Nawa, Marjah and Kandahar: A Tale of Three Cities

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 8 months ago

Rajiv Chandrasekaran with The Washington Post addresses the question why counterinsurgency works in some places but not others.

MARJA, AFGHANISTAN — The distance from here to success is only 15 miles.

There, in the community of Nawa, a comprehensive U.S. civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy has achieved what seems to be a miracle cure. Most Taliban fighters have retreated. The district center is so quiescent that U.S. Marines regularly walk around without their body armor and helmets. The local economy is so prosperous, fueled by more than $10 million in American agriculture aid, that the main bazaar has never been busier. Now for sale: shiny, Chinese-made motorcycles and mobile phones. There’s even a new ice cream shop.

But here in Marja, the same counterinsurgency strategy has not suppressed the insurgent infection. Dozens of Taliban fighters have stayed in the area, and despite aggressive Marine operations to root them out, they have succeeded in seeding the roads with homemade bombs and sniping at patrols. The insurgent presence has foiled efforts to help and protect the civilian population: Taliban threats — and a few targeted murders — have dissuaded many residents from availing themselves of U.S. reconstruction assistance.

In my five trips to the area over the past year, Nawa has felt like progress, while Marja still feels like a war zone. Together, they illustrate the promise and limits of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and the central challenge facing the new U.S. and NATO commander in Kabul, Gen. David H. Petraeus.

Marja and Nawa have much in common. Both are home to about 80,000 people, almost all of them ethnic Pashtuns. Both are farming communities where opium-producing poppies have been the cash crop of choice. Both are socially conservative southern Afghan backwaters, where tribal chiefs hold sway and women are rarely seen in public, even in head-to-toe burqas.

Both were stricken by the Taliban insurgency four years ago. And over the past year, both have been treated with America’s new counterinsurgency formula: Each community has been flooded with U.S. Marines and Afghan security forces, at troop levels that meet or exceed what counterinsurgency theorists prescribe. Each has received a surge of cash and civilian experts in an effort to provide public services, rebuild infrastructure and dole out basic economic assistance. Each has been described as a priority by the central government in Kabul.

So why did all this work in one but not the other?

Rajiv then poses some answers from the ISAF, as well as a few of his own.

U.S. military officials contend that Marja needs more time to resemble Nawa. The Nawa operation began last July; efforts in Marja didn’t start until February. But when the Nawa campaign was five months old — where the Marja mission is now — the district was just as quiet as it is today. The improvements in Nawa occurred quickly, and they seem to have lasted.

By now, Marja was supposed to be a success story as well, demonstrating to a skeptical public in America and Afghanistan that countering the insurgency with more troops, more money and a new strategy could resuscitate a foundering war. Perhaps more important, counterinsurgency proponents in the Pentagon and the State Department hoped to use both towns to make the case to President Obama that counterinsurgency works in Afghanistan and that he should attenuate — or postpone outright — his planned drawdown of troops starting next July …

It is tempting, and perhaps fair, to view Marja as an outlier with unique tribal and geographic challenges. A patch of desert in Helmand province that was transformed into farmland by canals designed by American engineers in the 1950s, Marja was populated from scratch by the country’s late king with settlers from a variety of tribes. The rank and file moved to Marja, but the chiefs didn’t. This decades-old experiment in Afghan social engineering has now complicated efforts to find the same sorts of tribal leaders who influence the population in other Afghan communities. They simply don’t exist in Marja.

Although there were poppy fields and bomb facilities in Nawa, too, they did not match what existed in Marja; as a result, Nawa may have been easier for the Taliban to abandon. Timing further complicated the Marja mission. When the Marines landed in Nawa, last year’s poppy harvest was finished; they arrived in Marja two months before this year’s harvest. “Our presence in Marja created an economic catastrophe for the Taliban that led them to fight back,” said a senior Marine officer involved in both operations. “The guys in Nawa had a full belly when we showed up.”

Marja also served as a retreating ground for insurgents in Nawa who did not forsake the Taliban. It is only a short drive away. For insurgents in Marja, there’s no similar sanctuary. To the south and west, it’s open desert all the way to the borders with Pakistan and Iran. “For the Taliban, Marja was a case of fight, or drop your weapon and pretend you’re a civilian,” the officer said. “There was no place for them to go.”

Rajiv interviewed residents of Nawa who emphasized that the insurgents simply chose to flee Nawa, while they decided to stay and fight in Marjah.  He sums this point up by observing:

In that sense, the insurgents themselves possess the power to give us more Nawas. That may not mean Marja is a lost cause, but it does mean it will take much longer to achieve similar results.

Consider Garmsir, the district south of Nawa. It, too, was infested with insurgents, some of whom chose to stay and fight. The Marines arrived there in the summer of 2008 to begin counterinsurgency operations, and it was not until earlier this year — about 18 months later — that the area was deemed by Marine commanders to have been cleared of the Taliban. “Garmsir is a better model for what will happen in Marja,” the senior Marine officer said. “Nawa is the gold standard, not the example.”

