Marjah: Not living up to the hype

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LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — Operation Moshtarak, or the Battle of Marjah, has been billed as the decisive operation of the Afghan war — think Stalingrad or the Battle of the Bulge. It will “break the back of the Taliban,” according to military strategists, and will turn the tide of a conflict that has been looking increasingly desperate of late.

It is also, significantly, the first major test of the new American strategy — troops from the U.S. surge are committed, along with five brigades of Afghan forces and approximately 4,000 British troops. This is a chance to see whether the much-vaunted plan to “Afghanize” the war in 18 months’ time will actually bear fruit.

But after three days of listless fighting, the few dusty square meters of agricultural land in the middle of Helmand province may not live up to all the hype. Military spokesmen had acknowledged that there has been less resistance than expected; Gulab Mangal, the governor of Helmand, speaking to a press conference in Helmand’s capital, Lashkar Gah, on Sunday, confirmed that fighting had been merely sporadic. “The situation here is calm,” he said. “There has been no fierce fighting.”

Certainly the Taliban are hopelessly outmatched: There are 15,000 troops facing at most 2,000 insurgents.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi told reporters that this was a sign of the moral weakness of the joint command.

“The international and Afghan forces have proved their cowardice,” he said. “They brought 15,000 troops against 2,000 Taliban.”

The Taliban made a good show early in the operation, beating off a paratrooper force in the Loy Charahi area of Marjah. But by the end of the first day, they were flagging. “Most of the Taliban are leaving Marjah,” said a member of the Marjah citizens’ council, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They know they cannot resist.”

The IED challenge

The insurgents have done what they could to even the score. The Americans have made no secret of the fact that Marjah was their next target, going so far as to scatter leaflets over the area in previous weeks, warning civilians and insurgents alike that a battle was brewing.

The Taliban used the time to seed the area with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). (For an in-depth look at these IEDs, and the U.S. effort to combat them, read GlobalPost's series on Afghanistan's Hurt Locker.)

Mullah Osmani, a local Taliban commander in Marjah, boasted that there was hardly a square inch of the area that had not been mined. “We have laid explosives on the roads and bridges, the fields and desert, every single way that people walk or ride,” he said. “We have informed all villagers not to leave their houses unless there is an emergency. If they have to go out they can contact us and we will show them which way to go, or we will defuse the mine.”

Ahmad Ahamdi, a resident of the Saipan area of Marjah, said that he had seen the Taliban laying mines close to his house. “Just 200 meters from my door the Taliban have placed 35 interconnected devices,” he said. “A lot of troops may be killed here.”

Some reports out of Marjah estimate that nearly 70,000 mines and other types of IEDs have been planted. The preponderance of explosives will certainly complicate the movement of the combined forces against the Taliban, say military officials.

Gen. Sher Mohammad Zazai, commander of the 205th Atal Corps, acknowledged the difficulty.

“There are six large battalions of the Afghan National Army along with six battalions from ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] conducting this operation jointly,” he told reporters in Lashkar Gah. “The Taliban will never be able to withstand our operation, but there is one big challenge in the area: the mines, which could slow down the operation.”

Hearts and minds

Gen. Rahim Wardak, the minister of defense, speaking at the same press conference, told reporters that the battle would not end soon. “This operation will take at least a month,” he said. “We cannot deal with all these challenges, including the mines and the enemy movements, any more quickly. But we promise the people of Marjah that we will pave the way for them to have a good life.”

But the people of Marjah, trapped between the Taliban, the mines, and the onslaught of forces, are in no mood to be patient.

“The governor said there would be no aerial bombardment,” said Zahir Jan, a resident of Marjah. “But there are planes dropping bombs right now. The situation is full of terror. Dozens of people could be killed.”

More than 60 helicopter gunships were involved in the initial assault on Marjah, according to Afghan officials.

It did not take long for the first news of civilian casualties to come in. On Sunday two rockets aimed at what was thought to be an insurgent compound veered off target, killing 12 members of one family.

