The Battle for Marjah Is Still Undecided
Friday, February 26, Operation Moshtarak (Together) will be two weeks old.
Launched Feb. 12 around the Helmand provincial towns of Marjah and Nad Ali, the operation was touted as “the Obama Administration's most ambitious military campaign to date.”
But by Monday, February 22, America's top soldier Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged difficulties in the Marjah operation, saying progress has been "slower than anticipated" and "in some places, the enemy fights harder than expected."
Mullen added: "The IEDs he has planted along the roads and at intersections, though crude, are still deadly."
In the short term, he said, people tend to focus on the failures of war and success will take more time. "If we've learned nothing else these past eight years, it is that failure makes itself plainly clear, but success takes longer to see. We will see success in Marjah, but we must be patient."
US field commanders were willing to estimate the time it would take for the outcome of the battle to take shape. Some spoke of two months, others of four to five – or up to half a year for the combined US-British-Afghan force of 15,000 fighting men to take a town of 60,000 inhabitants.
These rough estimates indicate that the operation has run out of momentum.
The Marjah impasse stalls Operation Moshtarak
They impart a fantastical air to the commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal's original plan to polish off Marjah at the outset of the operation and then move on to capture the three big Afghan cities of Lashkar Gah, Kandahar City and Spin Boldak.
Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand Province with 250,000 inhabitants, is situated between the Helmand and Arghandab rivers. It gains additional strategic importance from its highway links to Kandahar to the east, Zaranj to the west and Herat to the north-west.
Kandahar city is the second largest city in Afghanistan, with a population of about 850,000. It is the capital of the southern province of Kandahar.
Spin Boldak, in Kandahar province, is a small town of 60,000 inhabitants most of which has fallen into Taliban hands. Located close up to the Durand Line Afghan-Pakistani border, it has a highway connection to Kandahar City to the north and Chaman, Pakistan, to the south. Spin Boldak sits on the second most important border crossing through Chaman.
Since the battle for Marjah is not about to be resolved any time soon, the McChrystal plan for taking or purging another three southern Afghan cities looks as though the US military has bitten off a lot more than it can chew. At this point in the war, the American and Afghan armies together are short of the troop numbers for taking cities with populations in their hundreds of thousands.
In any case, Operation Moshtarak which was heralded with upbeat fanfare proceeds at a desultory pace, if at all.