It’s a little odd to be writing about a battle before it even takes place. But right now in Afghanistan, US Marines and Afghan Army troops are gearing up to attack a Taliban stronghold in the city of Marjah in Helmand province.
This public knowledge of the impending attack isn’t a result of poor operational security, but rather a deliberate tactic on our part. You see, Marjah is a fair sized city, with a normal population of about 80,000 people. And most of those people are innocent civilians. And a key part of Counter-insurgency warfare keeping the civilian population on your side. That’s pretty hard to do if you kill a bunch of civilians who are just trying to survive.
GEN McChrystal has gotten a lot of flack from well meaning people about the new, stricter rules of engagement that he has imposed on our forces in Afghanistan. These folks argue that restricting our troops access to artillery fires and Close Air Support will cost troops their lives. And that’s true. But it also ignores the fact that by using that overwhelming firepower, we’ve been racking up a nasty toll of civilian casualties as “collateral damage.” And that alienates the population and makes them more sympathetic to the Taliban. In effect, we’ve been really good at killing Taliban for the last 8 years, but haven’t accomplished the strategic goal of diminishing the popular support for the Taliban. The Taliban may make your life miserable and press your son into their service, but they don’t drop a 500 pound bomb on your house, killing you, your whole family, and all your livestock.
So McChrystal has decided that taking more casualties now in small unit actions that don’t piss off the locals as much is a better route to winning the key battle- the one for hearts and minds out in the provinces. That’s a large part of why McChrystal neeeded a troop surge. Fighting with limited fire support is far more manpower intensive. It also allows more cities and towns to have a real US presence for extended periods of times, instead of just showing up once a month for tea.
But there are limits to that approach. Sometimes, you gotta kick a little ass. Marjah has been a stronghold of the Taliban for some time now. There’s a concentration of about 2000 Taliban fighters and maybe that many drug-lord enforcers in town. The US would very much like to kill these people. So for a while now, the US and Afghan forces have been putting a cordon around Marjah, to keep as many of the bad guys in town as possible, by cutting off their escape routes. Now, the our forces are encouraging as many civilians as possible to flee the city before a big fight starts. This surrender of the element of surprise has some severe downsides. It gives the enemy a lot of time to prepare defensive positions and prepare for battle. But it has its upsides as well. With fewer civilians around, there’s less likelihood of large numbers of civilian casualties. And if there’s less chance of civilian casualties, there’s less reason to restrict the use of Close Air Support and artillery. By shaping the battlefield to best suit our strengths, we’ve increased our chances of a significant victory over the Taliban. Our assault is going to leave a lot of damage to Marjah’s infrastructure and to the homes. But that’s something we can get around to fixing once we’ve kicked the Taliban out of town.
Strategypage has an interesting article comparing the upcoming fight in Marjah to the Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq.
Stay tuned for more updates on this fight. It’s going to be a key test of the new US approach to the fight in Afghanistan.