July 1, 2010

Following the Cobra’s Trail

If it’s going to happen it has to happen now. While General David Petraeus entertained the US Senate on his way to a 99-0 confirmation, the real action can be found in the Helmand River valley. Operation Cobra, let loose two weeks ago, is Petraeus’s latest effort to secure Marjah enough to begin serious government programs and broker an agreement between the villages many tribes.

Of course it comes with a heavy dose of propaganda too.

“It’s really increasing pressure on a couple of areas where we’ve got enemies staged outside Marjah,” said Colonel Randy Newman, commander of the marines’ Regimental Combat Team Seven, which is responsible for Marjah. “It’s adding another layer of depth to the perimeter outside of Marjah.”

“Following a walking tour of the local bazaar, which has seen numerous development projects completed in the five months since the ousting of the Taliban, the deputy provincial governor for Helmand opened the meeting with words of encouragement,” read an ISAF press statement on the latest shura.

Col. Newman defended Operation Moshtarak, saying other parts of Helmand province such as Garmsir and Nawa districts are stabilizing as a result. He claims attacks have decreased by half over the past year, and that Marjah “is on course for improvements in the coming months.” Petraeus would be wise to make Operation Cobra his highest priority. Truly secure the area and enough time might be bought for Kandahar.

Unfortunately, like most reports from Marjah, the US position sounds more optimistic than versions from locals. The bazaar was reportedly shut down by the Taliban in strike of a government edict banning the use of motorbikes for 10 days. Anyone seen collaborating with US forces is allegedly visited by the Taliban within 24 hours.

Hundreds of additional Marines were deployed for Operation Cobra, leading to questions of how many troops are exactly necessary for the job, let alone other Taliban-controlled villages like Sangin. Bad news keeps coming from Marjah with two weeks under its belt. And the fact remains that regardless of current progress, Operation Moshtarak was vastly over-hyped by the Pentagon in the media and can never fully escape this fatal flaw.

Ominous insight can also be found within the US ranks.

Lance-corporal Monty Buchanan believes, “a more experienced group of insurgents had replaced those who defended the town from the marines’ onslaught in February.” He says, “They were moving around a lot quicker. Their fire was a lot more accurate.” Buchanan’s observations are in line with reports of the Taliban’s skill improving faster than before.

While more operations will follow, Operation Cobra may go a long way in foretelling which way the war blows. Kandaharis certainly used Marjah’s example to oppose their own incoming operation, and the process may be reversible. Success breeds success. But stall again and leave Marjah unstable into late summer or fall, when Kandahar was supposed to be secured? What then of Kandahar and all of Afghanistan?

Little faith can be put into the White House’s decision-making were it to enter Congressional elections or the December review under these conditions.

But such a prospect is one of the quickest means of bringing July 2011 to a premature confrontation. Though Petraeus stated, “Not only did I say that I supported it, I said that I agreed with it,” he’s made too many statements to the contrary. And he’s good at going back on his words, like the Israeli controversy he stirred up then tried to silence.

July 2011 remains undecided between the White House and Pentagon, the effects manifested in their own actions, Congress, and the US public’s declining support. We don’t agree with Senator Lindsey Grahams’s position, but can’t argue with his words either.

"Somebody needs to get it straight without doubt what the hell we're going to do in Afghanistan.”

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