The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Afghan Perceptions of Operation Moshtarak

March 14, 2010

Now that the fighting is over in the town of Marjah, how did the Afghan media perceive Operation Moshtarak? Here is a cursory round up of opinions from some of the newspapers in Afghanistan.

(Unfortunately, I am dependent on reading translations of the local newspapers from thousands of miles away, but I still think it is fruitful to try to see events through the eyes of local elites rather than relying on military propaganda.)

1. Weesa (government owned newspaper published in Pashto from Kabul) ran an interesting editorial on 7 March 2010 titled, “People Want an End to Terror.” The “terror” referenced by the article are the nighttime searches of private homes by ISAF troops. The paper notes that General McChrystal has stated that Afghan National Army troops will now accompany ISAF troops on any nighttime searches. However, the editorical states:

“This means that only the form of terror will change. This order is repetitive because American officials and military commanders had previously made similar promises with regards to civilian casualties and nocturnal military operations but they did not keep their promises.”

The editorial implies that including ANA members in the nocturnal searches is only meant to deflect blame. The editorial links this new policy to the operation in Marjah, rhetorically asking whether Afghan officers were really leading Operation Moshtarak. The editorial’s point is that the people don’t feel more secure because Afghans troops will be present during searches of civilian homes; the people want the policy of nighttime searches to end.

2. Hewad (government owned newspaper published in Pashto from Kabul) ran a rather mild article on 1 March 2010:

“We accept that the bazaar might have reopened, but a truly peaceful life, in the strict sense of the phrase, seems extremely difficult to have started. People are psychologically not ready yet to forget the bitter memories of the Taleban or of the most recent powerful military operation. This does not mean that the people of Marjah support the Taleban or that their lives were better under the Taleban. This is not the case. The main problem is that Marjah District remained under Taleban control for a very long time. Moreover, Marjah District was a centre of illegal drugs and mafia groups. People are concerned that Taleban or drug traffickers will start to make efforts for the recapture of this district.

If we take a quick look at the military developments over the past eight years, we will notice that foreign or Afghan forces have launched attacks on different areas and they have then left the area after the completion of their operations. Although there is a marked difference between previous military offensives, which aimed to rid an area of the Taleban, and the operation in Marjah, which aims to bring good governance and implement reconstruction projects, people still do not believe this. Time will be needed before they come to believe this.”

However the final paragraph questions the necessity for another military operation in Kandahar, arguing that a military operation is not the solution. The article states that only hardliners benefit from war because it causes civilian casualties which can be exploited to recruit the population. The article calls for a political and economic operation with the military playing a supporting role. Moreover, it challenges the international community to transform Marjah into a model of good governance, security, and economic development before moving onto Kandahar.

3. Mosharekat-e-Milli (a website published in Dari out of Kabul) ran an article by Mohammad Isaq Fayyaz titled “Will the Achievements of the Joint Operation be Protected?” on 23 February 2010. The article assumed that operations would take at least another month to complete, which is interesting since there was a flag raising ceremony in the Marjah bazaar on 18 Februrary. The article generally uses rhetorical questions to cast suspicions on the motivations of the US/ISAF troops, and particularly their willingness to publicize this operation in advance. The author does note correctly that Marjah has changed hands before and is correct to question whether ISAF will be able to retain control of the town.

4. Hasht-e Sobh (an independent daily published in Dari from Kabul) ran an article on 18 February 2010 titled, “Is it Reality or Just a Hope?” The article sympathizes with the challenge of fighting the Taliban while adhering to international laws to protect civilian lives. Nevertheless, the article concludes that while the job is difficult, particularly as members of the Taliban can easily pass themselves off as civilians, this challenge “… cannot serve as an excuse and legitimize the killing of civilians.”

This round-up seems to indicate that there is a great deal of skepticism about the US/ISAF strategy and concern about the impact that this strategy is having on the civilian population. Overall, I think it is fair to say that the media articles examined here are not optimistic that ISAF will be willing to hold Marjah over the long run and there is alarm at the idea of taking the fight to the far more populated city of Kandahar next.

[Cross-posted at my Afghan Notebook]

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Vikash is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. His main areas of academic interest are (post-) globalization, economic development, and economic freedom, with a regional focus on South Asia