I hate to be a cynic. I really do. I want Operation Mushtarak in Marjah to succeed, and for the stable and accountable local government that follows to be replicated across Afghanistan, marginalizing the Taliban and bringing peace. Unfortunately, I just can't see it working.
To begin with, Marjah is a fairly small and insignificant area. The population is estimated at 100,000, which in a country of 28 million is not an impressive total. While it has been a safe area for the Taliban, it is not of major strategic importance -- as Steve Coll notes, "The axis of Taliban power, guerrilla infiltration, and money flows in southern Afghanistan lies somewhat to the East, along the routes between Kandahar and the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Karachi, which serve as sanctuaries for senior Taliban leadership."
Secondly, the operation is predicated on an initial military success. This means defeating the Taliban in pitched battles, or chasing them so far out of the area that they lose influence. Standing and fighting a conventional battle is a poor option for the Taliban, as they are vastly outgunned and out-classed, so they have not dug in and waited to lose. Nor have they simply fled to the hills and across into Pakistan. Instead, they are using IEDs, snipers, and hit-and-run attacks to slow U.S. progress while avoiding significant casualties. They are maximizing their kinetic ability while baiting the U.S. into counter-productive strikes that kill civilians, and will presumably then melt into the local population or flee. The result is that the Taliban is not broken and can reconstitute in another safe haven, chosen at random from the many ungoverned border areas.
Additionally, the U.S. is intent on incorporating and featuring Afghan police and soldiers in the operation to prove their mettle. However, there are major problems training the Afghan police, and The Economist reported last week that the Afghan National Army is unable to meet expansion targets due to high attrition rates and an inability to recruit Pushtuns. General McChrystal is insistent on giving responsibility to soldiers and police that may not be equipped to handle it and are further burdened by being non-Pushtun.
The key to Operation Mushtarak comes after the military component is finished. The area, cleared of Taliban fighters, must benefit from good governance and economic growth. General McChrystal is confident he has the solution in what he calls "government in a box." Details of his plan are scarce. The Guardian has reported that ISAF will team with Afghan civil servants, provided by President Karzai, and will be supplemented by USAID agricultural specialists. The Afghan government is also urging tribal elders to sign up their sons to support the cause.
Without additional details it's hard not to be pessimistic. Governance is at the root of the Taliban resurgence, and Hamid Karzai is part of the problem, not the solution. Counting on him to provide reliable, honest, uncorrupt civil servants is a stretch. Even if he does, these Afghans will be asked to provide adequate governance, a tall order under the best of circumstances, to a population they do not know in an area they have never been. Much of the population -- around 20,000 people -- has been displaced and will be need to be resettled, adding to the onerous burden on the new government, once removed from its box. (Displacing the population seems to run counter to basic COIN principles, but that is an argument for another time.)
Furthermore, the economy of Marjah is based on opium. Assuming that opium production is immediately halted, the entire population will be deprived of its livelihood. Transitioning to a new livelihood strategy is not a simple task and it requires time. The burden of providing comprehensive short-term sustenance and long-term livelihood solutions for the people of Marjah will fall squarely on ISAF and the Afghan government. Oh, and to make the situation just a bit harder, the UN has announced it will not help.
I applaud General McChrystal for embracing COIN. His emphasis on protecting civilians and providing governance are well guided and intended. Unfortunately, I doubt government is something that can be supplied from a box. I am concerned that Marjah will not benefit from improved governance and economic expansion, and that expelling the Taliban from the area is simply an exercise in whack-a-mole.
I hope I'm wrong, but only time will tell.