Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Afghanistan: More Mowing The Grass Or Strategy Change That We Can Believe In?

American and Afghan troops roust a suspected insurgent
It will be quite some time -- as in many, many months -- before the success of the U.S.-led offensive in southern Afghanistan is known. This is because clearing the Taliban redoubt of Marja of insurgents will be the easy part while stabilizing the region over the long term with Afghan troops and police, as well as a semblance of government, will be extremely difficult given the culture of corruption, a tribal-based society and deep antipathy toward coalition troops.

In a deliciously evocative phrase, soldiers derisively call past efforts to tamp down the Taliban "mowing the grass" because the insurgents almost always return as soon as the occupiers return to their bases.

The goal of Operation Moshtarak, as the offensive is called, is different insofar that the
emphasis is on protecting and stabilizing communities rather than killing insurgents.

It also is nothing less than an acid test of the (somewhat) fresh thinking that the Obama administration has brought to the war: Breaking the Taliban in their heartland by securing a 200-mile long horseshoe-shaped string of cities that run along the Helmand River, through Kandahar and then on to the Pakistani border. The ribbon holds 85 percent of the population of Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, the Taliban's largest base of support.

I had argued vehemently that any kind of U.S. escalation in Afghanistan ultimately would prove fruitless, including carbon copying the Surge strategy in Iraq, but now
that the offensive is under way I'm willing to give it a chance.

And while I have had issues with commanding General Stanley McChrystal, he seems to be on top of things, notably his counterintuitive decision to announce the offensive in advance to try to avoid the loss of civilian lives and intention to bring in police and government workers as soon as the Taliban are pushed back, as well as quickly getting the development projects in gear that would be a start in winning local hearts and minds.

Early reports are mixed but encouraging: Coalition and civilian casualties have been light. Troops have pretty much secured Marjah despite fierce sniper fire and more
home-made bombs, booby traps, and minefields than anticipated. Many Taliban have predictably fled over the border with Pakistan. And the Taliban's top military leader apparently has been captured.

So will nine years of bad decision making in Washington and Afghanistan become so much history? We'll just have to wait and see.

Top photograph by Agence France-Presse

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