Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Yesterday I watched, via On Demand, the HBO Special, "Battle for Marjah".

It reminded me vaguely of the media build-up to this particular campaign. Marjah, we were told, was going to be the first test for the military's new strategy in Afghanistan, referred to as Clear, Hold and Build. How did it work?

Marjah, which is actually little more than a collection of crude huts at a crossroads in Southwestern Afghanistan, was under Taliban control at the beginning of 2010. In February, "Operation Moshtarak", sent three companies of Marines against an estimated 250 Taliban fighters in the town. The HBO special followed along with Bravo Company, which experienced the heaviest fighting. The fighting was over and the town secured in less than a week. The Marines suffered only one KIA.

We here in the U.S. were told our guys would be fighting along with the Afghanistan Army, members of which were supposed to be on point. That latter part turned out to be laughable. The few Afghan troops contributed absolutely nothing - in fact, got more in the way than anything else.

If you get a chance to watch this special, I recommend it. I've watched more than a few documentaries about the War in Afghanistan, but for some reason this one in particular seems to best reveal the overwhelming futility of this war. And the greatest irony of all is that this is a lesson we should have learned 40 years ago in Viet Nam.

"Battle for Marjah" consists almost exclusively of footage shot on the ground while covering the operation. And nearly all the dialogue in the movie comes from our own men and their commanders. It is in no way some kind of biased, "pacifist" account, or of cherry picked scenes designed to paint the operation from any one particular angle.

Our guys fought well and of course victory in the battle was never in doubt. But the really depressing part was the footage shot during the four months the Marines stayed on in Marjah after the battle - the Hold and Build phase. During this entire period, not one representative from the Afghan government arrived to liaison with whoever passed for local authorities. The Afghan troops on hand had all been recruited from the tribes in the far north, and as such were clearly useless as a holding force among the ethnic Pashtuns of Marjah. In the end, the Marines had to recruit the members of a local militia as a holding force to take over when they left. Ironically, it was common knowledge that many of the militia members were themselves either current or former members of the Taliban.

During their stay, the Marines spent $600,000.00 on improvements - they were most proud of the work they had done on the town mosque. Despite this, in repeated interviews, the locals all claimed their lives were better under the Taliban. After the battle, the Marines had gained control over the town and limited parts of the countryside. But by the time they left, the area they controlled had diminished, and their encounters with new IED's were increasing.

All of this left little doubt that it was only a matter of time before Marjah returned to Taliban control after the Marines left. They talked about building schools - yet there weren't any teachers to teach in them. They talked about bringing the town under the control of the Afghan government - yet no one from the Afghan government seemed to be interested. They talked about replacing the cultivation of opium with alternate crops - yet there were no secure markets for these crops.

What stands out, sharply, is how much better suited the Taliban were to run things in Marjah than either our own Marines or the weak, distant and corrupt Afghan government. Here in the U.S., we've created a narrative in which the Taliban are all maniacal terrorists. This makes it easier for us to keep track of who's good and who's evil. But the reality is far more complicated.

The Taliban of Marjah are "their" people: friends, kin... members of a closely knit, tribal society. To this society, we might as well be aliens from space. Our purpose has become to bring them our remote vision of democracy and human rights. Yet the society of these people has in its history absolutely no experience with this vision. So, on what basis can we possibly expect they will embrace it?

Today there is an ongoing debate over what the real motivation might have been for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. These wars were demonstrably the most historically significant actions taken by our government in the last 30 or 40 years, so Americans ought to have an honest dialogue about them. However we're probably not going to get that dialogue anytime soon; too many of our leaders, and indeed followers as well, have too much invested in them politically. What they would rather do is maintain the company line that these wars were the only justified, and necessary reaction to 9/11. Not only that, but even questioning that line is both un-American and an insult to the men and women in uniform who continue to fight in them.

What this untenable precept masks is a failure of both political and military strategy. Whether or not you believe the Bush administration cooked the evidence get us into Iraq and Afghanistan, the real issue here is that once we decided on direct military intervention, we committed ourselves to two kinds of war in those countries: one of arms and one of ideas. Now, in places like Marjah, our guys are continuing to prove they can always win the wars of arms, but are painfully unprepared and unsuited to win the wars of ideas. We should have known that.

We elect persons to government based on our confidence they will wisely weigh the facts and make prudent decisions. I'm afraid what we are learning now is the spectacular failures of policy which occur when you substitute ideology for facts. Our strategists in government simply assumed that once the battle of arms was over, everything else would be an easy downhill ride. It hasn't been. Today, the central irony in Afghanistan is the government we installed and continue to support there is now negotiating with the Taliban to construct a stablizing power sharing agreement to fill the void which will occur after our troops have left. Does anyone seriously doubt that if we stayed on another year, or ten years, the outcome would be any different? Or, for that matter, any kind of "power sharing" agreement will quickly disolve and the Taliban return to power not more than a few months after we've left.

Steve, the Taliban in Afghanistan didn't just drop out of the sky. They were a home grown, indiginous movement which the Soviet Union proved could not be defeated by force of arms. Someone should have been taking notes. Certainly, as a nation we had every right to demand accountability from the leaders of this movement for their support of terrorists like the al-Qaeda. However, before we decided on invasion, we had many other options. Now we have no other option than direct, miltary confrontation with a determined enemy which enjoys vast support in the countryside out beyond Kabul.

Now would those "other options" have worked any better? Who knows? The Neocons wanted us to believe that pussyfooting around with sanctions, seasoned perhaps with stand-off, targeted attacks on the terrorist infrastructure, was a policy which was doomed to failure. Yet, what exactly were the compelling reasons to believe a direct invasion would automatically achieve success? What were the compelling facts which led us to believe the Afghan people themselves would rise up and form a stable govenment and open society once the Taliban were temporarily disarmed? Steve, there weren't any. All we had to go on was a preposterous amalgam of wistful thinking which willfully ignored lessons of history and the culture of a country incredibly different from ours.

Meanwhile in Iraq, the situation is hardly more encouraging. Backed by Iran, radical mullahs like Muqtada al-Sadr continue to gain power - and the whole nation threatens to fracture along ethnic and religious lines. Once unthinkable, the formal partition of Iraq along these lines seems more and more the least perilous alternative. How is that progress? After investing over 30,000 casualties - including over 4,000 dead - and a trillion dollars, we're leaving a country which now has the potential to pose a threat to our security much greater than it was when we went in.

Interestingly Steve, what got me started on this post was watching "Battle for Marjah" while the events taking place in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and then Libya were still fresh in my mind. It struck me how powerful a force progressive, social change can be when it emerges from within a society and how fragile and impermanent it is when imposed from the outside.

It looks like a refreshing storm of progressive initiatives are erupting all over the Middle East. No one can be sure exactly where all of this will lead. Without doubt, we'll see a few new regimes emerging out of this chaos which don't seem as friendly to our country as those which they have replaced. And neither is there any doubt that hard core terrorist organizations will be doing everything they can to exploit the situation.

Despite these perils, I think now is no better time for our country to stay out of the struggle, and put our faith in the rather ancient principle that true liberty is never gained by gift or accident, but by the sacrifices of real people who want it bad enough to fight for it on their own.


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