The whole world knew that NATO was about to drop into Marjah. Public awareness was part of their plan, U.S. commanders counter-argued to their detractors, and they wanted the Taliban to know they were coming. Americans too.
Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, commander of all U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan, would tell 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 Marjah."
NATO''s plan partially succeeded; due to the disproportion of force - some 10,000 U.S., British and Afghan combat troops versus 500 Taliban - Marjah was never defended as the "stronghold" that U.S. officials dressed it up as. Some reports indicated that Pakistani Taliban had fled back across the border, creating resentment between, but an entrenched resistance would only waste men trained to fight a guerrilla war. The town simply wasn't worth dying for in the immediate future.
Still, a combination of factors would stunt the applause that the Obama administration had envisioned for Marjah. Hoping to model its newly-christened surge in the middle of Helmand Province, the village's significance was hyped beyond reality and ultimately questioned by independent sources. Errant missiles struck an Afghan house days into the campaign, killing 12 civilians. What was expected to take weeks dragged on for months as the Taliban resisted with hit-and-run tactics, jading Americans (especially Obama voters) who have already grown tired of seemingly endless asymmetric warfare. The village triggered Vietnam flashbacks and a miniature Tet in the media: although NATO troops eventually reduced the Taliban's influence in Marjah, the cost and time of securing a single village did not bode well for the rest of Afghanistan.
Kandahar's large-scale operation was later scrapped due to a variety of considerations, including local doubts that America would make a bigger mess.
When U.S. troops moved up river to Helmand's next "stronghold," scant media coverage and few official statements would accompany them into a truly dangerous area. The notorious graveyard of over 100 British soldiers, Sangin rested out of American sight and mind throughout the first nine years of war in Afghanistan. U.S. Marines finally relieved a hated British battalion in July 2010 as their commanders pumped up Helmand's new "Taliban stronghold," but this time the White House opted against amplifying their war cries. A good decision, to be sure, since numerous reports (and denials) of civilian casualties emerged during the initial weeks, and U.S. forces remain locked in an intense battle with a semi-invisible enemy.
U.S. officials do, of course, report on occasion that everything is going as planned.
The Trench invested a significant amount of time highlighting the similarities and differences between Marjah and Sangin: multiple "stronghold/opium hub" theory, ballooning time-lines and anticipated levels of resistance. Unlike Marjah, the Taliban never planned to forfeit Sangin as easily and will employ all available tactics to disrupt U.S. forces in the area. These collective factors leave nothing to surprise after the Taliban's latest attack in Sangin went public. Having invited "at least three Special Forces troops" from a nearby base to dine with him, Afghan policeman “Asadullah" gunned them down and evacuated "while in contact with the Taliban," according to spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi.
"During dinner, the police commander and his colleagues shot them and then fled," a senior Afghan official told Reuters. "The commander was Afghan National Police in charge of local police in Sangin."
Other sources place Asadullah as the commander of a checkpoint near the Special Forces base.
U.S. denial is no more surprising than the Taliban's attempt to infiltrate Sangin's police force. White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that "it is too early to say that this latest is part of a stepped up effort," even though the Taliban have publicly announced their designs to infiltrate Afghanistan's military and police. ISAF spokesman Brig. Gen. Gunter Katz similarly told CBS News the "isolated incident... doesn't reflect the security situation," but Sangin's environment is every bit as dangerous as it appears. Carney and Katz later addressed the need to "mitigate" the Taliban's "maximum exposure" and infiltration techniques, tacitly admitting to the problem at hand.
"Green on Blue" incidents have already accelerated France's time-line to withdraw, sucking U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta into the fray. In the last seven months alone, at least thirty NATO soldiers have been killed by Afghans dressed in army or police uniforms. U.S. commanders automatically downplay the effects on security operations and inter-military relations, but the Taliban is aiming for American and European minds first. Every high profile "incident" pushes another needle into the American public, which often blames the Afghan government for something it cannot prevent, and a few spectacular ambushes could knock a NATO country (Germany, Italy, Australia) into submission.
These are no isolated attacks, either in Sangin or anywhere in the country, because Afghan-dressed Taliban will continue ambushing NATO forces through 2014 and beyond.