Feature

The U.S., NATO launch Afghan surge

In Operation Moshtarak, the U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces mounted the largest coalition offensive in Afghanistan since the Taliban were routed in 2001.

What happenedThe U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces strengthened their grip on the southern Afghan town of Marjah this week, after mounting the largest coalition offensive in Afghanistan since the Taliban were routed in 2001. In Operation Moshtarak (“Together”), 15,000 troops stormed into Marjah, a town of 85,000 that has been a Taliban hub for logistics and opium trafficking. Many Taliban fled in advance of the well-advertised offensive, but coalition troops were met by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, along with dozens of road mines and booby traps. At least four NATO soldiers were killed, including one American; an estimated 40 insurgents died. “Our goal is to take care of the people, not kill the Taliban,” said Marine Capt. Ryan Sparks. NATO took precautions to safeguard civilians, but it confirmed the deaths of 15 Afghans, 12 of whom died in a missile strike.

U.S. officials hope to make Marjah a model city, with plans to spend heavily on security, government, schools, roads, and jobs in order to win residents’ loyalty. Nearly 2,000 Afghan police will move in to provide order until a local force can be trained, and a new regional governor is standing by. “We’ve got a government-in-a-box, ready to roll in,” said Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. What the editorials saidThis operation will succeed only if the Afghan government can earn the people’s trust, said The Wall Street Journal. Ultimately, what happens in Marjah must convince Afghans that “Taliban rule isn’t inevitable,” and that cooperating with the government is worth the risk. This week’s assault shows that Afghanistan is not doomed, said the New York Daily News. After just a few days, Marines are “on the verge of securing the heart of Helmand province,” which was once a Taliban stronghold.

Securing ground is easy—securing people is hard, said the Financial Times. If the U.S. troop surge fails, “already wobbly political support for the war may deteriorate further.” In war-torn Bosnia in the 1990s, security was established with a ratio of one soldier to every 50 citizens. In Afghanistan, that ratio is now one to 200. There simply may be too few troops to hold this fractious and primitive nation together.

What the columnists saidYou’re underestimating the Afghans, said Michael O’Hanlon and Hassina Sherjan in USA Today. Two recent opinion polls show a majority of Afghans now believe their country is on the right track, with 71 percent expecting that “life will get better.” Combined with a less than 10 percent favorable rating for the Taliban, the rising optimism suggests that Afghans share the West’s goals of a peaceful and stable nation free of extremist rule.

Time, though, is on the Taliban’s side, said Simon Tisdall in the London Guardian.com. By mid-2011, the Obama administration will be under strong political pressure to declare victory and start withdrawing troops. The Taliban are well aware that the West has no stomach for a prolonged fight in Afghanistan. So rather than fight, they’re melting away, and will return when the troops are, inevitably, gone. It’s also a waste of time to try bribing Taliban members to switch sides, said Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai in Newsweek. We’ve interviewed quite a few of them, and most of these fighters have no interest in political compromise with the corrupt central government in Kabul, or with our soldiers, whom they consider infidel invaders. They’re fighting not to regain political power, they told us, but for “vengeance” against the infidels occupying their country.

The Taliban are undeniably “vicious,” said Steve Coll in NewYorker.com, “but they’re not dumb.” That’s why U.S. forces “must secure Afghanistan’s major cities, its major highways, and as many provincial towns and populated rural areas in Taliban country as possible.” It’s the only way to convince the Taliban, and Islamic extremists allied with them, that they can’t win. Only by foreclosing other options can the West force these wily pragmatists to “consider political negotiations.”

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