February 13th, 2010
12:51 PM ET

Bergen: Kandahar, not Marjah, is game-changer

Operation Moshtarak, which launched early Saturday local Afghanistan time, is expected to be the largest offensive in the nine-year war in Afghanistan. It focuses on the Marjah area in southern Afghanistan. CNN's national security analyst Peter Bergen gives his perspective.

Q: We know Marjah is important. From what you're seeing, does it look like NATO forces have learned some lessons from the past in the way they're going about it militarily and also the way they're going about involving the Afghan government and also the civilians there?

BERGEN: The biggest differences that we've seen in this whole operation from previous operations in Helmand is the size of the Afghan military force. You may remember when the Marines went into Helmand in July of last year - one of the big criticisms is there are very few Afghan soldiers that went along with them. Now it's very different in this operation. So that's one difference.

And obviously, General McChrystal's important recommendations about really reducing civilian casualties have made a difference about the tactics that are used in this fight. And we will see how that works out.

You know, when the Marines went into Fallujah several years ago the first time around, there were a fair number of civilian casualties. They're taking a different approach with this assault on Marjah, which is still a major frontal assault on a somewhat large town. But it is being done in a rather different way.

Q: Talk about the greater number of Afghan forces this time - does that make a difference? Are you saying sheer numbers help or is it more a point that the civilians there need to see more of their own out there as a part of this fight?

BERGEN: I think the latter, very much so. The American and NATO exit strategy from Afghanistan is an effective Afghan army. And so far we've seen, very limited evidence of any really effective Afghan army units. If they're effective in this fight, that's a good indicator of sort of progress on that front.

Q: From what you've seen and heard, what stands out to you as to how this offensive is going?

BERGEN: One thing that stands out to me which is a bigger issue is why we are conducting these massive operations in Helmand where a rather limited amount of the Afghan population actually lives. I mean, the center of gravity of the Taliban is not in Helmand, it's in Kandahar, in the neighboring province. It's where a lot of the leadership comes from. But there are some good reasons that we are in Helmand.

If Helmand were an individual country, it would be the world's single largest producer of heroin. It is in a sense, the bank of the Taliban. That's important. Marjah is the center of this business. However, at the end of the day, this is not a game-changer for southern Afghanistan. A game-changer for southern Afghanistan is essentially retaking the areas around Kandahar that have essentially fallen to the Taliban.

Q: Where do you see the logic then? It doesn't sound like you believe this should have been the primary focus. Do you at least see it as maybe just one step before looking at Kandahar?

BERGEN: I think that's only right. But you know a lot of these decisions about sending the Marines into Helmand were made up to two years ago. So all of these decisions were sort of grandfathered into the system.

And the Marines have done quite effective job in pacifying what was a province with the highest amount of Taliban presence. But at the end of the day what matters to the Taliban is Kandahar and that obviously is going to come next. But we'll see how that goes.

This is a modified transcript of an interview that aired on CNN's "Saturday Morning" program.

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. RT

    What is the point of goint to war/invading some other countries?

    a) Do these countries point a threat to the existence of the invading country/ies or these must be forced to the norm of the invaders?

    b) Must these countries be invaded for purely economic motives e.g. the first successful invaders are going to establish a broader ground for more stable stance and expand more globally?

    History says about dynasties/clans being dominant for a certain period of time; it must be the cycle of life of humans on this planet.

    February 14, 2010 at 12:34 am | Report abuse |
  2. eddie

    What are we planning to do with the poppy fields if local don't want to get rid of them? We better burn their bank

    February 14, 2010 at 12:30 am | Report abuse |
  3. John S

    Everyone knows its harder to holld a town then take it. The will have to have a strong police force to keep the Taliban out. The Taliban are like the mafia they will kill you at the drop of a hat and they bribe the Police . So it dont look to good.

    February 14, 2010 at 12:27 am | Report abuse |
  4. ed harvey

    I keep hearing about how the Afghans are taking so long to train. Aren't these the same Afghans that ran an overwhelming force of Soviet troops completely out of their country?The Soviets had an overwhelming size advantage also held a major technology edge.

    I get it that it will take forever to train them in our strictly disapplined way of fighting war.
    I believe that some special forces trainers should take time to find how the Afghans know how to fight in their country. With the terrain and warlord-run territories it's quite possible that we can learn some valuable lessons from them.

    These guys have been fighting wars constantly for 30 years or more and they ran everybody away until they met us. Give them a little bit of credit.

    February 13, 2010 at 9:02 pm | Report abuse |
  5. rob brander

    well folks,here we go again.another well forcasted assault on marjah and now we're talking about kandahar!! those boys[taliban] are going to run around those mountains for the next hundred years,playing cat and mouse games with their I.E.D.,s,what a pentagonal term this i.e.d it must be the military way of pacifying the general public from its predacessor the word BOOBYTRAP which was a spine tingler for anybody during the vietnam war.oh yes the vietnam war,where the enemy ran around the jungle in shorts sandals and tshirts an ak47 in one hand and a bag full of boobytraps in the other for 10 years and we all know how that turned out.to which folks comes the most important factor TIME!! the taliban are'nt concerned about their casualties,has CNN done a poll with the taliban on their approval rating of the war.no folks the number one thing helping the taliban is TIME . just like the north vietnamese,who lost an estimated 2.5 million compared to 58,000 americans 10 years later we all remember ,who left with whose flag off their embassy.P.S you think the afghan goverment has come along way. check out how many ex blackwater boys are guarding karzai and his boys. yep folks 9 years later and they don't trust their own people. rob brander

    February 13, 2010 at 8:03 pm | Report abuse |
  6. the truth

    Notice he states the the province is the world's single largest producer of heroin, just wait for the flood of heroin into the inner cities of America. I promise you it's coming, the only difference will be it will now be funding the CIA instead of the Taliban.

    February 13, 2010 at 6:40 pm | Report abuse |
  7. A Finnesy

    My sister is in Kandahar. She is a Navy Corpsmen. She is the one patching our guys and gals up. Pray for endurance for the Medics and Corpsmen too. I love you Holly!! Thank you! I miss you too! Make it home safe

    February 13, 2010 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Pat

    In Marjah, Nato forces are getting valuable experience in how to do it right. The lessons they will learn will be a major benefit when they take on the really big objective: Kandahar. They need to solidify their control and gain the support of the people in the areas they occupy now before they go for Kandahar.

    February 13, 2010 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  9. ourhumandebate

    By stocking up on forces in Afghanistan and making frontal assaults, President Obama is attempting to take advantage of an opportunity in that we have a chance at snuffing out the Taliban altogether, eliminate a huge chunk of heroin trade, and finish an ugly war quickly. This is the wise move considering the position Mr. Obama was presented with when he took the Oval Office.
    As far as advertising to the town that our forces were going to conduct a mission in the town, we are taking-up wise and just responsibilities due in part to our past performance as an outside influence on the nation of Afghanistan.
    Why risk more American lives now in order to save civilians you might ask? We are on their land; besides the fact that it is the right thing to do, it is the wise thing to do in that we will fix a future problem by keeping good relations with the current inhabitants, hopefully.

    February 13, 2010 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |