For weeks now, we’ve heard and read media reporting discussing the upcoming major Marine offensive into the town of Marjah (located in the Nad Ali district of Helmand province) – a major Taliban stronghold and narcotics hub that serves as the Taliban’s command and control (C2) center for the province. The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) commander, BG Larry Nicholson, publicly announced the upcoming operation several weeks ago – a decision likely intended to encourage local residents (who number approximately 50,000) to leave prior to the attack as well to illustrate the willingness of ISAF forces to face the Taliban head-on. The offensive, named Operation Moshtarak, is being billed by ISAF leaders as the first major battle of the Afgan surge – making it a “must win” in terms of gaining the upper-hand in the critical Information Operations (IO) battle against the Taliban. Nicholson has bluntly stated, “We intend to go in big, strong, and fast.”
Clearly, the Marines are looking to send a strong message to the Taliban, hedging their bets that most of the local fighters will either melt away or be defeated, allowing ISAF and ANSF forces to be viewed as the winner for the first time in years. The jury is still out on whether Nicholson’s gamble to announce the operation ahead of time will pay off. So far, initial reports state that most of the residents (up to 90%) have yet to leave Marjah, likely because of intimidation from heavily entrenched Taliban forces. Additionally, insurgents have reportedly constructed tunnels and bunkers, brought in heavy weapons, set booby traps and strewn landmines around Marjah. One local Taliban commander, Qari Fazluddin, told Reuters some 2,000 fighters were ready to fight in Marjah, the group's last big stronghold in the southern province. "We don't have jets and tanks but we have already planted hundreds of roadside bombs to inflict high casualties on the invading forces," said Fazluddin, the Taliban commander. This may indicate that the Taliban’s stranglehold on the town and desire to maintain this control/influence is stronger than initially assessed.
As the Institute for the Study of War explains in their recently released report, the Marines (and other US and ANSF elements) have already begun initial “shaping” operations – including establishing parts of an outer cordon, securing key routes in and out of the city, and precision targeted raids against top Taliban leaders in the area. So far, we have already seen:
- BG Nicholson and Afghan Brig. Gen. Mahayoodin Ghoori held a shura, or leadership council, several days ago with Marjah’s most important district elders where they encouraged them to convince residents to stay inside once the fighting begins
- Beginning on 04 Feb 2010, Afghan and British troops launched a helicopter and ground advance south through Nad Ali towards Marjah
- On 06 Feb 2010, the British press reported that U.S. Navy SEALs and British Special Forces began infiltrating the town, airlifting in on “kinetic” missions during the night. It was later reported that as many as fifty specifically targeted insurgents were killed during the raids. The following day, coalition forces dropped leaflets which were aimed primarily at the militants, listing several of their commanders by name and warning fighters to leave the area or be killed.
- On 09 Feb 2010, the pace of the shaping operations increased. Approximately 400 troops from 5/2 Stryker Brigade along with 250 Afghan Army soldiers and their thirty Canadian trainers moved to take up positions northeast of Marjah.
Based on these initial indications, major clearance operations are likely to begin in the next few days, with two Marine battalions serving as the core of the assault force. 3/6 Marines (along with their partner Afghan National Army BN) have already occupied a temporary outpost seven miles north of Marjah and are completing final preparations before moving south. 1/6 Marines (with their partner ANA BN) conducted a series of air assault operations to seize the area known as the “Five Points” a key intersection east of Marjah where the main route in the area (Rt. 601) intersects with the Bolan Bridge (which spans the Helmand River and connects Marjah to the provincial capital of Laskhar Gah). According to embedded reports, Taliban militants attacked the joint force almost immediately with heavy machine gun, rocket, and small arms fire. Although the Marines (and RC-South) have yet to announce the “formal” start of operations, it sure sounds like things have kicked off. I would expect full-on, large-scale clearance operations to begin in the next 24-48 hours.
More important, though, than “going in hard and fast” with offensive clearance and capture/kill operations will be what the ISAF forces do once they occupy the town and how long they stay to hold the critical terrain. So far, I am encouraged by what ISAF has planned in terms of non-lethal operations to support the Marjah clearance. The Washington Post reports that ISAF has already designated a dedicated “civilian reconstruction team” (read mini-PRT) to move into Marjah post-hostilities. Additionally, an American team also is working with the Karzai government to deploy a contingent of Afghan civil servants. To encourage Afghans to serve in Marjah, the government reportedly plans to increase the average monthly salary for such personnel from $60 to about $300. Once Marja is secure, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development plan to assist farmers in planting crops and rehabilitating the canal network, a project the United States began more than 50 years ago and has yet to complete.
Additionally, the Afghan government plans to provide a more enduring security presence in the area. Yesterday, Hanif Atmar, the Afghan interior minister, told a group of about 350 elders from Marja’s main tribes that when Operation Moshtarak ends about 1,000 police officers will be assigned to help keep the Taliban out – composed mostly of local residents. “Give me your sons,” Mr. Atmar said, “and we will make a national police force with them.” These ANP forces will be bolstered by US elements that will likely remain in the town for several weeks, occupying temporary outposts as they stand up local government councils, begin projects to improve essential services, and dissuade the Taliban from returning. With a limited number of troops available, however, ISAF will not be able to remain here in force for too long. Within 1-2 months, I would expect a minimal ISAF presence (maximum of 1x US BN), making it difficult to consolidate any gains in the long-term.
Whatever ISAF and ANSF forces stay behind will not only have to battle the Taliban for influence, but will also need to provide an alternative to poppy that can provide some sort of sustained, long-term economic support for the local populace. Although the Taliban may be brutal and extreme, they have served as good business partners for the people of Marjah for several years. A recent Reuters article highlights this challenge: "Our poppy business is booming under the Taliban. We don't want the government, we want the Taliban," said Abdul Ahmad, a farmer. "When the government destroys our only income, why should we support it?" Ensuring long-term economic (and political) support to locals is necessary to ensure the militants do not come back. "If this operation is a show of force then it is not going to work," said Haji Usman, a Marjah tribal elder. "The government needs to bring all public services that we are looking for -- schools, clinics, mosques, electricity and jobs for young boys to get busy instead of fighting for Taliban."
Let’s hope that ISAF forces heed Haji Usman’s advice and are able to achieve three critical and enduring effects with Operation Moshtarak: 1) clearing the town of Taliban fighters; 2) holding the physical terrain and retaining influence over the populace; and 3) building local capacity in terms of governance, economy, and essential services in order to provide an enduring alternative to the Taliban. Failure in any one of these difficult objectives will not only mean a loss in Marjah, but will also have strategic implications in terms of building momentum and support for the Afghanistan surge.