This year will be the third in a row that tens of thousands of new United States troops have arrived in Afghanistan with plans to “clear, hold and build” areas controlled by the Taliban. Those previous surges have achieved little success at holding or building, as the international coalition and Afghan government have inevitably failed to come up with realistic plans for what happens after the fighting is done. Is the campaign in Marja destined for the same fate?
The international coalition’s strategic goal for Afghanistan is to build “an enduring stable, secure, prosperous and democratic state.” Only by focusing on the messy medium-term stages of reconstruction — those months, and possibly years, after the fighting dies down — do we have any chance of achieving such a goal. In this regard, Marja presents us with four distinct hurdles. (Disclosure: I work as an analyst for a military contractor, but these views are my own.)
The most pressing problem is displaced civilians. During the weeks leading up to the offensive, Afghan and American authorities asked residents to leave their homes. Many obliged: according to the United Nations, several thousand families, representing upward of 25,000 people, have fled the area.
But accurate reporting is always an issue in Afghanistan, and the Western coalition put the number of families that fled in advance of the fighting at about 200. In either case, aid workers say that the families cannot find temporary housing or medical assistance either in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, or Kabul. Many hundreds of other residents have had their homes and livelihoods destroyed in the fighting.
Then there is the question of how Marja will be governed. Unfortunately, Western leadership is undecided about the nature of the place itself. Depending on which official is speaking, Marja is either a teeming “population center” of 85,000 residents or an isolated farming town of about 50,000 or a district with about 125,000 people. But if Marja is a district, it is unrecognized by the Afghan Interior Ministry. And if Marja is a town, then it needs to hold a constitutionally mandated election to choose a mayor, and not face a governor forced upon it by Kabul.
Regardless of Marja’s status, the choice of new “district governor,” Haji Abdul Zahir, does not make sense. Mr. Zahir has lived in Germany for the last 15 years and had never set foot in Marja until two weeks ago. He is also widely seen as an unassertive crony of Gulab Mangal, the provincial governor. Mr. Zahir’s main power rival in the area is Abdul Rahman Jan, a fearsome former police chief whose forces had such a nasty reputation that people in Marja reached out to the Taliban for protection. The international force needs to either find more appropriate candidates or hold an election.
Good government will matter little, though, if the local economy is in a shambles. Marja’s agricultural base relies primarily on opium, and any new counternarcotics policies will wreak havoc; arresting or killing the drug traffickers will ultimately be the same as attacking local farmers. The timing of the offensive could not be more damaging: opium is planted in the winter and harvested in the spring, which means those who planted last year cannot recoup their investment.
In Helmand, opium is the only way farmers can acquire credit: they take out small loans, called salaam, from narcotics smugglers or Taliban officials, often in units of poppy seed, and pay back that loan in opium paste after harvest. If they cannot harvest their opium, they are in danger of defaulting on their loan — a very dangerous proposition.
Western aid groups distributed wheat seeds last fall, but there was little follow-up and it seems few farmers used them. This year, the aid workers should be prepared to pay farmers compensation for any opium crops they are unable to harvest as a result of the fighting, and the Western coalition should help the groups develop a microcredit system.
Last, progress on these other fronts will do nothing if the Taliban return, which means a significant number of troops must stay for at least a year. Gen. David Petraeus, head of the Central Command, has said that Marja was merely an “initial salvo” in an 18-month campaign to also retake neighboring Kandahar Province, the birthplace of the Taliban. Kandahar is Afghanistan’s second-largest city, so it is reasonable to assume that many troops will be pulled out of Marja for that campaign.
This looks like part of a familiar pattern: troops move into an area, kill anyone firing a machine gun, then move on to the next, bigger target hoping they have left behind a functioning government. It’s why many communities in central Helmand have experienced three influxes of NATO forces in three years.
At a minimum, at least two battalions should stay in Marja permanently, to undergird the new government. They shouldn’t build a new base outside the town for this, or “commute” to the area from strongholds in Helmand like Camp Leatherneck. They should live right inside the town, providing security and guidance from within. You can’t have a “population-centric” counterinsurgency unless you take care of the people.
Joshua Foust, who writes the blog Registan.net