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What Does ‘Victory’ In Marjah Mean?

An Afghan soldier frisks a farmer during a patrol near Marjah. Can the Afghan government and its NATO allies win public support there?
An Afghan soldier frisks a farmer during a patrol near Marjah. Can the Afghan government and its NATO allies win public support there?
After eight years of war in Afghanistan marked by inept military planning and support for corrupt politicians, brutal mercenaries, drug lords, and capricious regional chiefs, the U.S. government and media are placing considerable emphasis on a new war strategy inspired by President Barack Obama's "surge" of 30,000 troops into the fray and General Stanley McChrystal's policy aimed at reducing civilian casualties.

The commencement last weekend of the battle of Marjah, a large village in Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province, is being trumpeted as the model for defeating the Taliban and winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan population by securing the area, setting up a local government, and pouring in development aid. The invasion, dubbed "Moshtarak" ("Together" in the Dari language), is the largest joint NATO operation since the United States began the ill-fated war in October 2001.

The immediate question that springs to mind is: will Marjah be a success on the ground in southern Afghanistan, or only in the Western press? In that respect, Marjah threatens to be another Fallujah, the 2004 battle in Iraq that was declared a success before it even began. For months and years afterwards, U.S. troops killed in Fallujah were reported as dying in "Al-Anbar Province" to prolong the myth that the victory in Fallujah was swift and just. Such deceit begs the question whether the perception of success is more important than victory on the ground.

Fittingly, the Marjah strategy already appears a rousing success -- except that victory there is a long way off, and the battle is raging in the middle of a population center riddled with booby traps. Far from signaling a new stage in the Afghan war, the struggle in Marjah highlights the main reasons why concerned citizens should be watching closely and demanding accurate and transparent information from U.S. and NATO officials.

U.S. allies are hoping for immediate dividends in Marjah. "I can't say how long it will take for this military phase to get to the point where we can bring in the civilian support from the Afghan government. We hope that will happen quickly," says Mark Sedwill, NATO's civilian chief in Kabul.

Public Support?

It's doubtful, however, whether a war-weary and desperate people who have repeatedly been promised a quick military victory by a foreign force, and security by a Karzai government built on graft, will overlook eight years of incompetence and embrace wholeheartedly an effort that -- now or later -- could certainly cost them their lives and livelihood.

In addition, Marjah is populated by Pashtuns, the same ethnic group that comprises the majority of the Taliban ranks. This fact is given short shrift by U.S. officials who tend to speak of "development" and "democracy" as if hollow rhetoric belied by nearly a decade of half-hearted and counterproductive efforts can transcend centuries of tribal unity.

Duplicating previous strategies in Iraq and Vietnam, U.S. officials appear to be projecting American goals on to the local population without considering the real possibility that Afghans may choose to support their co-ethnics, however brutal, rather than embrace a foreign political ideology, especially if that ideology is being imposed by guns that too often do not discriminate between civilians and Taliban fighters.

And Marjah civilians are already paying the price for NATO's mistakes. On February 14, errant NATO rockets hit a home, killing 12 Afghans, precisely the type of costly blunder NATO was trying to avoid.

General McChrystal, in a softened and more politically correct rendition of the Vietnam-era rationale "we are burning down this village to save it from communism," stated, "We deeply regret this tragic loss of life. The current operation in central Helmand is aimed at restoring security and stability to this vital area of Afghanistan. It's regrettable that in the course of our joint efforts, innocent lives were lost."

U.S. media reports have been filled with similar statements from commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past eight years. Though such rhetoric soothes the nerves of many Americans and stiffens U.S. resolve to destroy terrorist elements that hide out in villages, the plain truth is that Afghan civilians have been killed by U.S. and NATO troops time and time again over the course of the war. That the civilian population will now miraculously support the war effort is beyond the bounds of reasonable thought.

Furthermore, Taliban leaders stubbornly reiterate that they are ready to fight for another 20 years to rid their country of U.S. and NATO forces. That determination cannot sit well with local villagers debating whether to throw in their lot with foreign forces in the Marjah struggle. President Obama's pledged troop withdrawal from Afghanistan set for summer 2011 raises the specter of Taliban revenge attacks on those who now side with the Americans and their NATO allies.

Nonetheless, U.S. and NATO military strategists appear confident that the local population will support the Marjah effort. Major General Nick Carter, the NATO commander of forces in southern Afghanistan, says, "The elders are telling people to stay behind their front doors and keep them bolted. Once people feel more secure and they realize there is government on the ground, they will come out and tell us where the IEDs [improvised explosive devices] are."

But will they -- even on the off-chance that they know -- especially if villagers continue to be killed by stray NATO bullets and bombs?

Dana E. Abizaid is a commentator on Eurasian affairs based in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.