The biggest coalition offensive in Afghanistan since the Taliban were toppled is underway in Helmand Province, much of the action focused on the town of Marjah.
U.S. officials are almost giddy over what they see, so far, as a successful operation. U.S. Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, normally the coolest of cucumbers, Wednesday declared to journalists at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul: "They will be studying this operation for years to come."
Officials have been doing a lot of talking recently, about the goals of the mission, the tactics they will use, and their ambitious reconstruction and development plans for Marjah and adjacent areas once the fighting stops. They’re hesitant to declare this offensive as a turning point in the nine-year old struggle for Afghanistan, but you can sense a strong desire to do exactly that.
Having gotten an earful from Holbrooke, it seemed a good idea to find out how Afghans are reacting to the fighting in Helmand.
I first went to Fawzia Kufi, a strong-minded member of the Afghan Parliament. She is decidedly underwhelmed by all the smoke and fury in far away Marjah.
"I don’t think this district is strategically very important for bringing peace and security to the whole country," she told me. "The Taliban are very scattered, it’s not an organized war. It’s not going to work with such a massive military operation."
Out on the streets of Kabul, there is, at best, cautious optimism. Jaweed, a university student, told me he hopes the Taliban are defeated, but worries about what will happen when the fighting stops. "I am not one hundred percent sure about this offensive, because our security forces aren’t up to defending the country properly."
His concern is that, despite the coalition’s pledge to hold on to Marjah, the Taliban will simply re-emerge when attention turns elsewhere.
The harshest criticism came from Akmal Dawi of the NGO Afghanistan Rights Monitor. For him, it’s all a big publicity stunt aimed at reassuring Americans that the 30,0000 additional troops being sent to Afghanistan are making a difference.
"I personally look at this conflict as a major opportunity for the West to demonstrate that they are doing a fantastic job in Afghanistan," he said. "They are defeating the Taliban. They are trying to make it appear as if all the problems of Afghanistan are in Marjah and that if we defeat the Taliban in Marjah the problems of Afghanistan will be solved."
Despite the arrival of new coalition troops and despite the capture of Taliban second-in-command Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Dawi believes the Taliban are becoming stronger, for political, nor military reasons, "because of the miscalculations of the West, but also because of the endemic corruption in this country, the lack of competence in the leadership of this country."
He describes Marjah as a small dusty town in the middle of nowhere. The heart of Afghanistan’s problems, Dawi asserts, lies in Kabul’s Presidential Palace, not in remote provinces. His priorities: "improve governance, stop corruption, stop the drug trade and make better use of international aid."
The coalition may be starting small in Marjah, and if all goes according to plan, shift its attention to even more problematic areas. There is talk that an anti-Taliban offensive may be in the works in Konduz Province in the north, and Kandahar in the south.