US, NATO and local troops are massing in southern Afghanistan ahead of the first major attack against the Taliban since Barack Obama took office. With the president’s Afghan strategy now on the line, failure is not an option.
By JONATHAN SPYER
The days are ticking away before the start of a major new NATO offensive in southern Afghanistan. The offensive, which is set to involve thousands of members of the Afghan armed forces and police alongside US and NATO troops, is intended to end Taliban control of the town of Marjah in Helmand province.Marjah is the largest location in Afghanistan currently under Taliban control. The area, with a population of 80,000, is also a major opium production center. Reports earlier this week depicted long convoys of civilians moving with a few belongings out of the area in anticipation of the expected attack. This followed a leaflet drop by NATO aircraft, warning local residents of the coming offensive.The Mirjah operation is set to be the first major offensive since President Barack Obama announced the surge of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The offensive, dubbed “Operation Moshtirak” (an Arabic-derived Dari word meaning “joint” or cooperation) is being seen as a major test of NATO’s strategy to build up the Afghan security forces, which would thus enable the beginning of the withdrawal of foreign forces next year.The goal of the Marjah offensive, according to NATO commanders, is not merely to deal a military blow to the Taliban. Rather, according to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, the operation forms part of the larger counterinsurgency strategy being pursued by NATO. McChrystal told reporters earlier this week that the intention was to show residents of Marjah not only that the Taliban can be driven out, but also that an effective Afghan government is able to step in to replace them.Much depends on the success of the offensive in Marjah. Failure, or even a large casualty rate among NATO forces, could lead to difficulties in maintaining the political will among NATO participant countries to continue the fight in Afghanistan.These words are being written from an office in the NATO school in Oberammergau, Germany, following a meeting with officers from a number of member countries of the alliance – including individuals recently returned from Afghanistan.IN A SPEECH in December in which he announced the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, Obama also gave the date of July 2011 as the time when the US would begin to “draw down” its forces in the country. US officials were keen to clarify in the days following Obama’s speech that this did not mean the immediate beginning of withdrawal of US forces on that date. Rather, according to CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus at the time, the date would trigger “a beginning of transition to Afghan security forces and, over time, a beginning of transition of tasks to Afghan governmental elements as well.”Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that “the plan is to begin transferring areas of responsibility for security over to the Afghan security forces with us remaining in a tactical and then strategic overwatch position, sort of the cavalry over the hill. But we will begin to thin our forces and begin to bring them home.”The clarifications mean one thing: The policy is really unclear. It raises the obvious question of why the Taliban should not simply make a decision to lay low and wait out the clock until July 2011, and then launch a renewed bid for power against whoever is left in control in Kabul? This point might be made with added strength given the weakness and unpopularity of President Hamid Karzai’s government, which reputedly has scant authority outside the capital.Sure enough, this is exactly what the Taliban appear to be doing. Taliban commanders in the Marjah area quoted by NBC News spoke of their intention to “shake hands as civilians” with the incoming forces, after which they were expected to leave. Certainly, despite these statements, some Taliban action may be expected in Marjah. But overall, this strategy appears to be too obvious to be resisted.The idea of a time-limited counterinsurgency raises a larger issue. What vital interests, if any, hinge for the West on this policy? The answer given is that stability in Afghanistan is essential to prevent the return of al-Qaida to the country. But, given that al-Qaida – or manifestations of it – is making its presence felt in a number of regional states – such as Yemen, Pakistan and others – is it the intention of the West to give the entire region a makeover? Or might it not make more sense to conduct pinpoint operations against al-Qaida where it raises its head, preferably in cooperation with local allies on the ground?In Afghanistan, where one way or another everyone seems to accept thatthe Taliban are not going to be entirely vanquished, such an approachmight seem even more advisable. Isn’t that what the West is going toend up doing there, anyway?There are no easy answers, and once again with Western forces headinginto danger in Marjah, one can only wish them success in their mission.But properly prioritizing enemies is not a luxury the West can affordto dispense with. Middle East analyst Lee Smith recently referred toWestern policy in Afghanistan as one of “chasing ghosts,” whileemphasizing that a far more real, state-led coalition in the region –spearheaded by Iran – is currently posing a grave threat to the West,its allies and their interests. This, however, is not the mainpriority, as at this moment, the West is pouring resources intoAfghanistan with the intention, ultimately, of avoiding a sense ofhumiliation at the hands of al-Qaida.Certainly, challenging the trans-state Sunni jihadis is vital. Butthere is an Iranian brand of Islamic radicalism which already possessessovereignty and resources, and which is currently banking on the Westto remain focused on other things as it rolls its power across theregion. It would be a shame if the US and its allies were to oblige.
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