Saturday, February 13, 2010

Attack on Taliban Stronghold Begins. Caveat lector.

Well, Operation Moshtarak ("Together" in Dari) is under way at the town of Marja, a major Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan's Helmand province.  The major MSM have some of their top reporters on the job: Rajiv Chandrasekaran for the Washington Post (he did some very important reporting from Iraq a few years ago, including his extremely insightful book about the foibles of Jerry Bremer's CPA, Inside the Emerald City), Dexter Filkins (along with C J Chivers) for the NY Times.

Initial reports indicate that the fighting is intense, with few Marine casualties taken and quite a few inflicted, although one report suggests that the "insurgents" are falling back toward the center of the town, which they seem to be defending with hundreds of bombs and booby traps.  It's uncertain at this point how many locals have remained in Marja.  McClatchy's recent report suggested (despite its headline) that a large proportion of them had fled to nearby Lashkar Gah; but today's NYT reports that, according to a tribal elder,
 “Only about 5 percent of the people have left the city — but the rest, 95 percent, are still here,” one of Marja’s tribal elders said, speaking at a meeting of tribal elders in Lashkar Gah on Thursday. The elder spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear that he would be killed.
Bottom line: no one really knows at this point how many got out ahead of the attack.  The locals who did remain in the town seem to be hunkering down, huddled together in their houses - or, in one instance, an old woman emerging into the open air to beg the troops not to fire at her house.  (I hope they listened to her.)

Obviously, the stakes here are huge, especially for the US+NATO+Afghan forces, and especially given Obama's pledge to start reducing US troop levels in Afghanistan in less than 18 months from now.  The US secretary to NATO, Ivo Daalder, writes of this:

In the coming months we need to see NATO and its partners rise to the occasion, turn the corner, and keep Afghanistan on the path to security and development.  It’s not going to be easy, and we don’t have unlimited time.  President Obama has said that U.S. forces will begin drawing down in July 2011.  We need to use the time until then to build Afghan capacity so that the Afghan authorities can take on ever greater responsibility for the security of their own country.   Training Afghan policemen, mentoring the Afghan National Army, and partnering with organizations and countries from around the world are all vital to this effort.  Graduating more policemen from training centers in Helmand, Jalalabad, and elsewhere means intensified recruiting and providing more qualified instructors.  Conducting effective patrols within local communities means more international mentors.  And having ISAF and Afghan soldiers plan and conduct joint patrols that help keep the peace means making our forces increasingly flexible in support of a national Afghan strategy.

We must seize the moment and ensure the July 2011 timeline can be met by taking on the hard tasks while we have these additional troops on the ground, the momentum of a new strategy, and the backing of a committed international community.
But because the stakes are so high, and because it's imperative that the US's efforts show significant positive results very quickly, I would caution any and all to have their antennae well tuned to distinguish "real facts" from happy talk about success.  General McChrystal has indeed made it clear that perhaps the biggest task here is the war of perceptions: winners and losers, good guys vs. bad guys.  The operation's name (Moshtarak, or "together") is a tip-off to one of the biggest talking-points here: that the US is going into battle "together" with the Afghan military.  You can expect military press releases to hammer the point that the the Afghan "national army" troops are helping to lead the way.  Whether the townspeople of Marja, who are mostly Pashtun, will view as their "national" defenders an army that is predominantly Tajik, and that is accompanied by American foreign "infidels," remains to be seen.

And with regard to the trustworthiness of the military updates that will be forthcoming from this operation, take heed of the insights recently proffered by Harvard prof. Stephen Walt.
According to the Times, the general also said that "The biggest thing is in convincing the Afghan people ... This is all a war of perceptions. This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants" (Walt's emphasis).

On the one hand this statement is something of a truism, in the sense that resolve, morale, and expectations about the future can be critical factors (though what is actually happening on the battlefield is hardly irrelevant). But McChrystal's statement invites us to doubt anything he might choose to tell us about the progress of the war either now or in the months to come.  Why? Because if he believes it is "all a war of perceptions," then spinning the war in the most favorable possible light has to be part of his strategy, in order to try to persuade both Afghans and Americans that we are winning. And that means we can't accept anything he says at face value, because we can't know if he's giving us an honest appraisal or just deploying a lot of blue smoke and mirrors in order to influence perceptions (which he thinks are key).
Paul Rogers at Open Democracy makes some similar points about what he terms the US's "narrative of anticipatory semi-triumphalism," which, he also notes,  "in no way corresponds to current signals from elsewhere in Afghanistan, including Helmand."  Other, less-happy-talked analyses suggest, says he,
that the intense and positive publicity devoted to Moshtarak is more a public-relations exercise than a realistic estimate of the current situation.
In other words, when the Kool-Aid is offered, sip lightly, and intersperse here and there a squirt of lemon.

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