Outside observers are left to separate mass quantities of information and disinformation in the darkness these sides seek to create.
Agreed upon by every side is that a US military operation looms large over Kandahar - and there the sides diverge. The local and national Afghan governments don’t appear to share America and NATO’s public confidence, while the Taliban naturally believes an operation is futile.
The shadow governor in Kandahar, who goes by the name of Mubeen, already admitted his forces will retreat, vanish, and reappear if the operation cannot be withstood. Like Marjah, he said.
So what will become of Kandahar’s real fate and potentially the West’s mission in Afghanistan? The Taliban has it right in one way. Hints are scattered across Marjah, where the future itself may be hidden. Kandahar is the main phase of President Obama’s surge with Marjah as the pilot program, meaning prospects for Kandahar fall if Marjah didn’t take off.
Here another a perception battle rages over reality. Major General Richard Mills, the new Marine commander of Helmand, stopped by NRP last week for a brief interview, more Pentagon commercial than journalism.
“If you go to Marjah today, you will find a city that is free of the Taliban, that has schools that are open, a marketplace, a bazaar,” Mills starts right off. “I think the other thing that would strike you would be the relative security of the streets. It's certainly not a totally safe place now, but overall, security has improved. So far I think things have gone very well.”
“There is still a presence in the area. No question about it. And I think when you look at the importance of Marjah to the Taliban; it is the center of, really, their psychological homeland, if you will. They drew a lot of support from the narcotics trade that was there. So I think that some of what you see is a residual effects to the Taliban refusing to give it up. But, I think if you look at the results on the ground, you'd see a different story.”Let’s look at the ground since you insist - when was Marjah ever the psychological homeland of anything Taliban?
Mills adds, somewhat accurately, “The Taliban have been reduced, there, really, to a war of terror. They have really disappeared from the city other than when they come in at night to plant their IEDs and to try to strike fear into the hearts and try to turn the people away. And to date, everything has not worked.”
Certainly the Taliban is applying “terrorism” in the grander scheme of insurgency. It also has members on the tribal council, in mosques, as political agents and judges and farmers. Marjah sounds like it’s buzzing with Taliban activity, contrary to Mills’ assessment, which might not be so bad an omen if the political framework was coming online.
Such doesn’t appear the case. Is the reality Marines Stabilize Afghan Town of Marjah, or 67% of Afghans oppose Marjah operation?
That is the percentage of local residents who responded that the operation was “bad for the people of Marjah,” according to a new report by the International Council on Security and Development. Out of 500 interviewees, 61% said they feel more negatively after the operation, 67% oppose “a strong NATO force” in the area, and 68% think the Taliban will return.
The same percentage believes NATO won’t win the broader war against Taliban.
Disturbing supportive evidence: 96% of respondents said too many civilians were killed and 78% listed themselves as often or always angry, with 45% of those stated they were angry at the NATO occupation and only 9% towards the Taliban. 95% believed more young Afghans have joined the Taliban in the last year.
The silver lining, which the ICOS repeatedly highlights to avoid total damnation, is that US and NATO force had and still have the ability to influence these numbers. Done right and the majority of Afghans might swing the other way. 60% and 70% figures dominate the report, reflecting David Galula’s observation that the majority of an insurgent population is neutral.
The ICOS writes, “The underlying positive message is the desire of the Afghans to be rid of the Taliban’s presence and violence: what they do not want, however, is to bear the type of unmitigated impact of the fighting between the insurgents and NATO forces that they and their families are experiencing.”
Yet this bright spot is erased by why these numbers exist. US commanders like Mills are either lying or out of touch with the local population, equally troubling scenarios. Marjah was supposed to be different, but in spite of all the COIN talk America still failed to deploy a real counterinsurgency operation.
No wonder Kandahar residents are skeptical when unmitigated impact continues to repeat. The ICOS’s opening statement:
NATO‟s Operation Moshtarak, launched in February 2010 in Helmand province, was the first deployment after the beginning of the much-debated surge of 30,000 additional US troops. It was billed as the largest military operation since the invasion of 2001. The planning for the operation emphasized the needs of the Afghan people, and the importance of winning hearts and minds as part of a classic counter-insurgency operation. However, the reality on the ground did not match the rhetoric. Welcome improvements in the size and conduct of military operations were undermined by a lack of sufficient corresponding measures in the political and humanitarian campaigns.”Inexplicably, “Despite the extensive publicity which the operation received, aid agencies do not appear to have been briefed or consulted sufficiently in advance, or given appropriate resources to respond to the needs of the community.”
