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Covering Crucial Afghanistan Operation

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Kabul, Afghanistan -- Having been in Afghanistan for four months, traveling around the country and reporting on the war, the "crucial operation" of the war is now in full-swing. And where am I? In the brutal grip of one devastating hangover! In the deserted Mustafa hotel -- the other journalists having fled to the "biggest operation of the war."

In boiling Helmand Province, my peers are investigating every footstep, every footstep allowed to be reported; shooting pictures from every angle, every angle allowed. They're with 4,000-plus US Marines storming down the Helmand River Valley. Yet, I'm not wondering why I'm still here in Kabul, I'm wondering why the other journalists left the party. It doesn't make sense. What they are now doing in that miserably furnace with sand bats racing around their ears they could be doing right here in the cool and comfortable of the Mustafa Lounge. Telling the story, like I now will.

The 4,000 Marine force storming through the desert is peeling off into small groups to establish fortifications in towns and villages. After the Marines establish initial security -- actually, there was security, which was enforced by the Taliban -- then will come development projects. Small public projects, water spigots, irrigation ditches, repairing school roofs, weekly medical clinics. Small projects that the Marines hope are greatly appreciated by the Afghans. If security holds, then NGOs will arrive to manage larger projects, such as electrification, road improvements, alternative livelihood programs, etc. At the same time, private contractors will work to give some coherence to the country's ancient tribal political system. Good luck with that one.

First, however, the Marines are organizing meetings with village elders. They understand white hair is greatly respected in Afghanistan, and not the kiss of irrelevancy. The Marines will ascertain the needs of the villages and decide what they and the reconstruction teams can deliver. But there is a catch, a big catch. For community improvements to continue there must be ongoing security, which requires the cooperation of local Afghans. Some of the locals must become the E&E -- the eyes and ears -- of their communities and furnish intelligence to the security forces. Otherwise the Taliban will be the E&E and improvement will be blown to smithereens.

Finally, the Afghan Army and government are being presented as partners with the Marines and US reconstruction teams. The goal here is to enhance the image of the Afghanistan government. But the Afghan government does little if anything for its citizens, its representatives closest to the people are policemen who are viewed as parasites, and the Afghan Army, especially in the Taliban controlled-south, is generally invisible. In this major campaign the "invisible" has contributed only 500 soldiers, 1 for 8 US Marines.

So that is the overall plan of the Marines as they storm through the stronghold of the Taliban. Success will obviously take years, if there is success. So, why did my fellow journalists race to southern Helmand Province like Pavlov's mutts?

This is not a conventional war, but an irregular war; the focus is not on killing the enemy but on protecting the people and enabling development. Further, the journalists having their skin peeled off by the great southern blowtorch won't even see serious fighting -- only brain-dead foamers believe the Taliban will go head-to-head against large numbers of Marines, with their mean Apache gunships circling overhead. A few hundred Marines, one company, would have been sufficient to dampen the Taliban enthusiasm to fight. But this is 4,000!

In fact, in the last two days -- since this "crucial" operation shot out of the starting blocks -- more coalition military have been killed in the eastern part of the country along the border with Pakistan than in the hot-bed south. Get ready for media reports proclaiming, "the Taliban slipped away!"

As for the Taliban's plan -- they've had months to craft one since for months everyone has known the Marines were preparing to storm south -- step one is to evade the storming Marines. So the Taliban has melted into the friendly population while others squirt across the border into Pakistan or to the outer reaches of the endless "sandbox." Those remaining in Helmand will be crucial for intelligence and logistical support, while many of those leaving Afghanistan or burying themselves in the desert will later re-infiltrate and be ready for a fight. That is step two, fight the Marines later.

That is as far as the Taliban strategy goes. It's as far as any insurgency plan goes: disperse, unite and fight, disperse, unite and fight, disperse..... A boring strategy, but often effective.

Back to the Marines, instead of blitzing the great devil desert, why didn't they simply unfold themselves over several weeks, even a month? It would have been easier and more efficient and possibly safer, right? There is no reason to stretch resources and tax humans when not necessary.

This current mad dash in the south is reminiscent of the mad rush to Baghdad, both predicated upon the viewpoint that "faster is better." Strange, since the US military is a huge bureaucratic machine that doesn't do anything fast, which is probably why they want to do something fast. But in the mad rush to Baghdad, the Marines and Army refused to stop and secure hundreds of munitions depots -- "time is of the essence!" And these by-passed unguarded explosives were soon blowing up Americans. The rush to Baghdad was stupid, with deadly consequences.

But I'm missing the real story of this mad blitz. The moving of large numbers of troops ... pressing relentlessly forward ... the stress and strain ... bold goals proclaiming this is a "decisive operation!" It is simple, dramatic, important, all wrapped up in a short time frame. It's made for TV! Ideal for newspaper headlines! Great for brief radio dispatches! The audience back home will get hooked. Ratings will roar upward! Well, not so fast.

Americans are tired of war stories, just ask failed presidential candidate John McCain. They have too much reality thumping in their heads. But our media is terribly desperate. They need a big-time story. Like "the largest operation of the war," with Marines racing through the heartland of the enemy. There will be plenty of time later to cover who gets custody of the Jackson kids.

The problem with war stories, however, is they generally hide more than they expose. What seems to be exciting and critical is most often the preface to the substance of war. The truly important -- in Helmand this is the establishment of trust between people, the building of projects, the deepening of trust, the building of institutions; or the not building of trust and not building of projects and institutions -- unfold slowly over years, and never in a straight line, never without frustration and hair-pulling. Yet, before the first success is recorded, or the first major failure has landed, our pumped-up journalists are out of Dodge.

After they leave, I will pull myself out of this chair and go to Helmand. Then the Marines will be in full operation. The civil affairs teams will be delivering their first projects. The NGOs will be having their projects approved. The Taliban will be laying IEDs and conducting hit-and-run attacks. The training of the Afghan police will be in full-swing. The Afghan Army may even show up in real numbers. The real war will have started. The real war is the war to win "the hearts and minds" of Afghans, especially those Afghans living in the Taliban's strongest stronghold. Then the real reporting needs to happen.

Meanwhile, I'm camping out in the cool and comfortable of the Mustafa Hotel's Lounge. I have it all to myself. Well, until the "most crucial operation of the war" has blown over.