May 26, 2010

Marjah, Kandahar Shrouded in Fog of War

We’re used to US commanders blowing smoke over Afghanistan so a Brit provides some needed diversity. Today Major General Nick Carter called the 3-month-old Operation Moshtarak in Marjah a military success. How he made such a claim, especially when the war is even less popular in the UK than America’s 41%, could be attributed to mad desperation.

Why else step in front of General Stanley McChrystal’s “bleeding ulcer?” Possibly to deploy more propaganda. McClatchy is now under fire from the Pentagon for its quote - and for intellectual dishonesty no less! We’re witnessing a counter-attack (and Hillary Clinton's deafening threats against North Korea provide additional diversion).

But it’s not just the separation between US and Afghan perceptions that blankets the village in darkness. Vicious cover-ups are being unleashed to dispel the negative swirl around Marjah, part of an increasingly disturbing cross-country trend. It began slowly as US commanders backtracked on the “clearing” phase from two weeks to a month to three.

Carter believes building a government could take another three or four months, more likely an estimate for the clearing phase.

The strategy of announcing the operation is also being used in some quarters as a crutch for “alerting the Taliban,” except they were ready when US forces swooped down on Kandahar last weekend. They likely would have gotten wind in Marjah too, and even if caught completely unaware the battle would likely equalize over time.

The reality is US and UK commanders oversold Marjah’s time-line from the beginning.

Covering up this dilemma requires significant propaganda, forcing US officials to contract local Afghan officials. A controversy has broken out whether Marjah families are still fleeing insecurity or leaving after the poppy harvest; the families say the former, Afghan officials the latter. Especially striking is the explanation of district governor Haji Mohammad Zaher, who “denied the existence of any such problem.”

“These families are mainly those who have committed major crimes in the past,” he said earlier in May, according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). “Now, when the area is under government control, they do not feel safe and flee the district.”

Perhaps he’s being truthful, but in a town where police are public enemy number one, Colonel Ghulam Sakhi doesn't help the build a convincing case The head of the public order department, “also claimed the situation in Marjah was satisfactory.”

“I can show you the list of 16 families who had migrated from Uruzgan during Taleban rule and were active in the poppy trade,” he said. “Now they have harvested their poppy and left Marjah. This has nothing to do with the security situation in Marjah.”

US and UK commanders are only other people saying Marjah is secure, except for (maybe) General McChrystal.

Not all Afghan officials walk the US line though. A source close to the Marjah district governor, said, “The Taliban are changing their tactics day by day; they keep planting mines and are also conducting small arms attacks, but they mainly put pressure on those who have connections with the government.”

The head of the Helmand rural rehabilitation and development department, Mohammad Omer Qani, confirmed, “Those leaving Marja are not government officials or Taleban fighters who should be afraid of their criminal deeds. The truth is that they are faced with challenges and everybody is making trouble for them.”

Currency is one interesting and revealing seed of conflict. Afghans accept US dollars and Pakistani rupees, putting them in danger of both sides to the point where each has been accused of severe intimidation. The particular case of Mohammad Omer displays the schism occurring in Marjah. Owner of a fertilizer shop, said he had left the village in fear of the Afghan police and the Taleban.

“I was selling in rupees, dollars and afghanis, and sometimes I had to stay the whole night in the shop, because I could not leave for fear of harassment by the police and by the Taliban.”

Now Omer’s identity can be hard to read. A Taliban fertilizer shop could pose as a legitimate business while supplying IED material to local soldiers, but it could also be one countless fertilizer shop in agrarian Afghanistan. America has big problems if Omer was simply hounded out of Marjah by local police, the singular pillar of Washington’s security hopes, crippling its economic and political strategy in the process.

General Carter deftly moved past Marjah’s insecurity by highlighting eight open schools and a thriving bazaar, the same propaganda exposed in nearby Sangin and used in Kandahar. But what if Afghan police are driving away local businessmen and Afghan officials are covering their actions up with tacit US approval?

It’s getting that dirty in Marjah, and it will only get worse.

Despite commonly-known delays General Carter said the major offensive in Kandahar is on schedule. For starters some operations have been delayed until fall in response to Marjah’s slow progress and the less than receptive welcome in Kandahar. It’s also worth extrapolating Carter’s time-line from the village to the city just to see what happens.

The clearing phase in Marjah was originally expected to take around two weeks, which became a month, then three and now an estimated six. Kandahar is estimated to take seven months, which equals 14 months, then three and half years, then seven.

Considering Kandahar is over 10 times the size and population of Marjah, and immeasurably more important to the Taliban, this could be a rough equivalent. Marjah was estimated to house 100-200 Taliban; estimates range between 1,000 to 2,000 hardcore fighters in Kandahar. the real possibility exists that Kandahar won’t be clear of Taliban and on the road to development for at least five years, about the time Obama expects to be out of the whole country.

Earlier in May, as Afghans continued to flee Marjah and rejected a large-scale military campaign in Kandahar, Michele Flournoy, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, "The evidence suggests that our shift in approach is beginning to produce results. The insurgency is losing momentum. And though real challenges and risks remain, we see a number of positive trends."

Like the villages and cities, US strategy in Afghanistan still isn’t making much sense.


  1. I can not remember where I read it.
    But, it said that they fear the corrupt Karzai government more than the Taliban.
    A society that lives in fear, can not be expected to govern its self.
    We call the Taliban insurgents.
    Yet the people think of our occupation as an insurgency.

  2. It's really mixed up out there. America may have one or two, but it will never have enough time, troops, resources, local security forces, political will in Afghanistan, regional support in Pakistan and China, etc. Too many factors working against US strategy. Expecting the propaganda to get thicker though.

    Still sticking by our prediction: no withdrawal in July 2011.