What the Marja Battle Costs

With the news full of reports of a much-anticipated NATO and Afghan military move on the town of Marja in Helmand province of Afghanistan’s desert south, where do we stand in the war?

This battle is fascinating for the fact that it was announced repeatedly in advance by NATO commanders.  The unusual tactic deprived us of tactical surprise, but General Stanley McChrystal and others clearly felt it even more important to minimize civilian casualties by trying to convince resistance fighters to vacate the area in advance.  Even if those insurgents who flee remain free to fight another day, our key premise is that they will not be successful in galvanizing widespread support in Helmand province or elsewhere if we can establish positive momentum first—on the battlefield, and then in improving the lives of Afghan citizens.  In other words, if we can keep down the violence, while extending government control in the country, time becomes our ally, rather than the enemy’s.  That assumption seems sound based on the fact that most Afghans actually despise the Taliban and other insurgents, and tend to support them only when thoroughly disgusted with their own government and with us.

If we are in fact able to secure control of Marja, and then allow a pre-formed Afghan governance team to quickly move in and provide economic aid as well as a sense of law and order, most of the main belt of Helmand province will be in Afghan government and NATO hands.  This would be important; Helmand is not quite as crucial to the battle as Kandahar, home base of the Taliban and former redoubt of Osama bin Laden, but it is perhaps the second most important area of Afghanistan’s south.  It includes major infiltration routes for insurgents coming in from Pakistan, major opium-producing regions that help fund the insurgency, and a major population belt of Afghans from which the insurgency has also drawn many local recruits.

So how is it working so far?  A misfired artillery strike by NATO forces killed about a dozen Afghan citizens in the Marja offensive over the weekend, including several children. This is a tragedy on human grounds and a setback for the strategy.

However, I would counsel against overinterpreting the consequences of this one major mistake.  Such things alas happen in war.  And 12 killed, while 12 too many, compares with a nationwide average of 150 to 200 a month dying in the war as well as associated violence—mostly at the hands of the Taliban.  It is also far fewer than the hundreds of civilians that were probably killed each time U.S.-led coalition troops stormed major Iraqi towns in places like Falluja and Ramadi and Najaf early in the war there.

This week will be dominated by ongoing NATO and Afghan efforts to search Marja for weapons, unexploded roadside bombs, and any insurgents still in town.  Simple military math suggest that it takes a squad of soldiers (perhaps a dozen) up to a half hour to search a house; by this arithmetic, it could take several days for the 6,000 troops involved in this mission to set up checkpoints and search for weapons caches throughout the town of some 80,000.  Some operations could take longer than a week, especially the ongoing search for unexploded and hidden ordnance.

NATO and Afghan casualties will surely rise in this process; as of this writing, it appears that only two to three soldiers have been lost to date.  Again, that is an enormous tragedy, but roughly consistent with our loss rate under normal circumstances in recent months.  So on balance I would consider the developments hopeful so far.

Even greater challenges probably loom in Kandahar City and also in Afghanistan’s mountain east.  In these places, such large clearing missions will be harder to carry out, because a combination of terrain and local political sentiment among Afghans will constrain our ability to carry out decisive one-time operations.  But as more NATO troops flow into the theater this winter and spring, and as more Afghan troops are trained and properly resourced themselves, we should be able to gradually expand our control of these other strategically crucial areas. 

One thing at a time, however.  If the coming week’s news resembles that of the first few days of the operation, the battle for Marja should become a positive and major step forward in the war.  War is always hell.  But we have huge assets in this fight, even beyond our excellent military.  Afghans are for the most part against the insurgency, supportive of their own government even as they recognize its flaws, and glad the international community is there to help them even as they continue to regard us with a bit of a jaundiced eye after nearly a decade of half measures that we employed in the war until General McChrystal took over last spring.  Much of their tolerance of the insurgency, in places where that has been the trend, is due to their fear that the insurgency will win—and that woe awaits those who might have opposed them previously.  In other words, Taliban momentum was self-reinforcing, making people feel they had to hedge their bets.  If we can reverse such perceptions, we are well on the way to a much better year in 2010 than we’ve experienced in Afghanistan in recent times.  Keep your fingers crossed.