What Comes Next In Marja?

The Wall Street Journal reports today that Afghan officials raised a flag over the new government offices in Marja, marking a tipping point in the battle for that southern Afghan town and surrounding area. I think the celebrations may be a bit premature and agree with what comments by Marine Commandant Gen. Conway in an appearance before the House Armed Services Committee. “Marja will be contested for a while until the Taliban pack it up. The nature of an insurgency is that they could well be back,” he said.

Insurgents typically melt away, either into the population or the countryside, when confronted with a massive military offensive. I smiled a bit when I heard British Army Maj. Gen. Nick Patrick Carter, ISAF commander for RC South, briefing reporters on the massive air assault that spearheaded the Marja operation. By landing troops at 11 different locations, using some 60 helicopters in 11 assault waves, “as if it were on a railway timetable drawn up in Germany,” Carter said the air assault “entirely dislocated” the insurgent defenses in the area within the first 24 hours of the operation.

Now, one of the key points to keep in mind is that insurgents do not hold ground. That’s a big war conventional way of thinking. Guerrilla fighters prefer to operate in the shadows where they won’t be targeted by ISAF’s overwhelming firepower. Those Taliban that stayed and fought it out with the Marines over the last few days? Those were most likely young guns for hire, brought in from Pakistan, used as cannon fodder by the Taliban. We’ve seen that before, repeatedly.

It remains to be seen whether the Afghan government can move in and establish some kind of authority in Marja and provide security for the locals without the predatory activities of corrupt officials and police. I’m not so sure the Karzai government is capable. At least they haven’t proven to be up to this point.

Australian counterinsurgency adviser David Kilcullen explains a standard insurgent tactic is to surrender control of an area so the government must move in and administer the area and then governance problems rise. Then, slowly over time, the insurgents move back into the area as the population becomes disgruntled. “The insurgents move forward by pulling back,” he said.

This will be the real challenge of ISAF commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy, trying to connect the government to the people, but reforming the government at the same time. That’s a tall order.

In his briefing, Carter said it would be another 120 days or so before they know whether the local population has decided to go all in with ISAF and the Afghan government or will simply wait for the insurgents to return someday.

He then described the next phase in the campaign plan: “The next big effort that my headquarters will be doing, in conjunction with the U.S. civilian platform that supports and is integrated with it, will be to turn its attention to how Kandahar can be resolved during the course of the next three to six months.” There are around 1 million people living in and around Kandahar. While the city isn’t the insurgent stronghold along the lines of Ramad or Fallujah in Iraq, the Taliban do exert political control there, he said.

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