurgents dead and a city damaged. It was a military success, but it took years of political effort to reconcile the local population and establish cease-fires with the U.S. and the Iraqi governments. It was no help that the Iraqi military units effectively deserted before action began.
Admittedly, in the heat of battle, the use of air strikes and artillery against enemy positions can confer a short-term advantage for ground forces. This adage, however, neglects the long-term implications of civilian casualties. John Paul Vann, one America’s most successful counterinsurgents, noted during the Vietnam War that civilian populations thought artillery to be indiscriminate and representative of indifference about civilian losses. In a military campaign dedicated to building support for government security forces and policies, it is essential to limit violence in the interest of avoiding this image of indifference. Political reconciliation is key; the risks being assumed by the NATO and Afghan forces in the offensive are intended to facilitate a long-term policy solution.
In this vein, a few key indicators should be used to judge success. First, we should look at the performance of the Afghan National Army, in terms of their willingness to interact with the population and demonstrate that the Karzai government has competent forces fighting on its behalf. The next test is whether the “government in a box” is accepted as legitimate. Third, since the Marja area is one of the world’s centers of poppy cultivation, it is essential to gauge whether its growers accept increased government involvement, and whether the government has a viable alternative.
Although the battle is still unfolding, Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan and its surroundings has had small successes. In the past week, three major figures in the Quetta Shura Taliban were detained in Pakistan. The shadow governors of Kunduz and Baghlan provinces have apparently been captured, as has Mullah Baradar, called the second-in-command of the Quetta Shura Taliban, who has been responsible for day-to-day military operations for the Quetta Shura Taliban for years.
It is still too soon to determine the long-term impact of the detentions or the offensive in Marja in the scope of the regional war. This week, however, has shown some positive developments, which have been all too rare recently.
Eric Robinson is a first-year graduate student in international relations. He is a veteran of both the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan.