One of the largest operations in Afghanistan since 9/11 has launched. Thousands of troops have massed under the cover of darkness. Mines are everywhere. A resistant opponent awaits in the distance, an embattled leader watches from afar.
Operation Hypnotize has commenced on the American people.
Watching Operation Moshtarak unfold through the international media is a spectacle in itself. While there’s no disputing the reality of a military operation, it’s readily apparent that this demonstration of power is targeting more than Afghans. General Stanley McChrystal announced during the run-up to the battle, "This is all a war of perceptions. This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants."
He was talking about Americans as much as Afghans.
There is nothing inherently wrong about propaganda. It doesn’t nullify the effects of Operation Moshtarak, as truth is the best propaganda. Real dirt can bring down armies or make kings, and lies have been known to do the same, but such a dizzying array of propaganda has been launched that no choice remains except to discern fact from fiction in Marjah. The “break-in battle" has been set up like a reality show. While the publicity towards Afghanistan over the last month makes for a sound tactic, the hype over the last week was created primarily for Americans and Britons.
Operation Moshtarak is largely meant to sell President Obama’s surge.
Over at Camp Letherneck Lieutenant Josh Diddams, spokesman for the US Marines Taskforce, briefed reporters, “At 0230 this morning (2200 GMT Friday), helicopters inserted combined forces into Marjah town.” Sporadic resistance has been reported, though most squads have reportedly experienced few direct encounters. 20 militants are said to be dead in the attack so far, which encompasses the city of Marjah itself and the surrounding villages in the area. However the operation really began months ago when Obama approved his surge. A defense official said Afghan President Hamid Karzai had been informed of planning well in advance, “a first in terms of both sharing information prior to the attack and planning collaboration with the Afghan government.”
The actual battle has been occurring for weeks, explained by this piece of British propaganda. SAS take out top 50 Taliban reads a headline in The Sun, the second highest circulated English language daily in the world. The first sentence changes to, “British SAS heroes have killed up to 50 Taliban commanders.” Western forces have been busy hunting Taliban for the last month, as also reported by The New York Times: "Indeed, American soldiers and, particularly, Special Operations teams have been busy for weeks, moving into and around Marja and killing and capturing Taliban leaders and rank-and-file soldiers.”
Even Afghan intelligence agents got in on the action, capturing the Taliban’s shadow governor last week after he had fled to Kandahar “on the orders of his commanders in Pakistan,” US officials say a number of shadow governors have been killed or captured in recent weeks, while the NYT also quotes a senior NATO commander as saying of Taliban commanders, “We know a bunch of them left.”
The Taliban’s leadership structure in Marjah is thus difficult to gauge. A local shadow governor, while important, is expendable by nature, though it should be noted that this one apparently is "a chatty Cathy" and has detailed Taliban defenses. Some commanders, likely the very highest, escaped weeks ago. Those commanders left are likely diehards, the few forced to stay behind.
Enough to put up a fight at least. An immediate question then: how many Taliban and how many coalition forces are on the battlefield?
15,000 coalition forces are said to break down into a fighting force of 7,500 - 3,500 US Marines, 2,000 UK soldiers, and 1,500 ANA troops, plus 500 Strykers. 7,500 other personnel were deployed in support of the offensive across the surrounding district, on the ground and in the air. Reports indicate that Afghans form a majority of the force, but most are operating in support roles and behind U.S. forces on the front-lines. It does makes sense to hold the town with Afghan police and Gendarmerie, but as some reports add this qualifier and some don't, the lines of truth are still being blurred.
On the Taliban side estimates range from 400 to 2,000, an enormous swing. The high comes from a Taliban commander and so is automatically discarded; the likely number is between 400 and 1,000. This ratio doesn’t seem to be much because it isn’t, but their job is to harass instead of fight.
Separately, Abdul Rehman Jan, an elder involved in negotiations with US forces, was quoted as saying, "We have talked to some of the Taliban over the phone and we have told them: 'This is your country. Don't create problems for your fellow Afghans and don't go on a suicide mission.”
He said most of the Afghan Taliban have fled the area. Militant commanders from the Middle East or Pakistan have stayed on "and they want to fight,” he said. This suggests the insurgent force is relatively small (300-500) since the entire force is reported to be primarily Afghan.
The Wall Street Journal cites a senior US defense official as saying, “more than 75% of the fighters in Marjah are believed to be local Afghans.”
Thus we have contradictions in numbers, makeup, and actions, all three of which influence each other and must be discerned as the battle takes shape.
