U.S. facing big problems in Marja

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.
Oppel’s lede:

    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.

5 thoughts on “U.S. facing big problems in Marja

  1. bevin

    There is a sense in which all US foreign interventions are basically aimed at the domestic electorate.
    The aim of global domination, based on military power, is so ludicrously unrealistic that it is hard to believe that those eight hundred odd bases serve any purpose but to help postpone dealing with the underlying and crucial American problems of inequality, corrupt plutocratic political institutions and the reality of impending ecological disasters.
    There is no point in the United States attempting to colonise Afghanistan: not only is it a complete waste of every kind of resource but it is ansolutely certain to diminish US influence there and around the world, if not immediately then very soon.
    If the US leaves Iraq it will be with the national tail between its legs: all those windy claims about ‘civilised values’, ‘rule of law’, ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ revealed as empty boasts promoted by the most powerful machine for producing lies that the world has ever been annoyed by.
    And, if it does not leave, it will simply build, in the Arab world, and muslim countries more generally, the sort of passionate feelings that two centuries of meddlesome arrogance and brutality have produced in latin America.
    And everyone understands what US policy in Palestine, (wholly designed to please the zionist voting bloc), is doing, by way of making Israel a thoroughly alien entity whose basis is entirely military and which is, in effect, one lost battle away from political extinction.
    After more than a century of building their communities the zionists have bever been further removed from integrating their project with the region and its people. Its only friends are police states, like Jordan and Egypt, on the payroll, and neither of them is more than half a dozen heartbeats away from a political revolution.
    And this has happened despite repeated attempts, by its neighbours, to make peace and fit Israel into the region. All of which attempts have been (and are being) treated with utter contempt by a political class which has become, militarily muscle bound, fascinated by its suddenly acquired ability to project its strength. And too macho to think: between the fear of imminent extinction and its faith in being immortal and immune (thanks to the US) to the perils of other small states, reality has chosen to leave Sampson alone in the building.
    Within the last few years the policy of new modelling the Middle East has proved to be disastrous: Turkey and Lebanon are both alienated, internally strengthened and disgusted at having to deal with the sweepings of third rate fascisms such as Lieberman and Netanyahu.
    Syria is equally strengthened, thanks, in no small part, to having been forced to re-evaluate its role in Lebanon. As is, its new ally, Iran, less isolated now than it has been since 1979 and impervious to any aggression but the suicidal course of military invasion. Which, not coincidentally, has become this year’s cause of choice for the zionist lobby.
    William Jennings Bryan saw the beginning of this process: the substitution of Imperial adventures, (featuring the deaths of millions of brown skinned people) for coming to grips with the reality of America’s problems. He saw the fires of democracy being channneled into repression (and super patriotism) at home and brutality abroad. And remarkably little has changed.
    When one looks at the scrawny mouse of ‘reform’ in the field of healthcare, which has emerged from the earth shaking political movements of the past year, one is reminded of why US politicians find it more realistic to think of colonising the muslim world and forcing a billion and a half people to submit to its demands, or of grafting an Israel modelled on New Jersey into the Levant, than of trying to change a system which has become, finally, stagnant and incapable of producing anything except corruption.

  2. hmmm

    Agree that Afghanistan and Iraq are a waste of time and resources. This week we are getting a daily taste of democracy Iraqi style with on the average 50 dead per diem due to bombings. Go figure what they want or their mind works. Afghanistan is even worse, central government and democracy are so extraneous that one must ask what is Obama thinking, just get out of there and let happen whatever happens.
    Of course there is always an Israeli angle even in remote Afghanistan for Bevin’s twisted mind, not New Zealands colonization good forbid, just one obsessive and recurring topic. Reality be damned Bevin, Sudanes refugees risking their life to make it to Israel, not closer and moslem Egypt, but Israel, but your mind is obsessed with badmouthing them, and obviously beyond cure, just like Helena, only that your service is pro bono.

  3. Helena

    Mr/Ms. ‘Hmmm’, there are many thousands of Sudanese refugees in Egypt. Many, many more than in Israel. Seems you don’t rally care about facts, though.

  4. Michael W.

    Helena,
    Why do the Sudanese refugees get shot at by the Egyptian border guard when they try to make their way to Israel?

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