Marjah: A Cautionary Tale and Lessons for the Future

BY Herschel Smith
7 years, 10 months ago

From Global Post:

The American soldier standing guard at the main intersection in Marjah looked hot and tired. Sweat and dust covered his face and uniform as he sought shelter from the burning sun under a tree. Even his nametag was obscured by the dirt.

As an Afghan reporter approached, the soldier stiffened visibly. But when shown the journalist’s identification, he relaxed and even smiled a bit.

“We have lost our credibility here,” he said, explaining his initial hostility. “Even small children to whom I offer candy are Taliban spies. We have to be suspicious.”

The soldier would not say any more, or even give his name.

Marjah, the focus of a much-hyped battle just a few short months ago, said to herald “the turning point of the war,” is now a dangerous and volatile place.

As the U.S. Army weighs the pros and cons of conducting a similar effort in Kandahar, a much larger and more difficult target, the Marjah operation provides a cautionary tale for those who think that military offensives can bring stability to the Taliban heartland.

Marjah may never have deserved its exalted status: a small patch of desert containing at most 50,000 inhabitants, it was the target of Operation Moshtarak, which began on Feb. 13. More than 15,000 soldiers from the U.S., British and Afghan armies took part in the offensive against at most 2,000 Taliban. Within weeks the Marines declared victory.

It was not until a few months later that the serious cracks in the arrangement became too apparent to hide. The “government in a box” promised by Gen. Stan McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, did not bring the stability and peace it was supposed to.

Instead, district governor Haji Mohammad Zahir could not establish rapport with the local population and was quietly removed in mid-July. The Taliban, far from “melting away” as expected, stood their ground and began to mount terror operations against the local population.

By July, conditions had deteriorated to the point that residents were afraid the district was about to fall once again to the Taliban.

“It is like Doomsday,” said Haji Abdul Samad, a shopkeeper in Marjah. “The bullets drop like rain from the sky. I have not been able to go to my shop for 10 days. Cattle and sheep are dying. There is no humanity here, no kindness.”

The main bazaar in Marjah, Loya Charahi, is almost deserted. Only a handful of the hundreds of shops are open; the intersection looks as it did in the early days of the operation.

“The Taliban has warned us not to open our shops,” said Gul Ahmad, whose store remains shuttered. “There are more and more of them and they are very cruel. If I open my shop, they will beat me to death. Perhaps they are trying to demonstrate their power, or perhaps they just want to show that life is not normal in Marjah.”

[ … ]

Jabir, a police officer in Marjah, who also uses only name, is afraid that Marjah could soon fall again to the Taliban.

“We cannot patrol on our own, but go with the Americans,” he said. “The Taliban are very bold and very brave. They have new weapons and they conduct more than 10 attacks every day in Marjah. It is horrifying.”

The situation is untenable, he insisted. “Everything has changed here,” he said. “We are afraid of every farmer, and see Taliban fighters behind every tree.”

If you can get past Jean MacKenzie calling U.S. forces in Marjah Soldiers instead of Marines, there is some useful perspective in this report.  As if to unnecessarily repeat ourselves or lay the painfully obvious out all over again, this stupid idea of a government in a box that McChrystal and Rodriguez thought would work is a fool’s errand.  I am also told that the British officers to a man believe in the “government in a box” strategy.  In spite of the continued questioning of whether Marjah deserved the effort put into it, if the Taliban are there and can be found and killed, it’s worth it.  But instant government from a military magician yelling ‘presto’ won’t do the job.

Second, recall that the Taliban who eventually found themselves here began in other parts of Helmand, including Now Zad, Gamrsir, and so forth.  They don’t belong here.  That is, they don’t have families in Marjah – or at least, if they do, until now they have been wandering troublemakers.  It’s been a while since they have been in Marjah in force because they haven’t had to be.  Yet they have the population eating out of their hands.  They have been quite successful with their tactics of intimidation, an outcome I forecasted.  They don’t have to be the sons of families in Marjah.  Their intimidation is enough.

Third, the ANA and ANP is nowhere near ready to take over from the U.S., and won’t be in a year.  They can’t even summon the courage to patrol alone.

Fourth, the Marines need to know who is in Marjah and why.  They need to look into the eyes of every inhabitant, be inside every home, take every fingerprint and scan every iris.  Their patrols need to be ubiquitous, day and night, and they don’t need to wait on the ANA or send them into the homes first.  They need to proceed with door kicking in the middle of the night if that’s what it takes, they need to project force, and they need to do it beginning now and carrying on until every last insurgent has been captured or killed.  Killed is better than captured given the poor state of the Afghanistan system of “justice” (i.e., catch and release).

In short, the Marines have lost their way.  The Marines are out of their element, doing things that don’t come natural.  McChrystal had persuaded (or ordered) them to adopt the British way of doing things (and to some degree supported by elements within the U.S. Army), the same strategy that lost Basra.  The Marines need to look into their past, their recent past, and return to the things they were doing in the Anbar Province.  They need no classes to remember.  It’s organic, it’s something inherent to the Corps.  It will appear too brutish to some of the brass who has lost their way, and it will make others deride them as knuckle draggers and mouth breathers.  That’s because they don’t know that the Marines know more than they do and know how to win.  They just need to remember it, and the brass just needs to sit back and watch and learn.  The Marines need to be Marines, and the brass needs to get out of the way and quit trying to micromanage their work.

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  1. On August 4, 2010 at 8:03 am, skiritai72 said:

    I enjoy the posts and opinions on this sight, and understand that this is a Marine centric sight. But as a current Paratrooper please remember the problems facing our Soldiers, Paratroopers, and Marines all stem from our leadership. We have some excellent leaders who have bought into COIN, but lost focus on the fact that you cant provide safety to the populace without putting the wood to the enemies ass. The problem in Afghanistan is two fold: One is the Afghanis, they do not grasp the idea of a centralized government, they see us as weak and the Taliban as strong, and they are a corrupt culture by our standards. Two, we aren’t killing bad guys fast enough. If you impose curfews, announcing that anyone out after a certain time will be arrested or killed. You can begin to gain control, even your average Afghani doesn’t want to die. Sounds harsh, but is a fact.

  2. On August 4, 2010 at 1:56 pm, Warbucks said:

    The contrast between this report and the headlines in my morning paper is night and day. The morning paper, explaining the Administration’s most recent strateegery reads: “More Diplomacy, Less Fighting”

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Marines in Helmand and was published August 3rd, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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