From the beginning they broadcast that Operation Moshtarak is not a military operation. Hammering the goal of political progress into US and Afghan minds alike, they made sure everyone heard loud and clear: America finally understands a political solution is the only way out of Afghanistan.
But as US and NATO generals preach this message in the field, Washington isn’t proving it in Kabul.
The two governments compose the ultimate battle in Marjah running simultaneously above local counterinsurgency operations. The generals don’t mention so much that political progress in Marjah depends on more than a “deep” security presence and good local leaders.
Kabul must get its workings in order for Marjah to witness lasting success, all the more for the Kandahar operation - and for Afghanistan’s stability in general.
Counterinsurgency is a set of rails, political and military, economic and social, that must stay parallel for optimum performance. So it must be embarrassing for the White House to be lagging behind the Pentagon. A relatively successful military operation in Marjah has been overshadowed by the political rail bending away from Obama, putting friction on his surge and reducing its chances of success.
Operation Moshtarak hasn’t been “extraordinary,” as Defense spokesman Geoff Morrell described them yesterday and many US and NATO officials will tell you. Property damage and civilian casualties inside and outside Helmand province didn’t mar Marjah so much as General McChrystal’s credibility, who was forced to repeatedly apologize during the campaign.
But though sporadic attacks will persist for a “few weeks” in the generals’ estimates - longer in ours - Operation Moshtarak certainly isn’t a disaster. The odds of a huge battle was never high and, thankfully for US and NATO troops, didn’t materialize on the off chance. Only 16 troops, 10 of them Americans, have died in the operation.
Most Taliban blended back into Marjah and the surrounding area, or headed for Pakistan’s mountains. They will be at a distinct disadvantage while US and Afghan forces hold the town.
Of course this is the point where everyone either says one of two things: we’ve done this before, or this time is different. Marjah, as a dependent satellite, hinges its fortune on Kabul. US and NATO forces know that without national political progress, local progress will be hard to generate.
Were the situation to stay relatively similar to 2005 or 2008, Marjah won’t get enough funding for police and alternative crops. Future officials, if beholden to other interests than the local people, will siphon away security gains. Western states will tighten the purses in response, further damaging Afghanistan’s economic prospects.
Operation Moshtarak will succeed in the long run only if America is able to cooperate with President Hamid Karzai and hold him accountable. Right now Obama is down on both counts.
One omen came a month ago when Afghanistan’s parliamentary election was postponed from May 22 to September 18 due to security and political concerns. Though valid concerns, as Karzai and Afghanistan had no way of holding a credible election with a large turnout, the reality doesn’t bode well for the next few years.
Not with Taliban reconciliation a long-standing disagreement going forward and Karzai using the delay in the short-term to consolidate power under Obama’s nose.
During the days of Operation Moshtarak’s launch, as Obama was being constantly updated by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Karzai was busying having his own cabinet draft an amendment granting him the power to appoint all members of the Electoral Complaints Commission. Once filled with UN officials responsible for discovering most of the election fraud, that will no longer be the case.
"People are very worried about this law," said one foreign official in Kabul who works on election issues. "It was so substantially rewritten, and nobody really knew about it."
People should be even more worried that Karzai still lacks 10 of 24 cabinet seats eight months after August 20th, that this has little effect on his defiant behavior. To the New York Times' horror, “the Karzai government unilaterally rewrote the election law, and the president put it into effect by a legislative decree on Feb. 13.”
Karzai spokesman Syamak Herawi explained afterward, “The international members had large salaries and didn't care about Afghanistan's national interest. Now there won't be any interference. The foreigners can be observers."
"It is we who decide who leads in Afghanistan," Karzai said last month in Munich. "We are not a colony."
He’s delivering on that prophecy. March 1st, 16 days into Operation Moshtarak, the Government’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) - Afghanistan’s intelligence agency - banned the media from broadcasting live images of terror attacks.
The order was immediately criticized by Afghan journalism and human rights groups, US officials, and the Taliban, who called the move, "a flagrant violation of the recognized principle of freedom of speech.”
Some journalists and analysts see a silver lining. Karzai is becoming unnerved by the reporting and criticism of the multiplying local media outlets. Some might see a glimmer of hope in Afghanistan taking control of its own institutions, or negotiating with the Taliban for that matter. But Obama’s political and military rails are separating when they need to be coming together.
He needs to correct this divergence now.
Obama’s fundamental problem is that he already lost the advantage over Karzai. His treatment of him since before becoming president to the election and until this moment has been erratic, criticizing him then condemning him, then trusting him before being burned again, and now having to push back again.
Obama should have been more forceful on Karzai during the election and more supportive of opposition candidate Abdullah Abdullah. But it’s too late now. Karzai knows Obama can’t do anything to him, a belief that’s a deadly product of two things: America needs Karzai, and Karzai now has China and India.
Thus Obama and his officials must get creative in controlling Karzai if they hope to keep their war on track. Potential military gains may have to be exploited against him, just as he turns civilian casualties against America. If US troops are able to stabilize parts of Helmand and Kandahar then Obama could have leverage with those provinces.
He would then have to apply it to Kabul, like US officials did to Pakistan with Swat to obtain more operations in Waziristan. Naturally this strategy carries risks - neither Pakistan’s government, media, or people are pro-American - but it might work better in Afghanistan when the demand is good governance.
Since Obama can’t really punish Karzai, rewarding him could work instead. Tell him to draw up a list of personal or ideal projects he and his power base would like done. If they’re reasonable maybe Obama and Karzai can work out an equivalent exchange as a way to motivate local and regional actors, and hopefully Karzai himself in the end.
America would have to be careful this doesn’t turn into a bribe system, but Obama has to think of something new. His options for Karzai are few and he needs all the creativity and unorthodoxy the White House and Pentagon can conjure. His surge is unlikely to make his July 2011 deadline if the political and military tracks continue diverging.
Obama must pull them back into line before they derail America in Afghanistan.