Never since the Americans invaded Iraq in March 2003 has such a strident PR campaign accompanied any US military operation as the clamor leading up to Operation Moshtarak (Pashtoo for "Together") in the southern Afghan province of Helmand.
Day after day, Afghan inhabitants, especially those living around the town of Marjah, are bombarded by American aircraft leaflets warning them to make their escape because the attack is imminent. The Taliban can give its field intelligence assets a rest since the smallest details of the forthcoming US-British-French- Canadian-Afghan campaign are published in the local, Pakistani and Western media.
US Army General Stanley McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, said:
We're not interested in how many Taliban we kill. … We'd much rather have them see the inevitability that things are changing and just accept that."
DEBKA-Net-Weekly military sources note that by these words McChrystal drew a line in the sandbox of the Afghan war and defined Operation Moshtarak as its turning- point. He put the Taliban on notice that they were facing superior US-led NATO and Afghan forces, which would wield a powerful military fist anywhere they were challenged. You can't win this war, the US general was saying, so you will be better off laying down arms and engaging in talks for ending it.
If the Talliban refuses to understand the message, McChrystal indicated, his forces are getting set for the biggest battle of the eight-year war, whose outcome will determine whether President Barack Obama's war strategy succeeds or fails. Marjah is about to be stormed by 20,000 U.S., British and Afghan troops.
NATO commander at decisive crossroads
McChrystal has reached the same critical crossroads in the Afghan war faced in Iraq by General David Petraeus in late 2006 and early 2007, when it was incumbent on him to prove to President George W. Bush that his surge strategy, which depended on the Sunni Awakening Councils joining the battle against al-Qaeda, would work.
At first Bush hesitated, but when he saw good results taking shape, he jumped in and adopted the plan as his own.
The NATO commander knows that if Operation Moshtarak ends with Taliban gaining the upper hand like the previous Helmand campaigns – the US-led Strike of the Sword and Operation Khanjar and the British Panther's Claw – then President Obama will back away from the McChrystal strategy and seek other military and diplomatic options.
There are warnings aplenty in Washington and London that Operation Moshtarak will be bloody and allied losses heavy. This is because it must be fought by foot soldiers since the network of irrigation canals crisscrossing the outskirts of Marjah preclude the passage of tanks and heavy armored vehicles.
Targeting opium trade has stirred more opposition
In addition, the Taliban has littered the ground with hundreds, if not thousands, of mines.
It is certain that not all the battles will unfold in the way General McChrystal and his staff expect, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly military sources. This is because –
1. Taliban forces may decide not to stay in Marjah and wait for the full array of NATO firepower to be assembled and trained on them. In past operations fought against them in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Taliban fighters have tended to melt away ahead of the showdown, only to creep back and take over after things quieten down.
2. McChrystal made the mistake of announcing ahead of Operation Moshtarak that one of its objectives will be to destroy the opium fields, labs and smuggling routes of Afghanistan. The Americans have yet to decide who they are fighting at this stage, the Taliban, or the majority of the region's population which subsists on growing and trading opium and will therefore join the fight against NATO to defend their livelihood.
It would make more tactical sense to separate the two goals and attack them one at a time.