Just read a big, frontpage story in the Wash Post about 4,000 Marines now deploying into Helmand and other southern provinces of Afghanistan. Presumably, the Taliban is reading the story, too -- maybe their partly Yale-educated official is doing the translation. I am sorry to say it should not only put their jihadist hearts at ease, it should give them more than a few yuks.
This deployment, the headline tells us, is "a Crucial Test for Revised U.S. Strategy." (Uh-oh is right.) And what is that strategy? On the one hand, the Taliban is off the hook. On the other, we have given our men Mission Impossible. "Our focus is not the Taliban," Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson told his officers. "Our focus must be getting this government back on its feet."
A few questions, just to get the brain working: Why? What do we care about putting "this government" back on its feet? And what government? And since when is it the Marines' mission to stand up governments? (Since Iraq. Enough said.)
The Post reports:
The two districts that are the initial focus of the Marine operation -- Nawa and Garmser -- have long been Taliban strongholds. Although British troops serving under NATO's Afghan command have waged several battles against the insurgents in both areas over the past three years, the British lacked sufficient forces to maintain a significant presence in the districts. As a consequence, the Taliban have been able to shut down schools, drive out government officials and intimidate the local population.
And where is the Afghan government/military/police? Nowhere. In practical terms, they do not exist. And maybe they do not want to exist. I mean, think of it: We taxpayers have poured billions of dollars into Afghanistan, with thousands of troops and civilian personnel just begging the Afghans to do basic tasks necessary for the country to function and defend itself against the Taliban. Nothing happens.
I don't know how many times I've read a statement like this one today in The Post from the US: "Mullen said he is `extremely concerned' about the paucity of Afghan National Army and Afghan police forces in the south and elsewhere...." Funny how, as the Post also reports, $5 a day gets the Taliban as many fighters as needed. Mullen doesn't seem to wonder why the Taliban draw men with five bucks and the US-supported Afghan government doesn't with billions. Or, why the Islamic jihadists draw fighters with five bucks and the infidel-supported government doesn't with billions. In fact, Mullen thinks the problem is "the long-standing deficit in the number of foreign [read: infidel] military trainers...."
Marine commanders said before the start of the operation that they expected only minimal Taliban opposition at the outset but that assaults on the forces would probably increase once they moved into towns and began patrols. Troops in the field have been told to prepare for suicide attacks, ambushes and roadside bombings.
"They've backed off for now, but there will almost certainly be more attacks to come," said Col. Burke Whitman, who serves as a liaison officer to the local Afghan security forces. "They're waiting to see what we do."
And what are we going to do?
Once Marine units arrive in their designated towns and villages, they have been instructed to build and live in small outposts among the local population.
This sounds familiar...where have we heard it before?
Remember Gen. Petraeus's "counterinsurgency" strategy designed to spread small units of American soldiers out among the Iraqi people? The idea, as decribed at CJR.com, was to deploy troops "simultaneously as fighters, diplomats, civil servants, and tribal consiglieri, while trying to build trust between Sunni and Shia sheiks, the Iraqi Army, the Iraqi police, local Nahia and Qada councils (think city councils) and the Concerned Local Citizens movement, any of whom might be working at cross-purposes with each other at any given time."
Did it work? With Maliki now declaring "victory" over shockingly compliant US forces (subject of this week's upcoming column), with "good riddance" best encapsulating Iraqi public sentiment towardUS forces now departed from Iraqi cities, we certainly didn't win many friends (or " hearts and minds," or "trust") in pursuit of what appears to be our signal achievement -- putting out the jihadist eruption we have called Al Qaeda in Iraq. The centuries-elusive Sunni-Shiite "trust" remains elusive (as if...), and there are early signals that Maliki may be trying to transform himself into a Saddam-like strongman. Meanwhile, Iran is ever more deeply involved in Iraq.
Net gain for US: I regret to say it is nada.
Moral of this story: Stay out of Islamic countries. Certainly, don't try to remake them. There is no way to turn them into allies because we have conflicting ideologies and interests. But no one -- certainly no one in power -- is supposed to notice that.
So back to our adventure in Afghanistan.
The brigade's commander, Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, said his Marines will focus their efforts on protecting civilians from the Taliban and on restoring Afghan government services, instead of mounting a series of hunt-and-kill missions against the insurgents.
Insert Taliban laughter here.
"We're doing this very differently," Nicholson said to his senior officers a few hours before the mission began. "We're going to be with the people. We're not going to drive to work. We're going to walk to work."
Similar approaches have been tried --
Did they work?
