US and Afghan troops moved towards the center of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah today despite encountering fierce sniper fire and mine fields. Sixty percent of the front-line forces are Afghan troops.
Thousands of US and Afghan troops ground their way towards the center of the Talibanstronghold of Marjah today despite encountering fierce sniper fire and even greater numbers of home-made bombs, booby traps, and minefields than anticipated.
US Marines raised an Afghan flag inside the town limits but pockets of Taliban militants dug in, with some veterans comparing the intensity of the fighting to that encountered when they stormed the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2005.
“In Fallujah, it was just as intense. But there, we started from the north and worked down to the south. In Marjah, we’re coming in from different locations and working toward the centre, so we’re taking fire from all angles,” Captain Ryan Sparks told Reuters.
The operation to clear Taliban insurgency from their biggest stronghold in Helmand province looks increasingly like an acid test of Western military and political strategy in Afghanistan, with the outcome likely to deal a powerful propaganda blow one way or the other.
With US General Stanley McChrystal’s reinvigorated counter-insurgency campaign placing the emphasis on protecting communities rather than killing militants, the first measure of success for the thousands of US, NATO, and Afghan troops involved in Operation Moshtarak (the Dari word for ‘together’) will be avoiding civilian casualties.
The vast majority of Marjah’s civilian inhabitants, of whom there are somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000, have stayed put after a NATO information campaign entreated them to “keep your heads down” and the Taliban mined all approaches to the town.
Afghan officials say the involvement of Afghan forces in unprecedented numbers – 60 percent of the front-line forces are said to be Afghan – will help alleviate the threat because Afghan soldiers are better able to distinguish between “terrorists and farmers.”
Civilian casualties a key metric
So far this advantage and the coalition’s tactics of attacking in overwhelming numbers but with a restrained use of its overwhelming firepower has largely worked, with civilian casualties limited to 12 killed when a rocket landed 300 meters (nearly 1,000 feet) from its target, and seven wounded in separate incidents.
In an indication of how important the issue of civilian casualties may prove to be, General McChrystal promptly offered his apologies to President Hamid Karzai and launched an investigation into the incident. Mr. Karzai only signed off on the operation hours before it began and senior members of his administration reportedly had reservations about advising inhabitants to shelter in their homes rather than fleeing Marjah.
Ghafar Jan, a 32-year old farm laborer living in Marjah, reached by telephone, said that powerful explosions had cast a pall of dust and smoke over the town, and that the “lightning” of rockets was visible from his house.
“The Taliban will fight until the last minute because the attack is coming from all directions so I don’t think they can fall backward to safety,” Jan said. “I don’t know what will happen. God knows what will happen.”
The top Taliban commander in Marjah, Mullah Abdul Razaq Akhund, insisted that his fighters had pushed back the NATO and Afghan allies who were, he claimed, involved in a face-saving operation masking their defeat in Afganistan.
“Tens of foreign soldiers have been killed by roadside bombs and we have also destroyed many vehicles. By the grace of God we have had few casualties,” he said.
He was contradicted by NATO reports that two of its troops — one American, one British – had been killed in the fighting.
Meanwhile, Helmand Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal said that a government-in-waiting is ready to sweep in once coalition forces have cleared the town of Taliban, bringing with them up to 2,000 Afghan police to provide security. Civil servants and development specialists will organize the local administration. Previous town officials were killed, co-opted by the insurgents, or forced to flee. With a new administration, in theory, will come schools, hospitals, and jobs.
“The most important thing will be the aftermath,” says Haroun Mir, an Afghan analyst in Kabul. “How quickly will the coalition countries fix the town? How quickly will the Afghan government provide services to people? And how quickly will they be able to provide justice and security?”
Mir notes that in the past some police officers had pursued vendettas against people they accused of colluding with the Taliban.
North of Marjah, coalition forces are also battling Taliban militants in Nad-i-Ali district, supposedly an area under government control. Although fighting there has been less intense than some of the battles raging in Marjah, it is an indication of the difficulty of holding ground, let alone building on it.
