As U.S. and coalition troops, including a large Afghan force, surround the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, CNN asked two experts for their take on why this operation is important and what it means for the future of the war in Afghanistan.
Andrew Exum served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and was on Gen. Stanley McChrystal's review team of the Afghanistan strategy. His is the founder of the blog Abu Muqawama and is now with the Center for New American Security in Washington, D.C. Mark Moyar is a professor of national security affairs at the Marine Corps University and just returned from training U.S. and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.
Q: Many have never even heard of Marjah – why is the area such a big deal?
Moyar: Marjah is in Helmand province where they've made a major push in the past year with the Marines. It is the last major enemy holdout, and it is serving as a sanctuary - it is allowing them to stage military attacks, build IEDs. And it is militarily imperative and also psychologically imperative that we remove this sanctuary area, make it harder for the insurgents to operate. It's much harder for them if they don't have that sanctuary area now so they can still move into sanctuaries in other places like Pakistan, but we're going to work on those as well. But this is really a big thorn in our side and one that we're clearly going to address in the near future.
Q: Why haven't coalition forces tried securing Marjah before now?
Exum: Unfortunately, when you look at our force-to-population ratios in Helmand and throughout Afghanistan really, we're not matched up to a degree where we can secure every place all the time. However, the Marines have had a lot of security gains in Helmand province over the past year, and so now it makes sense to go after Marjah at this time because we have had some gains elsewhere through that Helmand River valley.
Q: If indeed this will be a victory for NATO forces, will this be a game-changer for the whole war?
Exum: No, it's not. In Afghanistan, unfortunately, there's no silver bullet. There's no one thing that we're going to do that's going to turn the tide. What you're going to see in Afghanistan is very steady, very unglamorous offensives whereby we're moving in and trying to secure the population, to buy the Afghan government some time and space to build up key institutions. No one thing is going to be a game-changer. There is no silver bullet in Afghanistan. This is the long, hard slog of counterinsurgency, unfortunately. But so far the Marines in Helmand province have done very well over the past year since they've been deployed there.
Moyar: That's right, it is going to be a long process. These types of wars aren't going to be decided by a single battle, and we're going to have to hold this area. Even bigger than going in and clearing it out is going to be what we do afterward, because we have gone in and cleared that area several times before but we haven't had a good follow-on plan, we haven't had robust security forces, and the enemy has come back.
And I think one thing that could be significant coming out of this will be the amount of damage to the civilian population. That's a big question mark right now and something a lot people are concerned about. We don't know yet whether the enemy is going to stand and fight. We don't know how many civilians will be there. So in terms of public relations, it could be a significant event.
This interview originally aired on CNN TV's "American Morning."