February 5th, 2010
06:49 AM ET

Why is the military publicizing its upcoming operations in Afghanistan?

WASHINGTON (CNN) - When it comes to launching a major military operation, most would assume that preparations are done secretly so as not to tip off the enemy.

So how do the U.S., coalition military and Afghan government prepare for a major clearing operation to eliminate the Taliban from an insurgent stronghold? Talk about it publicly ahead of time.

For months now, one of the worst kept secrets in Afghanistan's central Helmand region has been the forthcoming operation to take back control of the poppy-covered and Taliban-held Marjah district in the restive central Helmand
province region.

The area is home to some of the most serious fighting between the coalition and Taliban in the country, and also is some of the most fertile land in the country.

Helmand province is in southern central Afghanistan and is patrolled mainly by forces from the United Kingdom and U.S. Marines, and it has been on the coalition's radar for a long time as Taliban dug in and funded their
operations with money from poppy production.

Central Helmand is also home to the majority of the world supply of heroin, about 60 percent, according to U.S. government officials. The relationship of convenience between narco-traffickers and the Taliban brings in about $400 million to the Taliban from the poppy sales, "more than enough for them to conduct the kind of operations they do," according to a senior U.S. military official.

The U.S. military has been briefing reporters for months on basics, mainly that the Marjah region is the target of this operation. However,  officials have been leaving out details of how and when the operation will go down.

The British military even put out a press release with the name of the effort, Operation Moshtarak, which means "together" in Afghanistan's Persian-language dialect of Dari, saying the military is in the "shape" phase of the operation.

There have also been discussions with local governmental leaders about the operation, and those leaders have in turn spread the word around the local population.

So why, if the enemy is concentrated in one area, would the top commander in Afghanistan authorize the publicity of a major operation to go in, clear the area of Taliban and try to convince poppy growers to switch to wheat? It is a curious plan, but a plan that both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen agree with and signed off on.

The answer, it seems, is based on human nature. If you are told the military is going to conduct a major operation in your region and you are one of the bad guys, common sense says you pack up and leave.

But in this case, part of the message has been sent to the local population to let them know the Afghan government will support them if they change from growing poppy to growing wheat of other non-narco crops. That paves the way, the military hopes, for less combat and leaves Afghan and coalition forces with a local population, in theory, willing to work with them.

There are problems with this kind of plan, though. The Taliban have plenty of time to plant roadside bombs and leave other deadly surprises behind for the Afghan and coalition troops.

The military understands this and expects this, and is prepared for casualties - but the benefits outweigh the negatives, according to military officials.

If the local population understands ahead of time that the government and local security forces will deliver jobs and security, then the fight will not be that bad.

The Marjah model is something McChrystal is counting on working; if it does, it will be applied to numerous other problem areas around the country, according to U.S. military officials.

Proof that this could work is counter-intuitively based on the failure of U.K. troops in the same area last year. There was no support form the local government or Afghan forces and the local governances did not end up supporting
the local populations and remained influenced by the Taliban.

U.S. commanders are hopeful, and believe this formula of broadcasting the plans that will be more effective.

The question remains - if this does not work, where does that leave the U.S. and the Afghan government in the eyes of the local population who already are weary of their intentions?

soundoff (101 Responses)
  1. Edwin

    If I was a taliban, right now i would be having a water melon slush at least 1,000 miles from the attack and would get back as soon as cnn announces that the operation is over.

    February 12, 2010 at 8:14 pm | Report abuse |
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