Battle for Marjah

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.

10 thoughts on “Battle for Marjah”

  1. I sometimes wonder if, in Afghanistan, we’re not at war with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, but at war with the very tribal nature of the place itself.

  2. I’m no expert, but I imagine that ain’t helping matters much.

    Part of the problem is the disconnect between the villages and the ANA, which represents a central government in Kabul which has almost no connectedness with the villagers.

    The central government doesn’t build roads, provide education, or courts and law enforcement to the outlying areas. So the villagers often wonder just why they should pay any attention to Kabul at all.

    There’s a great deal of tribalism in Iraq, but it is taken to a whole ‘nother level in A-stan where some tribes are so isolated from the rest of society that they are genetically quite divergent from the rest of the population.

  3. Afghanistan hasn’t changed since Alexander marched through there. It is a feudal society that would have been recognized anywhere in Europe in the 9th to 14th century. The only thing that is different is the insertion of technology. It’s virtually no different than when American settlers moved west and introduced firearms and ironware to the American Indians, who were stone-aged peoples.

    The Afghani locals owe their allegiance to the warlord, and it’s very much a blood/tribe affair.

    Only until we can educate the children, explain to them the way the new world works, and get the central government on a solid foundation where it CAN help the people will we see things begin to change.

    This war will be won in part on the battlefield, but only as a means to buy security while we raise the next generation and teach them to be a nation, rather than a biblical tribal-based society. Once Afghanistan can become a nation of one people with one common culture, or at least a pretense to national identity and culture, will stability come to that neglected land.

  4. That is, of course, if the world feels it is important enough to drag the Afghanis up to at least the 19th century.

    I believe it is the right thing to do, but I’ve been wrong before.

  5. Why do we need to support a national government though? Acknowledge, recognize, and support the tribes.

    Let it be known that any tribe that supports the Taliban or AQ is our enemy and will feel our wrath. Any tribe that opposes same are our friends and will get our military support. Any tribe that Westernizes will get further support in the way of infrastructure and cash.

  6. Well, up until about 1975, Afghanistan did have a working central government. It’s not beyond belief that it can have one again.

    Plus, since we pretty much installed it, we pretty much have to support it.

    But there’s a good deal of practicality to what you say. The challenge is to get the tribes to actually believe we will be a long term partner to them.

    As to building infrastructure in the area, it is unbelievably difficult to do. We don’t have enough troops to secure the areas to let contractors build roads, etc. and we sure as heck don’t have enough to do the job ourselves.

  7. I think that’s because we’re attempting to upgrade the entire country. If we took the tribe-centric approach as oppose to the Kabul-centric approach, it would allow us to focus our resources in geographically small areas first. Create little pools of concentrated civilization instead of a road here, a bridge there, a well every hundred miles.

    Take a tribe in the northern areas, say in Massoud’s old stomping grounds. They should be a little more initially receptive given the history. Focus resources on them. Roads throughout their region, connecting into adjacent areas, but stopping at the borders. Decentralized gas and power systems in the villages. Schools. Clinics. Schools to train up new doctors and teachers.

    Westernization and being pro-America actions/sentiment equals continued and increased support. Crossing us means the contractors and troops go home or start shooting. Eventually the message spreads into adjacent territories, giving those tribes time to decide which way they’ll hop.

    Seems like a cheaper, simpler, and more effective strategy to me. In my opinion, it was a mistake ever sticking Karzai’s ass into Kabul. We should’ve followed a tribe-centric strategy, used the Indians to put the hurt on the Pakistanis so they don’t interfere, and when the time comes help the Afghans organize some kind of tribal confederation that could be called a “central government.”

  8. I’m not saying the tribe centric strategy would have been bad.

    But you can only use India so much to pressure Pakistan. There’s WAY too much bad blood there and they have nukes. No sane administration is gonna deliberately ratchet up the tension between two third world nations with nukes.

  9. Pakistan/India cannot be resolved peacefully. Period. So either we take the initiative and try and shape the conflagration so that when the ashes settle it benefits us and India, or we sit on our asses and let things slowly slide into the shitter as we are currently doing.

    Either manage the situation, or let it bareback you to death.

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