It is taking quite a while just to occupy all of Marja let alone set up some stable local government. The idea that the Afghan police can keep order is surely fantasy. They are often corrupt and hated by the local population. The local population may want the Taliban back and NATO out as the lesser of two evils. This is how the Taliban took control in the first place not because they were liked but because they could provide some peace and security. We will have to see but I expect that there will be continued harassment of NATO or Afghan authorities and many civilian deaths.
As this article points out Marjah is just the first step. It will be just the first of many drives in which there will be significant casualties for the US and other NATO allies. As the fall of the Dutch government shows, in many countries the Afghan mission is a death knell for governments that support the mission.
Many commentators have pointed out that the Afghan forces are not first and foremost in this mission. It is the US marines who are basically running the show.
Current Offensive Just First Step in Afghanistan
Julian E. Barnes
Reporting from Washington
The current offensive in Marja is a critical stepping stone for what is likely the most important fight of the Afghan surge in the coming months: securing Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban and the most important city in southern Afghanistan, according to defense officials and analysts.
The military is using the Marja offensive to destroy an important Taliban safe haven, but also to test a strategy that emphasizes strong partnership with Afghan security forces and security for Afghan civilians. And some of the same techniques will be used in future offenses like securing Kandahar.
Defense officials are understandably reluctant to speak in much depth about their plans for follow-on offensives, but there is no doubt that Kandahar will be the military's primary objective this year.
"Kandahar remains the prize for the Taliban," said a senior military official. "So if we do anything in the future, clearly this southern capital has to be in our plans somewhere."
Military officials argue they need to wrest Kandahar from the influence of the Taliban—or more precisely help the Afghan government take control.
"We must turn Kandahar into a city that thrives economically and make it a place where the people of the city and the surrounding districts feel confident in their government and not afraid of the Taliban," said the senior military official.
Analysts say the U.S. is likely to begin stepping up operations around Kandahar in earnest by the spring or early summer. But before the military can make that push it must eliminate the safe havens in neighboring Helmand province including, most importantly, Marja.
Insurgents have operated relatively unchallenged for years in Marja, which has developed into a key command and control center for Taliban fighters. It also became a refuge for Taliban militants in Helmand province and other parts of southern Afghanistan.
"Kandahar city is eventually the key place you are going to want to control," said Jeffrey Dressler, a military analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, a non-partisan think tank in Washington. "But you can't do that having a sanctuary for the Taliban in Helmand."
Marja is a critical test for the commander of allied forces, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's, new strategy. The military is seeking to break militants' hold on Marja by making the population feel secure enough to stand up to the Taliban. Defense officials say what really must work with the Marja offensive—in large part because it will be even more important in Kandahar—is the partnership with the Afghan government.
Senior U.S. commanders have concluded that they have done a poor job in the past involving the Afghan government and forces in operations. That has resulted in half-hearted Afghan support for initiatives, or even actively opposing them. Although the Afghan forces on the ground in Marja have focused on searching houses, military officials insist the Afghan involvement is real and not window dressing. Defense officials have repeatedly highlighted the role of President Hamid Karzai, local officials and Afghan commanders in shaping the operations plans.
"This war is about getting the Afghans to buy-in to everything we believe needs to happen said the senior officer. "In fact, if they don't believe something should happen, we probably won't do it."
Some analysts believe the future offensive in Kandahar will look different than the battle underway in Marja. The two cities are very different. Marja is a relatively small agricultural center of 85,000 people, crisscrossed with agricultural canals. Kandahar is a city of more than 450,000 people, and the most important population center in southern Afghanistan.
And the Kandahar operation may not involve a large U.S. troop presence inside the city. Instead, the military is more likely to focus on controlling access routes to the city and establishing a robust presence in the "belts" around Kandahar. Such a strategy was developed and used successfully to help secure Baghdad during the Afghan surge.
Mark Moyar, a professor at the Marine Corps University, said because allied troops are already in Kandahar, an offensive there will lack the drama of the current attack on Marja.
"It won't get the hype," Moyar said. "But it is the spiritual home of the Taliban and we have to solidify our hold there."
The White House has scheduled a formal review of its Afghan strategy for the end of this year and military officials believe that they need to have begun to turn the tide of the war and show real progress by then.
Destroying the Taliban's control of the area around Kandahar and allowing the Afghan government to exert more control over the city is critical to that goal, according to defense officials and analysts.
Paired together, officers and analysts said, the success of two offensives could determine the success of the entire Afghanistan strategy.
"Kandahar and Helmand," Moyar said, "will be the two most important places for 2010."
Copyright © 2010, Tribune Interactive