Richard A. Oppel had a fascinating, closely reported piece from Marja, Afghanistan, in the NYT today, telling how that small part of Helmand province, which was supposed to be the showcase for how Obama’s very own surge in Afghanistan could “turn the tide” against the Taliban, has in fact done nothing of the sort.
- Since their offensive here in February, the Marines have flooded Marja with hundreds of thousands of dollars a week. The tactic aims to win over wary residents by paying them compensation for property damage or putting to work men who would otherwise look to the Taliban for support.
The approach helped turn the tide of insurgency in Iraq. But in Marja, where the Taliban seem to know everything — and most of the time it is impossible to even tell who they are — they have already found ways to thwart the strategy in many places, including killing or beating some who take the Marines’ money, or pocketing it themselves.
Just a few weeks since the start of the operation here, the Taliban have “reseized control and the momentum in a lot of ways” in northern Marja, Maj. James Coffman, civil affairs leader for the Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, said in an interview in late March. “We have to change tactics to get the locals back on our side.”
Col. Ghulam Sakhi, an Afghan National Police commander here, says his informants have told him that at least 30 Taliban have come to one Marine outpost here to take money from the Marines as compensation for property damage or family members killed during the operation in February.
“You shake hands with them, but you don’t know they are Taliban,” Colonel Sakhi said. “They have the same clothes, and the same style. And they are using the money against the Marines. They are buying I.E.D.’s and buying ammunition, everything.”
Oppel says directly that the Marines trying to do the “hold and build” phases of the “war” in Marja are “somewhat flummoxed”:
- In Marja, the Taliban are hardly a distinct militant group, and the Marines have collided with a Taliban identity so dominant that the movement appears more akin to the only political organization in a one-party town, with an influence that touches everyone. Even the Marines admit to being somewhat flummoxed.
“We’ve got to re-evaluate our definition of the word ‘enemy,’ ” said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marine expeditionary brigade in Helmand Province. “Most people here identify themselves as Taliban.”
“We have to readjust our thinking so we’re not trying to chase the Taliban out of Marja, we’re trying to chase the enemy out,” he said. “We have to deal with these people.”
The story also strongly suggests to me that the Afghan National Police commander quoted, Col. Ghulam Sakhi, is either on bad terms with the man whom the Americans have parachuted in as been district governor, “Hajji” Abdul Zahir, or Ghulam Sakhi feels he’s not getting enough of a payoff from the huge amounts of money Abdul Zahir has been given control of by the Americans (or both.)
These kinds of problems within Afghan politics probably pose an even greater threat to Gen. McChrystal’s “COIN” plan for Afghanistan than do the Talibs and the other insurgents. The next big campaign for the “surge” will pose an even greater political challenge. That will be Kandahar, where PM Hamid Karzai’s brother is governor and is viewed by the Americans as a huge political problem.
Well, relations between the Americans and the PM are in pretty poor shape right now, too… In fact, the political problems the U.S. forces are facing in Afghanistan these days probably make the ones they faced in Iraq in 2006-07 look simple by comparison. Ditto the logistical challenges. (For the latter, see e.g. here and here. Scroll down for the story in that second one.)
Over at Registan, Joshua Foust has pointed out that in the excellent op-ed he had in the NYT a month ago, he predicted exactly these kinds of problems in Marja.
Having read the Oppel piece this morning, it was strange to get to the WaPo this evening and see the usually sensible David Ignatius writing an incredibly upbeat piece from Marja today. He was indicating that the process of convening tribal shuras and spreading money around was working very well:
- This is how conflicts end in Afghanistan: The Afghans talk out their grievances and eventually reach a deal. Money is exchanged and honor restored. Fighting often continues in the background, but most people go home until the next conflict begins.
“By all appearances, the people of Marja just want to get on with their lives,” says Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was an enthusiastic observer of the shura here. He assured an audience of Afghan journalists later in Kabul: “All of us want to see this [war] end as soon as possible.”
Ignatius, however, gives no evidence that he’s spent anything like the amount of time in Marja itself that Oppel and his photographer, Moises Saman, did. So though i usually have a lot of respect for Ignatius’s work, on this one I’m incline to trust Oppel more. (By the way, the print version of the story is much longer and more detailed than the web version. Worth getting hold of.)
Back in December, I argued in this Boston Review article that most of the thinking behind Obama’s decision to “surge” in Afghanistan was actually U.S. domestic politics. I still think that’s the case. But for Obama’s original plan to work, he has to find a way to subsequently get out of Afghanistan that’s not a rout. Not easy.