Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
It’s been a month since the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) began Operation Mushtarak, an effort to drive the Taliban out of Marjah in Afghanistan.
ISAF consists of mostly US troops, aided by NATO and Afghan forces, who all must be wondering, “What’s the point?”
Though classed as a “town,” Marjah is really a 100-square-mile collection of small farms. It is part of Helmand province, 22,600 square miles in southern Afghanistan that are securely under the control of the Taliban. Operation Mushtarak injected 10,000 or 15,000 ISAF troops into Marjah, with plenty of advance warning. Apparently, ISAF leader U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal thought that advance warning of the ‘invasion’ would scare the Taliban off, thus ensuring a swift and easy victory. It didn’t. The Taliban took the time between the warning and the invasion, not to run for the hills, but to harden their positions, set up sniper and ambush positions, and plant plenty of IED’s.
ISAF forces spent about three weeks sweeping through an area that should have been cleared in three days. Reports of casualties among ISAF forces, Taliban, and civilians conflict and vary widely. The lack of frank information coming out of Marjah indicates the operation was largely a failure.
The Taliban still are in Marjah, though in smaller numbers, planting bombs, assassinating government sympathizers, and doing what terrorists generally do. Unless ISAF leaves a division permanently to guard this inconsequential settlement, the Taliban will drift back in over the next few months. By May, it will be as though they never left.
Think of a truck driving down a road in a heavy rain. As the truck rumbles by, the water on the road is pushed away and you can see bare, damp, pavement. Within a few seconds, the water returns and it’s as if the truck had never been there. That’s what’s happening almost anywhere the US, the Afghan government, or ISAF go. As soon as they pass through, the Taliban flows in and it is as if they had never left.
The British and the Russians previously experienced this phenomenon in Afghanistan and the French, Japanese, British, then French again, then Americans saw the same thing happen to them in Viet Nam. Why? Because underlying all of this is the issue of foreign occupation. No matter how nasty the Viet Cong or the Taliban, they are at least locals. They are not the foreign devils, the imperialists demonized in nationalist and xenophobic propaganda.
You’re an Afghan opium grower, drinking tea outside a café in Marjah. On the street you see an American Marine and a guy you know is in the Taliban. “Which of these guys is going to be here in the long run,” you ask yourself? “Which is most like me? Which is most likely to marry my daughter? Which understands me, my religion, my hardships, my life?”
“Sure the Taliban guy is a prick and, as soon as that American gets bored, or goes off duty, the Taliban guy probably will shake me down for a few bucks (he doesn’t trust the local currency any more than I do). But I’ve got to live with him for a long time. I’ll bet that American has about 3 months left on his rotation here.”
Or consider the opinion of former Helmand Gov. Sher Mohammed Akhundzada. “The Taliban are not gone. They have only gone to the other districts of Grishk and Sangin. The administration of Helmand is generally corrupt and nothing is changing in Marjah, no signs of reform with the latest appointment. It doesn’t matter if you have thousands and thousands of NATO troops, you will still have Taliban in Helmand.”
We went to Afghanistan to get bin Laden. We couldn’t find him. Let’s go home.