By this point in his analysis, Rajiv has invoked geography, tribes (or lack thereof), lack of adequate forces, poppy, Taliban permission, and thirty year old social engineering experiments.  What is otherwise an interesting commentary becomes befuddled by lack of focus.  Moreover, the narrative on Garmsir is badly off.  The Marines of the 24th MEU did indeed show up in Garmsir in 2008, but after killing some 400 insurgents and bringing stability to Garmsir, they left and turned over to the British.  The notion that it took the U.S. Marines 18 months to secure Garmsir is just factually mistaken.

But Rajiv’s pointer to time is more to the point.  In the Anbar Province, Ramadi was heavily influenced by tribal affiliation and yet Fallujah was not.  Different tactics, techniques and procedures were used, but the Marines were successful in both instances.  Tribes are not necessary for the proper practice of counterinsurgency.  Every city, district, hamlet and township will be different, and the timing will vary, but the singular nexus between all of these locations and counterinsurgency is adequate time to properly conduct the campaign.

The British strongly believe in the idea of government in a box, or so I am told.  The U.S. Marines know better, and should have warned Generals McChrystal and Rodriguez that their “presto the magic COIN” ideas wouldn’t work, at least not on a timetable consistent with Obama’s targets for withdrawal.  But if we look confused in Helmand, Kandahar seems no better.

Security experts and officials said that a full-scale military encirclement and invasion – as American troops had done in Iraq’s Fallujah – was not an appropriate model to tackle the Taliban in the southern capital. All elements of the campaign were being adjusted in response to conditions encountered by the Nato-led coalition.

Gen Petraeus’s decision to revise the entire strategy comes just weeks after he arrived in Afghanistan following the abrupt dismissal of Gen Stanley McChrystal for insubordination.

Gen McChrystal had planned a summer conquest of the Taliban in Kandahar to reinvigorate the battle against the Taliban.

But the operation has been repeatedly delayed by concerns that it would not adequately restore the confidence of city residents in the security forces.

Gen Petraeus is reported to believe that the operation must be a broad-ranging counter-insurgency campaign, involving more troops working with local militias.

The plan he inherited was criticised for placing too much emphasis on targeted assassinations of key insurgent leaders and not enough on winning over local residents.

Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, rejected speculation that the Kandahar operation had been derailed during a visit to London but said that preparations were ongoing across a broad range of areas. He refused to subscribe to suggestions that the operation was being delayed but that efforts were being upgraded.

“Kandahar is not a military operation like Fallujah,” Mr Holbrooke said. “Its a different kind of thing. And with David Petraeus on the ground, he’s scrubbing it down, he’s looking at it again.“

Kandahar is no Fallujah, huh?  Holbrooke has no idea what he’s talking about, and he also has no idea what “kind of thing” awaits Kandahar.  The McChrystal plan for Kandahar wasn’t anything near the Marine conquest of Fallujah in operations Fajr or Alljah, and the comparison is clownish and ludicrous.  McChrystal had planned for a series of checkpoints to control entry and exit, with Afghan National Police aligning with troops, and with ANP taking the lead in all home entry and other operations.  There was never to be any “invasion” in McChrystal’s plan.

That he couldn’t get Karzai’s buy-in to the plan and that the population feared Taliban reprisal more than they trusted ISAF ability to defeat them, is the reason for the tactical pause, well known among troops in Afghanistan and almost unheard of stateside.  McChrystal’s plan would never have worked anyway.  The consummate SOF man, his plan relied too heavily on a program of high value target hits and arrests (as has his entire campaign in Afghanistan).

With the thugs and criminal gangs controlling Kandahar (led by Hamid Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai), it’s doubtful that a soft approach will work.  It’s also doubtful that Petraeus has enough troops to implement anything other than a soft approach.  Finally, it isn’t clear that Petraeus has enough time to implement any approach at all in Kandahar.  The tactical pause has wasted most of the summer months, and the end of the year (the target for showing progress in Afghanistan) is only half a year away.


  1. On July 26, 2010 at 5:59 pm, TSAlfabet said:

    I wonder whether the onset of winter will give the U.S. any sort of advantage in Kandahar. I have read that the Taliban like to take their R&R in the cozy vacation spots of Pakistan during the winter months. Perhaps the U.S. can use those months to leverage what should be a decline in available counterinsurgents.

  2. On July 26, 2010 at 6:02 pm, TSAlfabet said:

    I wonder, too, whether the operation in Marjah has employed all of the techniques that proved so successful in Anbar?

    For example, what about cordoning off sections of the city with concrete barriers and plunking down an outpost of Marines who then go door to door and take a biometric census of the inhabitants and start mapping out the human terrain there? Control ingress and egress to the neighborhood etc..

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You are currently reading "Nawa, Marjah and Kandahar: A Tale of Three Cities", entry #5269 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Kandahar,Petraeus and was published July 25th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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