The “Opening Act” in Marja(h)

The battle for the Helmand provincial town/city (population around 80,000) is now well underway. It has been advertised as the center of the current “surge” in Afghanistan, an entirely unveiled reference to and comparison with the 2007 exercise in Iraq that lowered the level of violence there sufficiently. It is also the new centerpiece of the American COIN (counterinsurgency ) doctrine in Afghanistan. As goes Marja (or Marjah, depending on who is writing it), so well may go the U.S. effort to Afghanicize the war: like the 2007 surge in Iraq, Marja may well be the substantive opening of the process of Afghanization of the war (turning over responsibility for conducting the war to the Afghans and thus providing a pretext for American withdrawal).

So how is it going? On the face of reporting, it seems to be going pretty well. Most of Marja has been taken by the Marines, and despite continuing Taliban resistance, the battle seems to be going well, at least as measured in comparative casualties and other battlefield measures. Unlike the experience three years ago in Iraq, however, no one is quite ready to report the “light at the end of the tunnel” in Marja and the war more generally. As one State Department official on the scene summarized it, “We are just in the opening act” in Marja. The real challenge is still ahead of us.” He adds, “Marja will be a test for everyone.” (The quotes are from today’s Washington Post.)

Such circumspection is commendable. The heart of a successful COIN campaign is not the ability to dislodge the opposition from some piece of territory for a time, although doing so initially is necessary at the beginning in order to be able to do the real, decisive job of political conversion of the population away from the insurgents and toward the government. Marja has not, for a long time, been exactly a hotbed of support for the Karzai government, or any other regime operating out of Kabul. That process requires a long, patient process of convincing a skeptical population that loyalty to your side beats loyalty to the other side, generally because your side makes life better than it was when your opponents were in charge. Moreover, that conversion must be  complete enough so that the target population will resist the return of the currently vanquished Taliban when, inevitably, American forces leave and only Afghan government forces remain.

That conversion, if it is possible at all, will take time. Among Afghans in the area, there is apparent distrust of and suspicion about the central government–a phenomenon not uncommon throughout the country. As if to fuel that dynamic, the new provincial governor on his way to Kabul “recently returned to Afghanistan after 15 years in Germany.” In the American South after the Civil War, such governors were called “carpetbaggers” and were widely suspected and opposed. Maybe the situation is different in Marja. Possibly it is not.

The natives, of course, know that it is dangerous to switch sides too fast, and they are obviously  not entirely convinced who the good and bad guys are. As one Marjan told the Post reporter, “We are afraid of the Taliban and we’re afraid of the Marines.” Probably not an imprudent attitude, and one that likely can only be overcome by a long, patient, benign, and positive experience with our side.

The Americans appear to understand this and are trying to convince the natives that we do. As a Marine commander is reported to have assured a group of Marjans, “We’re going to be here for many months.” The audience was apparently skeptical, and their skepticism will only dissipate as many months pass and the Marines are still there. The question is how long the Marines will stay. Factors militating toward shortening their commitment include their need elsewhere in the country and the desire for the United States to withdraw from the country.

So, how is the “opening act” in Marja going? At one level, pretty well, but that is obviously only part of the story by which a judgment about this application of “surginess” (apologies to the Colbert Report) can be rendered. At this point, the real answer is we don’t know how the contest for the loyalty–the hearts and minds–of the Marjans is going, and we won’t know for a fairly long time. It would probably be better to ask the question a year or so from now, when there will be some indication of what the citizens of Marja feel. Unfortunately, our attention span toward Marja will probably have been exceeded by then, and we will be on to asking different questions. At that, even a year may not be long enough: it can be argued (I have argued it) that the success of the surge in 2007 in Iraq will not really be known until fairly well after the American withdrawal is complete and the shape of postwar Iraq has settled in. The same likely will be true in Afghanistan. That is not a very satisfying answer and certainly not a very politically salable reply, but at least it is an honest answer.

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One Response to “The “Opening Act” in Marja(h)”

  1. DE Teodoru Says:

    So much of Marjah-nomics has so little to do with Taliban that one can only wonder how long Marines can stay as anti-guerrilla blocking agents without impeding free flow of local economy– heroine. Of course, all chafes will express through muzzles and one may see a confluence of interests in attempting to reopen flow of illicit commerce. What then? What will– per J2 Gen. Flynn—INTEL BLIND Americans do? As one who did a lot of microsurgery, I assure you it can’t be done by naked eye and most certainly not blindfolded. Yet McChrystal is putting a mass of assets to support a “government in a box” imported in service of a Karzai Gov that we barely know to run a fiercely independent local rural population.

    So once again the key question is: CAN THE SHANGHAI ACCORD DO A BETTER JOB OF IT THAN US?

    China became the biggest recipient of Iraq oil contracts. Then China became the biggest recipient of one of the world’s greatest copper mines in Afghanistan. Are our mom&dad soldiers mercenaries for China? Is that how Obama got forbearance of our massive debt for imported Chinese manufactured goods so he could institute some sort of Rubric Cube healthcare plan?

    We fought Vietnam because it was a Soviet selected battle ground where it hoped to bring US forces right under China’s soft underbelly. We now have private transcripts wherein Khrushchev explains all this to East Euro Reds. Are we now letting the Saudis and Israelis lead us by the nose chasing alQaeda the way Moscow had us chasing Maoist China?

    Prof. Snow whose book all my academic friends use in their courses but I cannot in molecular medicine, is nevertheless never weighing the current economic trauma America suffers and thus never asks the prognostic question: CAN A SEVERELY ANEMIC AMERICA AFFORS EXSANGUINATION OF BRAVE MOMS&DADS AND WEALTH FIGHTING ILLITERATE GUERRILLAS IN TERRITORIES WHERE WE SERVE THE INTERESTS OF OTHERS WHO HAVE THEIR HANDS ON OUR OIL SPIGET?

    I can only hope to engage Prof. Snow in meaningful dialogue, the most wonderful idea to come out of the 1960s student revolution. I cannot express how happy I would be to be wrong about Bush, Obama, Petraeus and McChrystal. Everyday since 9/11 I have been paying for my survival with grave anxiety over the survival of America. For it is not in its nature to be a predatory empire run by a corrupt government forever on the corporate take. As wealth redistributes, Obama like Nero (and Bush) is fiddling while Wash DC (like Rome) burns.

    Do you, Prof. Snow not agree that we must pull in our tentacles because we can’t afford the protein loss dismemberment would cost us, not to speak of the lost military dexterity?

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