Respondents were nearly unanimous in citing insufficient care for the internally displaced as a root problem of Operation Moshtarak, and a brewing controversy is the latest smoke to this fire. “People are fleeing from Marjah out of fear and insecurity,” Ahmadullah Ahmadi, president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) office in Helmand, recently told IRIN.
Kabul launched a swift denial, calling the 100 families that supposedly left “opium farmers.” But the numbers don’t bode well for America or the Afghan government.
Ghulam Farooq Noorzai, provincial director of the refugee affairs department, recorded 974 families returning over the last two months out of an estimated 4,000. Over 2,800 families remain in Lashkargah, capital of Helmand province. According to Noorzai, “People are not returning to their home areas due to insecurity.”
“The Taliban are harassing people,” he warned. “Their war is not over but has just started.”
This doesn’t sound like a secured town by any definition, let alone a governed one. Yet any potential dagger in Marjah, along with Kandahar and Afghanistan as a whole, will form from the ICOS’s second warning - a failed political campaign.
Several weeks ago Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen rendezvoused with General Stanley McChrystal in the center of Marjah, where the latter promised by year’s end, “We'll be able to show progress in security and governance."
“Both said they are confident real progress has been made on the military side of the equation, highlighting the predictable Special Forces,” the Los Angeles Times reported, before noting the absence of political progress. “On that count, McChrystal's officers are often frustrated. There are far too few trained policemen, far too few honest civil servants and far too few examples of Afghan government programs that actually deliver on their promises.”
Unfortunately McChrystal’s record on promises isn’t inspiring, repeatedly stressing the need to limit civilian casualties only to witness new “accidents” the next day. He also made the infamous promise of the “government in a box” he'd prepared for Marjah. The ICOS tries to spin this to its best ability, proof that the report is unbiased towards the Taliban.
“The declaration in advance of the Marjah operation that there was a “government in a box, ready to roll in” shows that NATO and the international community have in principle learnt a lesson from previous years. They have acknowledged that there is a need to focus on perceptions.”
Obviously America and NATO have learned the importance of perceptions, as we’re suffering them now, but they remain relatively hopeless to control or forge reality in Afghanistan.
The LA Times reports, “When the Marines landed in Marja, they announced that they were bringing ‘a government in a box’ - a fully equipped local administration that would get services working and funnel aid from Kabul and Washington into the district's agricultural economy. But when the box was opened, there wasn't much inside. Of the half a dozen district ministers who were supposed to come and set up shop, only one - the minister of rural redevelopment - was brave enough to move to Marja; most of the rest stayed in the relative safety of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, about 18 miles to the northeast.”"It's been very slow," a U.S. official acknowledged. "It's very hard to recruit civil servants to come to a place like this. A government in a box? It probably wasn't a good idea to use that phrase."
That, perhaps, more than any testimony, describes the reality of Marjah - more talk than action. McChrystal remarked that, "It won't be how many roads we built, how many schools we built, how many Taliban we killed. It's going to be what the Afghan people think."
Well they’re telling you what they think, and 67% of hearts and minds may yet to be won. Though the US military finally appears to be embracing counterinsurgency in the lab, it still has the equation backwards in the field. Politics and economics still came second to military operations, while humanitarian concerns completely fell through the cracks.
A military solution that creates optimal conditions for political reform is impossible with this kind of counterinsurgency.
The likeliest outcome in Kandahar is stalemate, given the local resistance, lack of coalition forces, and fresh history in Marjah. US and NATO forces will barely secure the city and province, let alone install an efficient Afghan government with Ahmed Wali Karzai on the throne. 74% of the ICOS’s respondents strongly support a dialogue with the Taliban; the same can be said for Kandahar and probably Afghanistan.
But if America and NATO don’t quickly correct their errors in Marjah, ten times smaller than Kandahar and 100 times less important, they’ll wish they negotiated with the Taliban when they had the chance.
Stalemate in Kandahar is as good as defeat in Afghanistan.