Thousands of United States Marines and Afghan security forces are poised to launch one of the largest offensives of the Afghanistan war. The imminent attack – publicized well in advance by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) – will focus on the town of Marjah in the southern province of Helmand.
What is the goal for the mission?
By flushing the Taliban from Marjah, ISAF hopes to be able to link together a disconnected patchwork of towns currently under government control in Helmand.
Marjah remains one of the last strongholds of the Taliban in the southern Helmand River Valley, where much of the population lives. And insurgents, using Marjah as a base, still disrupt the movement of civilians, soldiers, and trade up and down the valley.
"If you are connecting the dots, you are increasing security, creating opportunities for transport, for societies to connect, to exchange supplies, and general economic development," says ISAF spokesman Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay.
How does this matter for the wider Afghan war?
Since last summer, the US military has gone on the offensive in the province in order to convince residents that they – not the Taliban – had the momentum. And clearing the insurgent stronghold of Marjah is one of many necessary steps for doing that.
Helmand "is symbolic because it's the drug center and it's the Taliban center," says regional analyst Ahmed Rashid. Taliban leader Mullah Omar, hails from the province. So does most of the world's illicit poppy crop that makes up one of the funding streams for the insurgency.
On the other hand, Helmand remains somewhat exceptional from the wider war effort, and progress from the concentrated effort there may not be easily replicated in other parts of the country. The dispatch of 10,000 Marines there, with an additional 9,000 troops still arriving as part of US President Barack Obama's surge, has allowed US commanders there to continue pursuing the ambitious counterinsurgency – some would say "nationbuilding" – vision of Gen. Stanley McChrystal. In other parts of the nation, the smaller concentrations of foreign forces have focused on Mr. Obama's scaled-back approach of protecting cities and training Afghan security forces.
Besides Marjah, a handful of other major pockets in Helmand remain, says Tremblay. And for the areas cleared, the Herculean task remains of bringing government and development to a region that has seen little of either for years.
Mr. Rashid also warns that the heavy American involvement in local governance there will require deft negotiation of complex tribal rivalries that President Hamid Karzai has inflamed by elevating members of his own tribe.
Finally, ISAF's effort to turn Helmand into a showpiece for Afghans nationwide risks evoking jealousy and perverse incentives to welcome insurgents in order to get international attention – and funds, says Rashid.
"I don't think when we focus on one province we should ignore the other provinces. We need a parallel process of development with more stable provinces," says Waliullah Rahmani, an analyst at the Kabul International Institute for Strategic Studies. "Unfortunately international forces have had a very defensive approach to the major issues of Afghanistan.... They see a trend emerging somewhere against international forces then they try to stop that trend by putting out money" and manpower.
Focusing on multiple provinces at once would, however, involve an even deeper commitment of resources by already weary publics in the US and Europe.
Why did ISAF publicize the offensive in advance?
ISAF says their primary mission in Afghanistan is to protect Afghan civilians, not kill insurgents, and that the forewarning was meant to give civilians time to leave or take shelter.
"It was designed to separate the insurgent from the population. If you [broadcast] that attack, some of that separation will start to happen on its own," says Tremblay.
Reports from the region indicate hundreds to thousands of civilians have left, but much of Marjah's population – estimated to be up to 100,000 – have stayed in their homes.
Of course, the advance notice has given insurgents time to prepare as well.
Will the Taliban stay and fight?
The Taliban have said they intend to stay and fight, but truth is often the first casualty of war.
Analysts are divided on whether the insurgents will man the barricades for long in a fight that pits a rumored 15,000 coalition forces against 400 to 1,000 Taliban.
"I don't think they'll stay and fight. They'll put up a little resistance, then flee.... They'll live to fight another day," says Rashid. "No matter how well they are dug in, they cannot combat air power."
But the Taliban might stay to pursue a psychological victory, one that's worth the price of some of their foot soldiers, says Rahmani. "By fighting NATO and international forces for weeks, or at least days, in districts like Marjah, the Taliban will be in the headlines of the international media, and they will be proved as insurgents who control territory like Marjah."
Either way, the Taliban are expected to have booby-trapped the city. The Marines have new Assault Breaching Vehicles to counter that threat, and they also come with experience in urban warfare following assaults on Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq, notes an analysis from Stratfor, an intelligence consultancy based in Austin, Tex.
If the Taliban flee, that gives rise to the "whack-a-mole" risk: They may pop up elsewhere later. Tremblay argues that a portion of any Taliban who flee would be local to Marjah and that when they return, they will find improved security, governance, and development.
But that process of building an area back up may take years. Six months after taking other towns in southern Helmand, such as Khan Neshin, progress on such goals had only just begun.
Are Afghan forces ready to play a role in this fight?
When the Marines first pushed into southern Helmand last summer, the force was criticized for its shortage of Afghan forces. Critics said it pointed to their lack of readiness and hampered efforts to put an Afghan face on the effort.
This time around, says Tremblay, ISAF is aiming for a one-to-one ratio, meaning one Afghan for each NATO soldier.
The Marines have been pouring effort into training Afghan National Army, police, and border guards in Helmand. Their presence deep inside the province allows international forces to recruit Pashtuns, an ethnic group that makes up the backbone of the insurgency and has generally been underrepresented in Afghan security forces.
However, many of the recruits from the area have proven extremely green. Even if the Marines find the numbers to pair up one-to-one with Afghan forces, that does not guarantee they are extensively trained and equipped.
"It's the first time they are using so many Afghan troops, so it's a good thing," says Rashid. "But the fact of the matter is they are still not capable of leading a fight, looking after battlefield strategy, logistics, and the like. I hope this will give them some of the battlefield experience that they lack."