Published on 04 Mar 2010 at 03:30
By Jamaluddin Ansari Temori
Kabul – Now that Afghan and NATO forces have announced that Operation Moshtarak in Marjah has been successfully concluded, talk has turned to an even larger operation in neighboring Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace. Marjah, once touted as the largest operation of the war
to date, has now been relegated to the status of a “tactical prelude.”
But the question of whether or nor Marjah has really been won remains unanswered.
According to Afghan and NATO officials, Moshtarak has been an overwhelming success. Daoud Ahmadi, spokesperson for the Helmand governor, praised the operation, calling Marjah “ a joint stronghold of terrorists and thieves” that had not been cleared out for 30 years.
U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, recently said that the major offensive in this poppy-rich region of Helmand province was a "model for the future."
But political and military analysts question the success of Operation Moshtarak, and reject the premise that it should serve as a standard for future operations.
“(In Marjah) 15,000 troops launched the operation against a few militias in a small sub- district, but had to fight for more than two weeks to capture some parts of it,” said Sharif Sharafat, a political analyst in Kabul. “How can they call the operation a success and use its experience in larger operations?” he asked.
Unlike usual military operations, which are planned and launched in secret, Moshtarak was widely advertised several weeks in advance. According to local residents, helicopters even dropped leaflets on their area, notifying them that the operation was about to begin.
The main goal of all the publicity was to prevent civilian casualties, according to Afghan government authorities. They expected that the Taliban would follow their normal pattern and just melt away, along with civilians who may have feared for their safety if they stayed.
However, just the opposite occurred, according to military and political analysts. Te advance notice gave the Taliban a relative advantage, allowing them ample time to prepare, largely by seeding the area with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs)
“Success cannot be measured by capturing lands in a guerilla war”, said Saleh Mohammad Registani, an experienced fighter in the struggle against the Soviets and, later, the Taliban, where he fought at the side of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, perhaps Aghanistan’s most famous mujaheddin commander.
“The excessive publicity before the operation allowed the important members of Taliban insurgents to get out of Marjah, and provided the opportunity for them to lay mines everywhere.”
According to Registani, Taliban insurgents have been using “hit and run tactics” for the past several years, with some success. Publicizing the Marjah operation gave the insurgents time to prepare and to use this tactic even more effectively.
“Operation Moshtarak was not a major blow to the Taliban insurgents, as they have now gathered in other parts of the country, and nothing has really changed,” added Registani.
Wahid Mojda, a well-known political analyst in Kabul who has visited the Marjah sub-district, also questions the success of Operation Moshtarak. “Key supply routes to Marjah are still under Taliban control,” he said. “The Taliban can use roadside bombs and ‘hit and run’ tactics to block the roads,” he said.
According to Mojda, Marjah sub-district is not strategically important was not worth the hype that surrounded the operation. He believes that for the foreign forces, the real goal of the Marjah operation was not clearing Taliban from a small area in Helmand province, but gaining approval for the Afghan war in their domestic communities.
“Public opinion in the West had turned against the war,” he said. “This is very important for foreigners. This is why they over-publicized the operation and its apparent success.”
A Taliban spokesman also dismissed the significance of Marjah, saying the NATO offensive was "more propaganda than military necessity."
But Afghan and U.S. authorities stand by their actions, insisting that they gave advance notice of the operation in order to prevent civilian casualties.
General David Petraeus, chief of U.S. Central Command, recently told the media that publicizing the Operation Moshtarak cut down on civilian casualties; however, he acknowledged that it may have endangered the lives of the U.S. Marines who were fighting there.
Now that the flag of Afghanistan has been raised over the center of Marjah, the next challenge will be gaining the trust of the population.
Establishing efficient government in the sub-district and providing better living conditions – building schools, hospitals, and roads -- were the major promises made to Marjah residents before the operation.
Dauod Ahmadi said that the Marjah sub-district office had been opened and that the pledges made to its residents would be soon fulfilled.
“The developing projects will be started after the area is de-mined,” he said.
According to the Ministry of the Interior, 1600 police will be deployed to Marjah to restore order and protect residents against Taliban threats.
However, the people of Marjah remain unconvinced.
"If the foreigners are in charge, things will change. If Afghans, especially the police, are the ones to do it, things will only get worse," said Mahboob, a resident of Marjah, in a telephone interview with www.afghanistanvotes.com.
Analysts are also skeptical about the ability of the local government to restore faith, and especially about Marjah’s newly appointed governor, Haji Zahir.
“This new governor has apparently just recently returned from Germany, where he lived for 16 years,” said Mojda. “Can he establish efficient government and build trust in extremely traditional and war-torn Marjah?”
Prior to Operation Moshtarak, which was launched on Feb 13, Afghan and NATO officials were describing the Marjah offensive as “pressure on the Taliban to accept reconciliation, rescuing the sub-district’s residents, as well as removing the Taliban’s hand from this poppy-growing area.”
General Sher Mohammad Zazai, a regional corps commander of the Afghan National Army (ANA), just three days after the launch of “Operation Mushtarak” told www.afghanistanvotes.com that Taliban insurgents had three choices in Marjah: “first and the most desirable: reconciliation; second: leave Marjah; third: encounter our offensive.”
Now that “Operation Mushtarak” is over, it seems that Taliban insurgents have apparently accepted both the second and third options, but “reconciliation” remains as elusive as ever, judging by recent events. It is unclear whether another offensive, in Kandahar, will be any more successful in bringing the Taliban to the table.
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