Of particular importance in any area restored to government control will be providing alternative livelihoods to poppy farmers: central Helmand is a drugs-producing hub with many locals complicit in the narcotics industry.
“I’m sure they are well-prepared for that,” says Mir.
“All we want is peace,” said Ghafar Jan, the farm labourer. “People are tired of fighting, people are hungry now, and there is no medicine for the sick. I don’t care who is in control. I want those who can bring peace, justice and Sharia law.”
As thousands of US troops start arriving in southern Afghanistan this summer to try to dislodge the Taleban from their strongholds, a host of British civil servants are on hand to fill the political vaccuum.
Amid the rose bushes and machinegun towers of the British military base in Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital, are the British mandarins who talk of their work as a giant experiment in governance and security.
Leading them is Hugh Powell, a Foreign Office official whose father served as Margaret Thatcher’s foreign policy adviser and whose uncle was Tony Blair’s chief of staff. Mr Powell has been tipped as a future aide to David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader and a fellow Old Etonian.
“What we’re doing here is cutting-edge experimental,” Mr Powell toldThe Times. “I don’t think it’s been done on this scale anywhere else before.” The aim is to provide “good enough governance structures” protected by “good enough security apparatus”, he said.
At Mr Powell’s disposal are about 135 military and civilian personnel and 28 locals, living among a small army of mercenaries, interpreters, soldiers and contractors. The team is the largest of 26 provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) across Afghanistan.
First set up by the Americans after the 2001 invasion, PRTs were designed to gather intelligence outside Kabul and handle development projects to win hearts and minds. Water towers and wells were typical examples. The idea was that building things for people would make them like you more than they feared your enemies.
But there has been no shortage of critics of PRTs in general and the Helmand PRT in particular. Sceptics have dubbed Mr Powell “the Viceroy of Helmandshire” because of his fiefdom’s cosy British conviviality and dislocation from the dilapidated provincial capital in which it sits.
Staff can relax on rugs and cushions on newly laid decking as they watch a Friday night film under the stars. Fragrant flowerbeds hem a wooden pavilion nicknamed “the bus stop”. There is even a beach hut.
On the other side of the perimeter’s blast blocks and concertina wire, men till the fields for a few dollars a day and live in fear of the Taleban, local warlords and criminal gangs.
An internal assessment by the Department for International Development, which sponsors Helmand PRT’s current experiment, found that a previous attempt to foster good governance ended in 2007 with “little evidence of tangible benefit” despite costing taxpayers millions of pounds.
The department said that “significant progress and developments” had been made since then.
Aid agencies claim that PRTs are blurring the distinction between the military and civilians in a country whose population is already suspicious of foreign soldiers.
Mr Powell said that without armed vehicles and bodyguards, “we would be targets” for the insurgents. As it is, his staff venture forth dozens of times each week to visit towns and villages along the Helmand River.
“People almost have to cut us some slack,” Mr Powell said inside one of the white-washed bungalows that dot the base. “It’s experimental, it’s new, there aren’t SOPs (standard operating procedures) for this. It will be, you know, a bit bumpy, but given all that, I’m pretty confident that we can make it work.”
The Helmand PRT now concentrates on what he called the “intangibles”, such as governance and the rule of law. Fundamentally, Mr Powell said, there had been a shift away from “the classic fix-a-mosque’s-roof type thing” to bigger infrastructure projects, which will persuade Afghans that central government will outlast the Taleban.
The central plank is harnessing the country’s rich history of village politics. Under the new “Afghan social outreach programme”, the Government is trying to devolve power to village level. A pilot scheme is running in Helmand.
With guidance from the PRT’s governance unit, local elders are being encouraged to become community council members, taking portfolios for justice or development or security. The idea is to build community responsibility and with it the confidence and security to resist Taleban intimidation. Elders from one nearby district even claim to have forced the insurgents to retreat.