A major trial run of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s new strategy for winning and then closing down the 9-year-old war in Afghanistan is well into its second week. Success is not yet assured, but the campaign to secure and pacify the city of Marjah is going reasonably well so far.
Part of the new style of warfare is putting primary emphasis on befriending and helping Afghan civilians rather than killing Taliban fighters. That is one reason the move into Marjah was no secret. Past campaigns relied on surprise to try to keep enemy forces from fleeing. This time, the more Taliban fighters fled, the better. It meant less fighting and more attention to the business of restoring normal city government.
Another element is less reliance on air support, which always increased civilian casualties. That in turn means far more unsupported ground action but with restraint and less blasting merely suspected houses and less kicking open doors. Newsweek reported that the general often tells troops that “the shot you don’t fire is more important than the one you do.” The magazine said that when he was told that soldiers using a multiple-rocket launcher had killed two Taliban he responded dryly: “That’s an awful lot of firepower to kill two people.”
Still another part of the new strategy has been directly involving the central government of President Hamid Karzai in the decision-making. Gen. McChrystal personally asked President Karzai to make the call on starting the Marjah assault, The Wall Street Journal reported. Afterward, it went on to say that Mr. Karzai, aroused from a nap, said: “No one has asked me to decide before.” His government has supplied thousands of troops for the operation and organized what has been called “government in a box,” ready to be brought in for civil administration. The new mayor already has arrived, although his temporary office is a U.S. Marine tent since there is no city hall. More civilian officials are expected before long.
The assault force of U.S. soldiers and Marines and Afghan soldiers backed up by thousands of American, Afghan and British troops was large to the point of saturation against the remaining Taliban force of 1,000 or fewer. Major fighting seems to have died down, but enemy sniper fire and roadside bombs and booby traps can continue as hazards for weeks or even months.
Military sources say it will take months before it will be clear that the Marjah population has developed trust in the allied occupation force. Much depends on whether the allied force can minimize civilian casualties. Gen. McChrystal insists on this and makes prompt public apology when they inevitably happen.
Success in Marjah should make it easier to begin troop withdrawals from the country in July 2011. But regardless of the Marjah outcome, that’s President Barack Obama’s promise, although some peacekeeping troops may remain in Afghanistan for several years.