Coalition forces in Afghanistan will face two enemies when they invade the Taliban stronghold of Marjah: the enemy and the clock, military experts say.
The U.S.-led offensive Operation Moshtarak, which is expected is start any day, is being described as the largest military operation in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001.
But the most important battle will take place after the shooting stops, several military experts say. The Marjah offensive will feature the largest presence of Afghan national army troops in any battle to date, yet what these troops do afterward will be critical, they say.
“This is a great opportunity for Afghan security forces to establish their bona fides,” says Lt. Col. Michael E. Silverman, an Iraq war veteran and a counterinsurgency training consultant for the U.S. Army.
“We’ll never have enough U.S. forces to hold a place in the middle of Afghanistan,” Silverman says. “It’s going to have to be the Afghan forces that are going to take the lead in holding places.”
The Marjah battle is expected to be vicious: house-to-house fighting in a major city littered with bobby-traps. Marjah is located in central Helmand where opium, which is used to fund the Taliban, is grown.
The battle for the loyalty of Marjah’s citizens is even more important, Silverman says. The Taliban has installed a shadow government in Marjah. Coalition forces must convince Afghans to look to their own national government for security and economic opportunities, Silverman says.
“The real work is getting the people of Helmand to connect with the government of Afghanistan,” Silverman says. “Without that, it doesn’t mater if the Taliban is there or not, there’s still going to be sympathy for the Taliban.”
All that work, though, requires time. Polls show that the American public’s support for the war has been declining. President Obama also said that he will start withdrawing U.S. troops in Afghanistan beginning in 2011.
True victory in Marjah, though, may not come quickly, says Brian Katulis a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
“The biggest sign of success won’t come in a matter of weeks,” Katulis says. “It will be months, if not a year, to see if these sorts of operations have a long-term effect.”
The success of the battle also requires political legitimacy for Afghanistan’s national government, Katulis says. Many Afghans see their national government, led by President Hamid Karzai, as corrupt and illegitimate after last year’s disputed presidential elections, Katulis says.
That distrust of the Afghan national government places a burden on Afghan army forces, Katulis says. Will Afghans in cities like Marjah welcome them as liberators - or dismiss them as defenders of a corrupt regime?
“I don’t know,” Katulis says. “That’s an open question at this point.”