A great battle is drawing near, so we’re told. Operation Moshtarak - Together. You’ve heard about it. Afghans have read about it from the leaflets dropped on them. The largest joint operation between US, UK, and Afghan forces since 2001.
15,000 troops are hitting the deck in Helmand.
Moshtarak’s military scale matches its controversy. The operation is widely publicized, an attempt to minimize both civilian and Taliban casualties. The Washington Post reports: “NATO ministers and commanders, gathering Thursday and Friday in Istanbul, could barely contain themselves.”
"In the coming days, you will see a demonstration of our capability in a series of operations, led by the Afghans and supported by NATO, in southern Helmand," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen “volunteered” to reporters.
Careful Mr. Rashmussen, don’t allow confidence to decay into vanity. We’re sure the battle order is glistening like the sun, so we offer this analysis to keep it in good order. At least four weaknesses have the potential to dull the luster of Operation Moshtarak.
The first is the “battle” itself. US forces are to concentrate on Marja while British and ANA forces engage Nad Ali, the two major towns near Helmand’s capital Lashkar Gah. As Taliban units are said to have fallen back to Marja over the last year, it seems the main battle site will form there. Taliban strength is estimated at 1,000-2,000.
The Telegraph Reports, “NATO troops, supported by special forces, combat jets, Apache attack helicopters, tanks and drones will simultaneously attack several Taliban enclaves within the notorious ‘Green Zone.’”
But NATO officials are also hoping to present such an awesome array of firepower that Taliban foot soldiers will lay down their arms in enough numbers to turn the tide. In this sense a path is being left open to a desperate enemy, a potentially wise strategy.
General McChrystal told reporters last week, “If they want to fight, then obviously that will have to be an 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. And we think we can give them that opportunity. And that's why it is a little unconventional to do it this way."
Yet it remains how far this “unconventional” steamroller will get. The Taliban have never been known to desert in droves and since they’re now estimated at 30,000, up from 25,000 in 2008," they probably don’t think things are changing so much as McChrystal might.
And not that its influence reaches to the last foot soldier, but Mullah Omar and his circle released a statement today offering the same bargain to America.
“Our first priority is to achieve these goals through talks and negotiation," read a statement on the Taliban’s website. “But if the invading powers in Afghanistan are not ready to give the Afghans their natural rights... then the Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate are determined to carry on the fight until the realization of the said goals.”
Some Taliban might surrender if physically cornered, but it’s doubtful the entire contingent will suffer. After all these 1,000 -2,000 Taliban are the active force in the region, not part-time locals from individual valleys. This contingent goes valley to valley, city to city, but they aren't foreigners either. They're Afghan, local to the region, and this is their life.
They’ll be hard to turn.
"They [the Taliban] have had many days to prepare for this,” Al Jazeera's David Chater reported from Kabul, “it's the same sort of situation I saw in Iraq when the assault on Fallujah came about; everyone knew that was going to happen at the time.”
On the bright side, turn them and the others might not be so hard. Except a deeper problem: why will the Taliban engage in this fight? NATO officials are hoping to “break the back” of the Taliban in Helmand, but this makes no sense.
Though the Taliban will engage coalition forces, they’ve faced years of air-power and are unlikely to assume large formations. Small unit tactics are inevitable, but most of the force has probably melted away by now, off creating defenses for further retreat or moving into other areas left open by NATO concentration on Marja.
Perhaps events will shape out otherwise. The Taliban could grow bold an attempt a large-scale attempt, though it will likely fail, or possibly stage a series of ambushes to boost morale. But we don’t understand the expectation of a real “battle.” A holding operation is more likely on both sides.
As a military operation is defined by its objectives, that the other weaknesses fall into the strategic category is alarming. Consider a standard error committed by the AP, BBC, or Al Jazeera: “Marjah is also thought to be the hub of the Taliban-controlled opium trade - which provides them with most of their funding.”
Multiple US studies last year found that opium makes up a fraction of the Taliban’s funding. Not only does it maintain huge stockpiles throughout the country, diversifying its supply chains, the Taliban has diversified as a whole into a corporate/mafia entity. Severing Marja’s opium belt may not be so critical.
A better argument can be made to deprive the Taliban of territory and population to tax and operate legal businesses in, rather than to merely chop down the opium crop and provide new crops. This leads to the third dilemma - destroying or clearing out the Taliban from Marja is job one.
Job two is to hold the territory in order to begin reconstruction. The BBC reports, “They hope this will allow Afghan and international civilian efforts to rebuild governance to take root.” Other reports also make some mention of “clear and hold,” then the Afghan government.
From our vantage point the West’s hyped up war machine, a marvel of high technology, and Hamid Karzai’s half-a-cabinet, recessed parliament of a government are polar worlds. The hope must be that the operation, possibly planned for six months, will end successfully just as Karzai’s getting his government back into gear.
Except Karzai and the West continue to display divergence, most recently over Taliban reconciliation. Given the political sloppiness over last year, it’s hard to imagine the stars will align as envisioned by Washington and London.
Operation Moshtarak has the makings of a tactical victory, yet concerns exist over its strategic objectives. America must take the fight to the Taliban in order to reestablish authority and begin reconstruction, and large-scale operations are the only way to truly drive them out of a given area.
But this reality is just the problem we worry about - al-Qaeda isn’t really the enemy here. Afghanistan is first a war against the Taliban, which is a longer war, and America is going to need many more operations like Moshtarak. Sounds like there will be too.
"I'm not prepared to say we have turned the corner," says General McChrystal. "But I think we have made significant progress in setting conditions in 2009 and... we'll make real progress in 2010.”
Moshtarak should provide some sort of indication where the trend is headed.