“We deeply regret this loss of life,” said ISAF commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, conveying his apologies to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "The current operation in central Helmand is aimed at restoring security and stability to this vital area of Afghanistan. It's regrettable that in the course of our joint efforts, innocent lives were lost. We extend our heartfelt sympathies and will ensure we do all we can to avoid future incidents."

The use of the particular type of rocket involved in the incident has been suspended until an investigation can be conducted.

Abdul Rahman Saber, a member of the Marjah citizens’ council and a former police chief in Helmand, said that Operation Moshtarak had come right on time. “People will be happy if this operation is a success and if all of these promises for reconstruction and development are delivered. But if not, there will be a disaster.”

People trapped inside their homes are running out of food, he said, which, if the operation continues for weeks, could turn into a real problem.

Another growing difficulty is the displacement caused by the fighting. More than 900 families have fled Marjah for Lashkar Gah, about 15 miles away, where they are putting a strain on the resources of the Red Crescent.

“We have begun giving assistance to 750 families,” said Ghulam Farooq Noorzai, head of the Department of Refugees in Helmand.

There are lines of people in the center of Lashkar Gah waiting for food, blankets, and other emergency items.

Ahmadullah Ahmadi, head of the Red Crescent in Helmand, insists that the organization is ready for the tide. “We are pepared to give assistance to 2,000 families,” he said. “Within two days we will even go to Marjah and help those who could not make it to Lashkar Gah.”

But Sharifullah, who introduced himself as a displaced person from Marjah, has been unable to obtain any help. “I have been standing here since morning,” he complained. “But I do not have my mother and sister with me. I could not take them, or my household goods, out of Marjah. The Taliban would not let me. So now they tell me that they are only giving assistance to those with women and children. This is not fair.”

The Taliban are alternating between bravado and a shoulder-shrugging dismissal of the entire operation. “Frankly, Marjah is not that important to us,” said Talban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmady. “My friends and comrades are in the area. We have more than 2,000 volunteer fighters. We will not give it away easily. But it does not mean that Marjah is everything to us. If God will, we will leave [Marjah]. We have a place in people’s hearts everywhere.”

But that place is wearing thin in the residents of Marjah. “We don’t want the Taliban any more,” said one, who did not want to give his name. “But we don’t want anybody else who will make fights. We just want some peace and development.”

Casualty figures are difficult to come by. Preliminary reports state that 27 Taliban were killed in the first two days of fighting. The Afghan Army sustained two injuries, according to the defense minister. There have been ISAF casualties, but they have not been officially confirmed.

After the battle

With military victory all but assured, ordinary people and officials alike are looking toward the post-operation phase.

McChrystal has made gaining the trust of the population the cornerstone of his counterinsurgency strategy. But he is under intense pressure to show results quickly: President Barack Obama, in his Dec. 1 speech announcing the surge, announced that U.S. troops would begin to draw down in July 2011.

This may be one reason for the emphasis on the Afghan-led nature of Operation Moshtarak — the word “moshtarak” means “together” in Dari.

“It is a matter of special pride to us that Afghan troops are leading this operation,” McChrystal told a press conference in Lashkar Gah. “The international troops are in a supporting role.”

The Interior Ministry has a battalion of police officers ready to guarantee security after the operation, said Interior Minister Hanif Atmar, speaking in Lashkar Gah. “We will help the tribal leaders in search operations, and we will pave the way for good governance,” said Atmar.

“Good governance” is shorthand for an end to the massive corruption and abuse that have been the lot of Afghan citizens at the hands of their own government. They have heard numerous promises over the years, and are skeptical that this time will be different.

According to author and analyst Felix Kuehn, speaking at a conference in London last week, the people in southern Afghanistan are as alienated from Kabul as they are from Washington or Bonn. “The central government does not exist in southern Afghanistan,” he said.

A member of the citizens’ council agreed. “If this time the government of Afghanistan does not deliver on its promises to the people of Marjah, this operation cannot succeed,” he said. “Instead, it will be a complete disaster.”

Aziz Ahmad Tassal contributed to this report from Kabul.