“WASHINGTON – Although the major offensive under way in Marjah is the largest yet undertaken by allies in Afghanistan, it will look a lot like previous so-called clearing operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan – a sudden, violent invasion followed by months of painstaking patrols to win over the local population.
According to military analysts and senior defense officials involved in the operation, the length of the fighting and the subsequent pacification effort will be highly dependent on the Taliban’s willingness to stay and fight.
In previous operations — particularly elsewhere in central Helmand Province, where the U.S. Marines began reinforcing British forces in mid-2008 – the initial fighting period normally has lasted less than two weeks, with Taliban fighters only rarely going toe-to-toe with allied forces in pitched battles.
“There are reports from residents who have fled: They have tunnels built, they have bunkers built, they have [explosive devices] strung all over the place,” said Mr. Dressler, who has briefed Marines deploying to Afghanistan on the findings of his recent Helmand study. “But I would be surprised if we saw them really dig in and fight us head-on. We’ve never really seen that before, and I don’t think you’re going to see it here.”
The longer, more difficult task of consolidating gains made during the initial offensive – what military officers call “holding” the city, part of a three-step process termed “clear, hold, build” – is likely to be heavily influenced by how the current invasion plays out.
Because U.S. and allied forces have in the past cleared areas in Helmand of insurgents only to pull out and cede ground again, local Pashtuns are likely to be skeptical of invading forces, analysts and officials said, even though allied commanders have tried to incorporate thousands of Afghan troops in the current offensive.
A bloody fight that destroys property and kills civilians could further complicate relations with the people troops are trying to protect.
“The issue is how many casualties we’re going to suffer in the process, how much of the town will be destroyed, the impact on the civilians who have remained behind, and what happens in the aftermath,” said Col. Mansoor. “The answers to those four questions are more important than how many Taliban are killed.”
Further complicating the task of weeding out insurgents during the “hold” phase of the operation is the homogeneity of the population. According to the senior defense official, more than 75% of the fighters in Marjah are believed to be local Afghans, making it difficult to separate insurgents from the local population, a central mission of any counterinsurgency operation.”