-- in the eastern part of the country, but none has had the scope of the mission in Helmand, a vast province that is largely an arid moonscape save for a band of fertile land that lines the Helmand River. Poppies grown in that territory produce half the world's supply of opium and provide the Taliban with a valuable source of income.
The operation launched early Thursday represents a shift in strategy after years of thwarted U.S.-led efforts to destroy Taliban sanctuaries in Afghanistan and extend the authority of the Afghan government into the nation's southern and eastern regions. More than seven years after the fall of the Taliban government, the radical Islamist militia --
Is there a "moderate Islamist militia" in the offing?
-- remains a potent force across broad swaths of the country. The Obama administration has made turning the war around a top priority, and the Helmand operation, if it succeeds, is seen as a potentially critical first step....
Here we go:
The U.S. strategy here is predicated on the belief that a majority of people in Helmand do not favor the Taliban, which enforces a strict brand of Islam that includes an-eye-for-an-eye justice and strict limits on personal behavior. Instead, U.S. officials believe, residents would rather have the Afghan government in control, but they have been cowed into supporting the Taliban because there was nobody to protect them.
In other words, it's Hail Mary time. Again.
Never, ever, ever, ever do U.S. officials even contemplate the possibility that the Taliban, as jihad fighters, present the "majority of the people" with an Islamic directive to support, or, at least, not hinder jihad.
In areas south of the provincial capital, local leaders, and even members of the police force, have fled. An initial priority for the Marines will be to bring back Afghan government officials and reinvigorate the local police forces.
Marine commanders also plan to help district governors hold shuras -- meetings of elders in the community -- in the next week.
Will they be in Marine uniform or Islamic "manjammies"?
"Our focus is not the Taliban," Nicholson told his officers. "Our focus must be on getting this government back up on its feet."
But Nicholson and his top commanders recognize that making that happen involves tackling numerous challenges, starting with --
"the religiously inculcated, mandated hatred of non-Muslims?" Nah.
-- a lack of trust among the local population. That mistrust stems from --
Islamic attitudes toward infidels? Nah.
-- concern over civilian casualties resulting from U.S. military operations as well as from a fear that the troops will not stay long enough to counter the Taliban. The British army, which had been responsible for all of Helmand since 2005 under NATO's Afghan stabilization effort, lacked the resources to maintain a permanent presence in most parts of the province....
Oh, yes -- permanent presence. Let's all just stay there forever. Now this again:
The Marines have also been vexed by a lack of Afghan security forces and a near-total absence of additional U.S. civilian reconstruction personnel. Nicholson had hoped that his brigade, which has about 11,000 Marines and sailors, would be able to conduct operations with a similar number of Afghan soldiers. But thus far, the Marines have been allotted only about 500 Afghan soldiers, which he deems "a critical vulnerability."
"They see things intuitively that we don't see," he said. "It's their country, and they know it better than we do."
And maybe they should defend it themselves (if, that is, they want to)?
Despite commitments from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development that they would send additional personnel to help the new forces in southern Afghanistan with reconstruction and governance development, State has added only two officers in Helmand since the Marines arrived. State has promised to have a dozen more diplomats and reconstruction experts working with the Marines, but only by the end of the summer.
To compensate in the interim, the Marines are deploying what officers here say is the largest-ever military civilian-affairs contingent attached to a combat brigade -- about 50 Marines, mostly reservists, with experience in local government, business management and law enforcement. Instead of flooding the area of operations with cash, as some units did in Iraq, the Marine civil affairs commander, Lt. Col. Curtis Lee, said he intends to focus his resources on improving local government.
Maybe the good colonel will pass out The Federal Papers in Pashto at the next "shura" wearing "manjammies"?
Once [upon a time] basic governance structures are restored, civilian reconstruction personnel plan to focus on economic development programs, including programs to help Afghans grow legal crops in the area. Senior Obama administration officials say creating jobs and improving the livelihoods of rural Afghans is the key to defeating the Taliban, which has been able to recruit fighters for as little as $5 a day in Helmand.
Funny how our $5 dollars a day isn't as good their $5 a day....
In meetings with his commanders at forward operating bases over the past three days, Nicholson acknowledged that focusing on governance and population security does not come as naturally to Marines as conducting offensive operations, but he told them it is essential that they focus on "reining in the pit bulls."
"We're not going to measure your success by the number of times your ammunition is resupplied. . . . Our success in this environment will be very much predicated on restraint," he told a group of officers from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines on Sunday. "You're going to drink lots of tea. You're going to eat lots of goat. Get to know the people. That's the reason why we're here."
It's a mad world.