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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Marjah one year on

One year ago this past Sunday, the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) launched a massive offensive into the Marjah area of Afghanistan’s central Helmand province. The idea was to remove the Taliban from a “center of operations for the region,” according to one official, and thus prepare the way for a follow-up offensive to “retake” the Taliban’s symbolic home of Kandahar.

Accompanying this offensive was a massive media campaign: months before the operation began, ISAF officials put out announcement after announcement warning civilians in the area to leave so they wouldn’t be caught in the fighting. It was a confusing message, in part because other ISAF officials were telling civilians to remain in their homes and sit out the fighting. Regardless, the Marjah campaign – called Operation Moshtarak – resulted in a flood of refugees fleeing the area for poorly-administered camps even as many more complained the minefields surrounding the area made it impossible to escape.
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About 10,000 troops participated in the initial military offensive to “clear” the area of Taliban. Plans for the aftermath were somewhat vague, however. “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in,” said Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander at the time. The need for governance in Marjah was acute: by all accounts, before the operation the Taliban were operating a functional shadow government, complete with a system of taxation, the provision of security and education, and a non-corrupt justice system.

ISAF still has not replaced the previous Taliban government with one as functional. The man chosen by the U.S. to administer the “government in a box,” Abdul Zahir, turned out to be a convicted felon in Germany who stabbed his own son. He was removed a few months later. In the interim, some important functions of a functioning government — a stable police force, a local army capable of defending the area from predation — have not materialized.

Operation Moshtarak represents a disturbing dynamic of the war in Afghanistan. In many cases, ISAF offensives into Taliban-controlled areas have destroyed functioning Taliban governments and replaced them with non-functioning Kabul-governments (Marjah wasn’t even that, as Zahir was appointed over the objections of Hamid Karzai). While security has improved from the worst of the fighting last February, nearly every security indicator on hand shows the situation is, overall, worse than it’s ever been — despite over a year of determined “surge” campaigns to achieve progress.

ISAF, however, doesn’t see things that way. By May of last year, three months after the start of the campaign to “win” Marjah, General McChrystal had declared the Marjah area a “bleeding ulcer” that was distracting him from his goal of winning Kandahar. Even months after new leadership took over the war (when General McChrystal was suddenly replaced by General Petraeus), Marjah was described only in terms of constant combat. “The Taliban are still here in force,” said an AP reporter in October, “waging a full-blown guerrilla insurgency that rages daily across a bomb-riddled landscape of agricultural fields and irrigation trenches.” By December, however, ISAF declared Operation Moshtarak “over,” an example of their success in routing the insurgency.

In a way, this was to be expected — as with the Afghanistan War Review, General Petraeus has been up front in his desire to proclaim only good news about the war, regardless of what the intelligence community believes.  But it also leaves nothing but questions about how one could evaluate the current situation in Marjah. Since October there have been very few (if any) reporters to visit Marjah — and even then, they’re not reporting on Marjah so much as peripheral issues like cross-dressing interpreters. While senior officials talk of “progress,” and “shifting momentum,” there aren’t any means by which one could actually say these things are happening.

Every once in a while, hints emerge that things in Helmand are much worse than we’ve been led to believe. In January of this year, the AP quoted an anonymous NATO official saying that the past year of operations has “failed to dent Taliban numerical strength,” even as Gen. Petraeus says the precise opposite. It is impossible to know what’s happening, in other words: all the public data say one thing (the war is either stalemated or growing worse), while most of the top-level officials say another.

How can the public make sense of this? We can’t, and that’s the problem. ISAF is asking the public to trust its judgment while all of the information we can find says its judgment is not in line with the reality of the war. It’s a conundrum that can only be solved with more transparency — of metrics, of strategy, and most importantly, of story.