On Sunday ISAF forces operating alongside US Marines and Afghan troops began a much-anticipated military push in southern Helmand province. Operation Moshtarak is focused on the lawless area of Marjah, which serves as a major base for insurgent activity and drug trafficking. The launching of this offensive is part of the larger American military surge in Afghanistan and marks the largest joint operation by allied forces since the 2001 invasion.
About 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops are said to be taking part in the offensive around Marjah, an area with an estimated 80,000 inhabitants and the largest southern town under Taliban control. Operation Moshtarak is significant in that it is being billed as a huge test for NATO’s retooled counterinsurgency strategy.
For months, American Marines in Helmand have been sporting t-shits with the slogan “Just do Marjah” printed on the back. While battle preparations are normally shrouded in silence, NATO officials ignored the usual dictum in the run to Operation Moshtarak. By loudly touting this operation, NATO’s military leaders have hoped to encourage civilians to flee the area and prompt insurgents to drop their arms and side against the Taliban.
This aim is consistent with NATO’s new counterinsurgency strategy, which places more emphasis on winning the allegiance of Afghans and less on insurgent body counts. In reference to this logic, General Stanley McChrystal recently stated; “[i]f they want to fight, then obviously that will have to be the outcome. But if they don’t want to fight, that’s fine too….We’d much rather have them see the inevitability that things are changing and just accept that.”
After being ferried into Marjah by waves of helicopters on Saturday, NATO forces encountered fierce resistance including heavy gunfire, snipers and numerous improvised explosive devices (IEDs). On Sunday, an American outpost came under heavy fire from surrounding insurgents and, on Monday, while trying to reach a strategically significant bazaar area, American forces were forced to request the assistance of Harrier Jets and attack helicopters. However, with an estimated 35 militants killed, more recent reports indicate that progress has been made since hostilities began over the weekend.
According to the Governor of Helmand Province, Gulab Mangal, “[t]he situation moment by moment is going the way the government has expected. The [NATO] forces are extending their advances from points they have captured and the operation is going on successfully.” American Captain Abraham Sipe described the fighting on Tuesday as increasingly sporadic and consisting of hit-and-run tactics. Going into this operation, a huge emphasis was placed on limiting civilian casualties in hopes of winning the “hearts and minds” of Afghans. The publicity surrounding Operation Moshtarak over the last few weeks did have the positive impact of encouraging thousands of Afghans to flee Marjah for surrounding villages and a large refugee camp outside Lashkar Gah.
However, since the commencement of the operation there have been unintended civilian casualties. On Sunday, NATO rockets reportedly killed 12 civilians – half of them children – in a house on the outskirts of Marjah and on Tuesday three civilians were killed when caught in the crossfire between insurgents and NATO forces. In response to Sunday’s civilian casualties, non-lethal smoke rounds were used in place of high explosive shells on Tuesday as marines attempted to disperse Taliban fighters.
However, regardless of the measures taken to limit the risk of harm to Afghan civilians, the success of Operation Moshtarak ultimately depends on how many Afghans in the area are willing to support the central government once hostilities have subsided. Reflecting the firm grip that the Taliban has had on this area, many Afghans in Marjah are fearful that the Taliban will return as authority is transferred to the central Afghan government. Speaking to a reporter with the American Press, one Afghan villager insisted that the Taliban will surely return once the marines move on stating; “Don’t take pictures of me or the Taliban will come back to kill me.”
With the transfer of security responsibilities set to begin in 2011, the long-term success of this operation depends on the actions of NATO’s long criticized Afghan partners. In order to put an “Afghan face” on Operation Moshtarak, Afghan National Army soldiers have been going door to door in order to undermine the perception that the forces moving into Marjah amount to a foreign occupation. President Karzai has also said that he plans on visiting Marjah to talk to locals once security has been established. However, in order to maintain local support experts say that the Afghan government must provide security, deliver services, and root out local corruption. Provincial authorities also have the task of promoting alternative jobs in this rural area almost totally reliant on the illegal opium trade. The first contingent of Afghan National Civil Police officers is set to arrive later this week – the first sign of Kabul’s civil authority in nearly a decade. Let the test begin.
By: Jonathan Preece, NCC
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