As Marjah offensive ends, a crucial test for peace in Afghanistan

The coalition's Marjah offensive against the Taliban in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, has made gains. But to succeed, Afghanistan, the US, and aid agencies must quickly move in to build up the area's security, government, and infrastructure, showing fence-sitters the benefits of peace.

MARJAH OFFENSIVE: US Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, center, the head of coalition forces in Afghanistan, walks down the main street of Marjah on Monday, with members of the Afghan security forces. The next challenge: Build peace.

As the US Marjah offensive in Afghanistan, winds down, the next challenge will be to maintain the newfound security of the area and to begin to reintegrate former Taliban fighters into Afghan society.

It has been more than two weeks since American Marines, along with Afghan and other security forces, began what has been billed as the largest offensive against the Taliban since the US invasion of the country in October 2001. After initial exuberance over early success, military officials attempted to manage expectations, saying that there are hard days ahead.

This is a critical period, say experts. The Afghan government – with the US military and development officials closely behind – must quickly demonstrate what they can do for the population, or the success of the combat phase will quickly fade, experts say.

No one knows how many Taliban fought in this region of Helmand, and how many may have fled prior to the assault. So it's unclear how many Taliban fighters might now be willing to get on board with the Afghan government.

President Hamid Karzai’s government is developing a formal reintegration strategy that will culminate in April with what is known as a “peace jirga,” or a legislative meeting at which all parties with a stake in security will meet.

“Some of what we’re seeing now in places like Marjah is a lot of the people who have been fighting have simply stopped – they are in wait-and-see mode,”
says one a senior military official with the International Security Assistance Force who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity.

“It takes a little bit of time for the government and for the local Afghan and [coalition force] leaders to build that kind of credibility in the minds of the people where an individual decides to vote one way or another,” he says. “A lot of it is how well the Afghans begin building these relationships with the people.”

Still, fighting is expected “for weeks” as remaining Taliban holdouts are cleared, said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell at the Pentagon Wednesday.

“There are still pockets where we believe the Taliban to be hiding out, perhaps lying in wait,” Mr. Morrell said. “We are determined to clear out those pockets as well.”

Next on the “to do list” will be Kandahar, the longtime spiritual home of the Taliban that lies just to the east of Helmand, says Morrell.

“It will likely have to be dealt with sooner or later,” he says.

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