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On Anniversary of Marjah Push, Escalation Strategy Still Failing

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Exactly one year ago, on February 13, 2010, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan launched the first major military operations enabled by President Obama's 30,000 troop increase. President Obama and the high priests of counterinsurgency warfare, Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, made two major assertions about the escalation, that it would a) enable coalition forces to reverse the insurgents' momentum and b) increase security for the Afghan people. After a year of fighting, neither of those things happened. The escalation is a failure, and it's time to bring our troops home.

February 13, 2010: The Push into Marjah

Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, U.S. and other international forces began Operation Moshtarak, the invasion of Marja District in Helmand Province. Looking back, the hubris and hype surrounding this military operation boggle the mind. General McChrystal promised, "We've got a government in a box, ready to roll in," meaning that good governance and the extension of Kabul's writ would be implemented very rapidly. The operation was supposed to be a prototype for future campaigns in Afghanistan and a "confidence builder" for both U.S. forces and a restive political class in Washington, D.C., not all of whom were happy about the escalation or McChrystal's brashness in pushing it.

To put it mildly, Moshtarak failed to live up to the hype:

"[I]n the weeks leading up to the imminent offensive to take the Helmand River Valley town of Marjah in southern Afghanistan, the Marines' commander, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, sat with dozens of Afghan tribal elders...offering reassurances that his top priority will be the safety of Afghan civilians." -- Chicago Tribune, February 10, 2010.

Almost immediately, this hype about an operation purported to be proof-of-concept for the population-protecting counterinsurgency strategy fell apart in the face of U.S.-caused civilian deaths. Just prior to the operation, coalition forces dropped leaflets on the largely illiterate district warning people to stay in their homes. An Italian NGO, Emergeny, warned that military blockades were preventing civilians from fleeing the area. At the same time commanders bragged that the "evacuation" of the residents would allow the use of air strikes without the danger of civilian casualties. These contradictions soon bore deadly fruit: On the second day of the offensive, U.S. troops fired a HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) weapon on a house full of civilians, killing roughly a dozen people. By February 23, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that ISAF forces were responsible for most civilian deaths so far in the incursion.

As insurgents melted away (as all guerrillas do in the face of superior firepower -- to bide time and return once counter-insurgents are dug in) the "government in a box" hype fell apart as well. The coalition's hand-picked governor, Abdul Zahir, turned out to be an ex-convict who served part of a prison sentence for stabbing his own son. By July, he would be replaced as part of a "reform procedure."

Sending Afghan National Police forces to establish rule of law proved to be a cruel joke on the local residents:

"In the weeks since they were sent to Helmand province as part of the U.S.-led offensive in Marjah, ANCOP members have set up checkpoints to shake down residents, been kicked out for using drugs and shunned in some areas as outsiders, according to U.S. officials briefed on a recent analysis by the RAND Corp. ...More than a quarter of the officers in one ANCOP battalion in Helmand were dismissed for drug use, and the rest were sent off for urgent retraining. One Western official who attended the briefing termed ANCOP's role in Marjah a disaster."

As late as October 2010, residents of the town said the area was " more insecure than ever," and Reuters classified the Taliban re-infiltration as a "full-blown insurgency." And, although U.S. commanders want us to believe that the fighting in Marjah is " essentially over" as of December, the numbers tell a different story. According to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, in Helmand Province, in which Marjah is located, the number of attacks by insurgents in spiked from 620 in 2009 to 1387 in 2010, a 124-percent increase [ pdf].