So far, so good in the first major offensive of President Barack Obama’s war in Afghanistan. For the past four days, 4,000 U.S. Marines and 650 Afghan soldiers have been fighting their way into the southern reaches of Afghanistan’s Helmand River Valley, hoping to clear out insurgents there. But other than one limited area of fierce resistance, the fighting has generally been limited to small-scale skirmishes in which few Taliban have been killed, because most of the insurgents appear to have slipped away as guerrillas tend to do when confronted by overwhelming firepower. More important to U.S. goals, however, is that no civilians have been hurt, because the purpose of the operation is to secure the local population against the Taliban.
Even though he says it’s too early to predict success, General Stanley McChrystal, the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, is satisfied that the Helmand mission is moving in the right direction. “The operations are not aimed at the enemy force; they are aimed at taking away the population from the enemy,” he told TIME. “What we are trying to do is change the dynamics in the area where we are operating.” In order to do that, Marines are leaving their armored Humvees and sitting down with village elders and tribal leaders to assess their needs, and assuring them that this time, the Americans will be sticking around.
Operation Khanjar Pashto for “dagger” is the first test of the Obama Administration’s new strategy for Afghanistan. No longer treated as a secondary concern to Iraq, the Afghanistan theater will have been by 17,000 more American soldiers by this fall. And under McChrystal, they’ll be waging a different kind of war. Limited troop availability in the past meant that while NATO forces could clear an area of insurgents, they had been unable to hold the terrain. Now, the plan is for the Marines to set up combat posts in villages to provide the residents with lasting security. Still, some Afghans are skeptical. “I hope this operation gives a positive result,” says Haji Nimatullah, a businessman in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, by telephone. “But I am not optimistic. [These] operations are like the cat-and-mouse cartoon where the mouse escapes when the cat attacks, but when the cat is gone the mouse comes back and starts again.”
But the U.S. forces are aware of the danger cited by Nimatullah. “What makes Operation Khanjar different from those that have occurred before is the massive size of the force introduced, the speed at which it will insert, and the fact that where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces,” said Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, the Marine Commander, in a statement.
So far, only one Marine has been killed, and several have been wounded. Casualty figures are likely to rise, however, because the Taliban, having declined to go toe-to-toe with the Marines and instead melted into the civilian population, are likely to resort to asymmetrical warfare tactics such as Improvised Explosive Devices. On Saturday an IED strike killed two U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan, while another on Thursday killed two British troops elsewhere in Helmand. Stationing the Marines among the local population will increase the risk of such attacks, until the U.S. forces are able to win over residents through providing development aid and security. To do so, they will have to overcome deeply entrenched suspicions of American aims in the region, and resentment over civilian casualties inflicted during previous U.S. operations. “This operation will cause even more insecurity,” says Joma Khan, a 32-year old unemployed man in Lashkar Gah. “Because when people lose their family members or their houses gets destroyed, then they join Taliban.”
Aware of the danger, McChrystal has made the protection of civilians the central
tenet of his new approach to fighting the Taliban, even going so far as to limit the use of aerial bombardment to the most extreme circumstances a turnabout for U.S. ground forces that have grown dependent on air support. McChrystal has also declared in a soon-to-be-released tactical directive that soldiers should hold their fire if there is even the slightest risk of a civilian presence in the target zone. “Suppose the insurgent occupies an enemy home or village and engages you from there, with the clear idea that when you respond you are going to create collateral damage,” explains McChrystal. “He’s going to blame that on you. Even if you kill the insurgents, what happens is you have made the insurgency wider. You are going to run into more IEDs. You are going to run into more insurgents, [and] at the end of the day you are going to suffer more casualties.”
The new directive will certainly make the fight harder in the short term, but
already it is winning kudos from Afghans. “Already I am hearing a lot of
positive feedback [about the Helmand operation],” says Afghanistan’s Interior Minister, Hanif Atmar. “What was actually very well received and welcomed by the Afghan people was that [McChrystal] placed a bench mark for his success: He would like to measure his success in terms of how much he has protected the population, how much security he is providing them.”
The Marines, however, are a temporary solution. They will remain in Helmand at
least through the Afghan presidential elections slated for August 20, where
they will assist the Afghan security forces secure polling places in
anticipation of Taliban attacks. What happens beyond that, however, remains a
question. “The military can help set the conditions for success but it is not
sufficient for success,” U.S. Ambassador, and former ISAF commander, Karl
Eikenberry told TIME. “The military can help deliver security, but the
military in and of itself cannot deliver a lasting peace, cannot deliver an
accountable respected government, cannot deliver the necessary set of social
services and sustainable economy that only the civilian side can provide for.”
The next step in the new Afghan war will be a comprehensive strategy that
helps the Afghan government deliver the stability that comes from economic
opportunity and a working justice system that allows Afghans to benefit from
those opportunities. That kind of strategy, however, takes far more time than
a military operation and requires patience both for Afghans and the U.S.
administration that is footing the bill.
With reporting by Shah Mahmood / Kabul