Operation Moshtarak (“Together” in Dari), which is slated to move into a more active phase any day now, has been billed as the largest ground battle in Afghanistan since 2001 and the largest air assault since the Iraq War in 1991. The planned attack, which will be centered around the towns of Marjeh (Marjah) and Nad-E’ali (Nad-e-Ali) in Helmand Province, was announced in a press conference by the Pentagon last week. Villages have been leafleted and village leaders have been informed of the coming attack.
It is not uncommon to advertise a planned offensive in the Afghan war, but the usual objective has been to encourage the Taliban to vacate the area so that ISAF troops could move in to protect and build relations with civilians. For Operation Moshtarak, ISAF wants the civilians to leave but a perimeter has been established in the hopes of preventing Taliban fighters from sneaking out with the civilians. Not surprisingly, many civilians have packed up their meager worldly possessions and they are leaving their homes for the wretched displacement camps. It is still unclear whether the Taliban insurgents will stick around for a head on confrontation against staggering odds instead of just melting into the civilian population as they have done in the past.
If they stay, ISAF plans deploy roughly 15,000 troops with massive air support against (at best) 1,000 to 2,000 Taliban insurgents.
So what is the point of this operation? I would venture that the main point is theatrical. ISAF forces are desperate for the kind of publicity that will justify a wind down of the surge on the predetermined timetable. Generals have promised politicians results from the surge by December 2010. The goal is also to show that the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) is ready to take “ownership” of their country. Of course, as a massive joint operation, it will be difficult to tease out the impact of the ANA and ANP on the success or failure of this operation.
The question that seems to be going unasked is why Operation Moshtarak is necessary after last summer’s Operation Khanjar and Operation Panther’s Claw in nearly the same area of the province. One argument that I’ve seen given to gullible journalists is that the towns of Marjeh and Nad-E’ali are the last two areas which remain uncleared from the previous campaign. This argument is misleading since the Britons attacked Nad-E’Ali late last summer and Marjeh fell to coalition troops in May of 2009. In reality, the previous attempt to clear and hold succeeded in clearing but failed to hold the province.
I would argue that this campaign is just as poorly planned and unlikely to meet its strategic objectives as the operations of last summer — although there are more troops this time.
First, the extension of the fighting season into winter time is certain to increase the misery of internally displaced Afghan civilians. If the goal is to win over the civilian population, then bombing their homes to rubble and sending them to huddle in mud-soaked tents where the temperature drops below freezing at night is unlikely to do the job.
Second, the failure to secure Pakistani cooperation for a major offensive on the other side of the Durand Line means that the back gate will remain open for any high-level Taliban who want to winter in Pakistan’s FATA this year.
Third, it is unclear how ISAF troops will hold these towns after the surge winds down in 2011 (and they certainly won’t have the full cooperation of the poppy-cultivating civilians who were displaced). No one really believes that the ANA or ANP have sufficient numbers or experience to hold the province by themselves when the Taliban return. There has been talk of a “civilian surge” to help hold and build territory, but these foreign advisers are not a long-term substitute for a capable and competent Afghan state which has not been built and needs at least a decade to achieve.
Fourth, very few people in the US or Europe who do not have a loved one in the fight care about this operation or the war more broadly. Hence, the propaganda value of this battle is dubious.
Finally, the fighting is not intended to make room for a particular political solution. In contrast to the previous campaign in Helmand which was at least designed to stabilize the province in time for the presidential elections, there is no stated political objective of the operation from what I’ve read. Even if all of the estimated 2,000 Taliban are slaughtered in these towns there are an estimated 38,000 more Taliban in the rest of Afghanistan and across the border. If the political goal is eventual reconciliation and reintegration with the Taliban, it is unclear how this battle will encourage Taliban to lay down their arms since they know the foreign forces are leaving soon anyway.