US commanders say the point of their PR campaign is to either chase away as many Taliban fighters as possible, even at the expense of letting them get away, or shock and awe them into surrender. This is false; American forces boast of encircling the city and trying to catch or kill anyone that escapes. They have every intention of killing as many Taliban as possible, not just staying and helping the people.
Nor does the Taliban seem to be heeding America’s advice to run or turn themselves in. Any attempt towards secrecy would be foiled by their spies anyway, but the Taliban would have felt out the operation even without forewarning from the Obama administration. They would have known when U.S. and U.K. forces began shaping the battlefield a month ago, so the reaction would seem to be similar. About half the force melts away and relocates for the time being while a rearguard, foreign contingent and other selected units mount a resistance.
“A lot of hit-and-run attacks and ground explosions will be used, for which structures and initial procedures have been completed,” read a Taliban statement.
“We have laid bombs and mines all over the area and have told people not to [leave] their homes in order for them to be safe,” Mullah Uthoman, a purported Taliban commander in Marjah, told IRIN by phone.
Still, NATO officials believe the premature exodus of high-level Taliban signals that Mullah Omar and his shura have ceded Marhah for the time being. Coalition forces will certainly take the town because the Taliban has no intentions of holding it. They’re job is simply to fight for as long as possible. While confidence and bravado doesn't inherently make for bad strategy, these influences can easily contribute to underestimating an enemy.
Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, commander of the US Marines in southern Afghanistan, told reporters, “We're going to go in big... I’m not looking for a fair fight. The message for the Taliban is: It will be easy, or it will be hard, but we are coming. At the end of the day, the Afghan flag will be over Marja.”
Brigadier James Cowan, Commander of Taskforce Helmand, crooned, "I can think of no better name for we are in this together. We planned it together, we will fight it together, we will see it through together. Afghans with allies, soldiers with civilians, government with its people. Together, Operation Moshtarak will mark the start of the end of this insurgency."
Said Lt. Col. Calvin Worth, commander of 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, the main assault force, “The people of Marjah will wake up to a new Afghan government tomorrow.”
US officials expect that clearing the area of Taliban and mines will take a few weeks.
A few months sound more realistic, maybe six months to create real security. So it’s hard to take General McChrystal seriously when he claims, “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in.” Has it ever been that easy?
Adding to the danger of underestimating the Taliban is how few civilians reportedly fled Marjah. Many complained that the Taliban was holding everyone in town, telling them to stay inside and blocking the exits with guards or bombs. This could make the battle much harder, bloodier, and longer.
One tribal elder claims, “Only about 5 percent of the people have left the city — but the rest, 95 percent, are still here.” His statement corresponds to the general reporting that many civilians have locked themselves in their homes, but eventually they’ll have to come out. While some will work with coalition forces, the operation as a whole is likely to be slowed down.
Western forces are correct in believing that Operation Moshtarak isn’t about clearing the city of Taliban but restoring government control and public services. At the same time, it could take six months or even a year to gain control of the town. Certainly not a few weeks. Any delay will weaken promises given by the Afghan government and US officials by postponing public service projects, dulling the military assault and boosting the Taliban’s morale. Thus the Trench understands the need for confidence, but the propaganda at work is visibly hazardous to the operation.
It’s also difficult to discount the happenings in Paktia province, where the shroud of American “smart-power” and advanced counterinsurgency conceal up to five bodies.
An initial NATO statement said a joint force searching a compound made a "gruesome discovery:" the bodies of three women who had been bound, gagged and killed. However a second statement several hours later said the joint force found the bound and gagged bodies of two women and two dead men. “There was no explanation for the initial discrepancy.”
Then, when contacted by the AP, reported family members of the compound said US soldiers had shot up a birthday party, killing five people. Local Afghan officials have condemned the killings and called on NATO to explain itself. They added that the operation was comprised solely of Western forces; ANA forces weren’t present and Kabul was allegedly unaware of the raid. Now we’re expected to believe that a massive invasion of Marjah will follow the rules of engagement.
The incident in Paktia, on the eve of Operation Moshtarak, doesn’t lend confidence to the notion that U.S. counterinsurgency is turning around in Afghanistan.
In the end that impression is what the operation is all about: dispelling doubts in Afghans and Americans by instilling confidence through military and political victory. Maybe Moshtarak will pull off a miracle and mark “the beginning of the end of the insurgency,” but surely this is what the White House and Pentagon want us to think. What they need us to think.
Better to think for ourselves.