Taking Marja militarily is the easy part, Haroun Mir says—the test is convincing Pakistan to deny safe haven to Taliban extremists and whether the Afghan government can ever effectively govern.
The ongoing offensive in the Nad-i-Ali and Marja districts of Helmand province is a key test of the U.S. military's efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. It’s obvious that approximately 2,000 Taliban fighters could not resist a joint assault by 15,000 well-trained U.S., NATO, and Afghan troops. U.S. forces will easily win this battle. However, the faith of the war depends on the aftermath of this military operation.
In fact, the last U.S. offensive in Helmand province in July 2009 did not meet its intended objective because Taliban fighters abandoned their position only to re-group as a viable opposition force after Afghan forces failed to establish control of gained territory when U.S. forces left the battlefield. Alongside the limited capacity of the Afghan national police, inadequate behavior by Afghan security forces in the context of tribal rivalries in Helmand province exacerbated the resentment of the local population to government rule.
The inability of the Afghan government to establish and consolidate good-governance in remote towns and villages was one of the main reasons for the re-emergence of Taliban forces.
The U.S. military surge in combat troops offers new hope for a successful military endeavor against Taliban and extremist forces. The new military objective is not confined only to defeating enemy forces, but also focuses on holding gained territory and rebuilding what has been destroyed during the military operation. Success in this endeavor is crucial for achieving the difficult task of winning hearts and minds of the local population.
Another key issue is to what extent the U.S. administration will be able to coerce the government of Pakistan to deny Taliban and other extremist groups with safe havens and sanctuaries where they continue to enjoy training plus financial, logistical, and military support.
Moreover, the recent capture of Mullah Baradar, a top Taliban leader, is a big blow for Taliban commanders and foot soldiers in terms of morale. It will certainly disrupt the Taliban's command and control, as well as send a clear warning to other Taliban leaders residing in Pakistan.
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• Michael O'Hanlon: What the Marja Offensive CostsIt goes without saying that the increased U.S. military presence and pressure is necessary for breaking the Taliban's momentum. But it is by now evident that military means alone will not stabilize Afghanistan. A successful Afghan strategy is also dependent on a credible and effective Afghan government. The inability of the Afghan government to establish and consolidate good-governance in remote towns and villages was one of the main reasons for the re-emergence of Taliban forces in the conflict-prone south and southeastern provinces of Afghanistan during late 2003 and early 2004.
Indeed, the Taliban were defeated militarily in 2001. And the result of the current military campaign in Nad-i-Ali and Marja will be the same. Our main concern should not be the strength of the Taliban, but rather the weakness of the Afghan government and its inability to offer Afghans basic services. A key concern for Afghans and the international community is endemic corruption, cronyism, and nepotism at the central and local levels of government. Many wonder how the Afghan government will be able to regain the trust of local people in Marja and Nad-i-Ali when Afghans living and working within 100 meters of the presidential palace doubt the ability of the central government.
Ultimately, the faith of the U.S. strategy depends on the ability of the local government to maintain security and ensure the local population with justice, good governance and basic services.
Haroun Mir is the director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies.