Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why Marja?

Or even better, why Helmand? That's what Steve Coll was trying to figure out yesterday on his New Yorker blog.

It is true, of course, that U.S. forces cannot operate in large numbers in Pakistan, and are dependent on Pakistan’s fitful, ambivalent cooperation against the Taliban. Yet that still raises the question of why the thousands of U.S. Marines available in southern Afghanistan are concentrated largely to the west of Kandahar, rather than reinforcing struggling Canadian troops in the province itself.

In my Washington rounds, I’ve heard several overlapping explanations. Some argue that the U.S. cannot afford to yield ground in Helmand taken by the Marines last year, before the current counterinsurgency approach was fully cooked. U.S. commanders have also said that Helmand must be cleared and held in order to open transport routes to the West, toward Herat. (That makes sense.) Perhaps control of Marja will eventually become a staging area for a gradual push east into Kandahar, to take back those parts of the city and its surroundings where the Taliban now exercise disturbing degrees of influence.

I have also heard it suggested, however, that the big and visible Helmand operation is being conceived as a sort of “demonstration project” of joint U.S. and Afghan security and governance capabilities - that “clear, hold, and build” there will be constructed as a sort of theme park of revived counterinsurgency practice. In this explanation, it is hoped that the operation and its aftermath will so dazzle fence-sitting Afghans and the Taliban alike that it will contribute to a shift of perceptions about which side in the war is gaining momentum. If this is part of the command’s thinking, it seems a potential prescription for Potemkin architecture.

I've seen it said that Marja is the enemy salient in an otherwise solid belt of government-controlled areas crossing the southern provinces, and that this explains the focus there. So what's the story?


  1. Maybe they just want to start with the easier part:
    - as far as the operation as such is concerned
    - as well as the aftermath (holding, building).

    The current ops covers just 2, not too big population centers. Kandahar province, on the other hand, is a big place ...

    Considering up to 90% of the marines involved do not have experienced personal combat (as "fighting" in Iraq mostly consists of IEDs + talking these days), this seems like a valid approach to me. Demonstration projects are not the same as Potemkin villages.

    Maybe they are also hoping that this will reduce Taliban income from opium ...

  2. Told you so ... ;-)

    Major ISAF ops: First Helmand, then Kandahar

    By late spring or early summer, Canada will be at “the tip of the spear” of NATO's efforts in Afghanistan, leading a massive push in Kandahar province on the scale of this month's attacks in nearby Helmand, a top coalition soldier says.