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Operation Moshtarak – Papering Over The Cracks

Posted by on February 17th, 2010

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By Steve Hynd

Gareth Porter tells the Real News Network that Operation Moshtarak is intended purely for domestic consumption and is meant to prepare Americans for negotiations with the Taliban.

And Joshua Foust is scathing about U.S. vague plans for a “government in a box” in Marjah.

The Guardian has been pretty quippy about McChrystal’s idea of “government in a box.” (“From the army that gave us meals ready to eat, comes a new product. It is called governments ready to govern. All you do is add water.”) But it gets at a fundamentally deeper problem we’ve covered here before: despite all the hifalutin’ talk about it, the military still has a pitiful understanding of what it takes to create, develop, and then support a government.

It’s part of the larger issues within the military of anti-civilian bias—something Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has made some halting motions toward reversing (such as his advocacy of increased funding and support for the Department of State), but which remains ascendant within the military community. The foreign policy community in DC, too, is dominated by military-centric thinkers; the number of think tankers and policy wonks who can speak knowledgeably about institution development and capacity building is pitifully small—which makes crafting realistic, achievable plans for civilian development all but impossible.

Which brings us back to the discussion about civilian casualties above. Considering how ISAF was embarrassingly unable to figure out why or how it was going to handle the civilians in Marjeh, right up to their inability to post believable or consistent population estimates, I’m left with the same thought I had two weeks ago, when ISAF signaled they were really serious about Marjeh this time: what’s the end game? Simply throwing an expatriate Helmandi who lived in Germany for 15 years into the mix—which is the current plan—doesn’t actually address the serious shortcomings the military-led governance issues have had.

Meanwhile, the civilians continue to bear the brunt of this offensive: the Coalition is destroying the barely functioning Taliban “shadow” government in the area, and so far their plan for a viable replacement haven’t moved beyond the vaguest of platitudes.

Joshua writes that Operation Moshtarak might have resulted in as many as 25,000 displaced persons and that “The operation might very well be a success, but it is coming at a steep price for the locals we are meant to protect.” Marjah is now a ghost town. Meanwhile, Amnesty International has complained that NATO is “ill-equpped” either to prevent or investigate civilian deaths, while also castigating the Taliban for war crimes by “knowingly endangering Afghan civilians”.

Michael Clarke, director of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, is asking “what will success look like” in Marjah?

it would be a mistake to judge the military’s success in Operation Moshtarak only by military measures. Yes, the military will take the ground. Yes, they will hold on to it. ‘Where the troops go, they stay’ is the motto; and this time it will be true, at least in Helmand and Kandahar.

The true judgment will, instead, revolve around other questions. Afghan administrators and special police have been trained for just this mission, but how good will they be after six months or more in a part of Afghanistan they have not lived in for a long time – or ever in many cases? It will be a real test of local politics to channel development money effectively through a new group of Afghan administrators who will still have to work with the tribal and family structures that were there already.

How expensive will the operation turn out to be in civilian casualties? An incident a week will undermine all the gradual trust Coalition forces and their Afghan colleagues are trying to build up in territories formerly controlled by the Taliban. After laying out a strategy that puts Afghan civilians first, the McChrystal plan is acutely vulnerable to any aspect of the operation that seems not to live up to this expectation.

Another test will revolve around what the Taliban do next. If most have moved out of the area, where will they regroup? Will their commanders in Quetta try to stretch the Coalition forces in a new direction? Given the informal nature of the Taliban it is possible that they will simply disperse and mount ineffective attacks on the populated areas of Helmand and Kandahar. But though they are not a well coordinated military force, the Taliban are good at spotting new Coalition weaknesses and eventually bringing their fighters to bear on it. If they can, they will try to provoke and fool the Coalition into causing many more civilian deaths as they do so.

Not least, the operation has to appeal to people, in Kabul, Herat, Jalalabad, Kunduz, as much as it does to people in London, Washington, Paris, Berlin or Copenhagen.

Clarke wants Western political leaders to make a ‘prevail or fail’ choice and stop talking about timetables. It’s already too late for that and his own work helps illustrate why. The point with militaries is that they must have two inbuilt priorities: destruction and force protection. Whenever something else conflicts with those – like “population-centric COIN” – it’s always the something else that gives. That, in a nutshell, is why “population-centric” COIN keeps falling short of its hype and why COIN can do nothing else but temporarily paper over the cracks for a domestic audience. Joshua Foust writes:

Please, I am begging the readers here: if you know of some plan to leave something functioning in ISAF’s wake, something Afghan-led with a realistic chance of lasting once the 10,000 (or whatever) troops have to leave this tiny area, please let me know about it. Because right now it looks like they’re fighting with no end game in mind. And that’s pretty scary.

Not really. Exactly the same thing happened in Iraq and for exactly the same domestic political reasons – present enough of a narrative, carefully massaged, to claim some kind of military victory and then rapidly head for the exits.

Update: Many residents of Marjah are telling NATO troops and embedded reporters that they didn’t need liberating. “The Taliban didn’t create any problems for people,” and “Honestly, they didn’t bother us. They mostly just came and went,” said villagers.

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