The U.S. military “took” the Afghan city of Marja, in the poppy-growing heart of Helmand Province, a few weeks ago. Now comes the hard part, as this story by the NY Times’ Rod Nordland makes clear. It reminds me a bit of the “taking” of Baghdad in three weeks after the start of the Iraq War: Baghdad wasn’t really stabilized until five years later, when the U.S. military switched to counterinsurgency tactics, placing troops in every neighborhood (in conjunction with a much-improved Iraqi military force).
Marja is much smaller than Baghdad, of course. But the success of the operation is going to depend entirely on the quality of Afghan government personnel involved in the stabilization process–not just Afghan security forces, but also civilians involved in the justice, education and sanitation sectors. I’ll be heading to Afghanistan soon to take a closer look at the situation, but my sense is that the Afghan Army and police aren’t nearly up to the task of controlling the city yet.
General McChrystal promised “government in a box,” which would arrive after the city was secured. Turns out that was a double entendre: for the moment, the government trying to stabilize Marja is in a box…and that box is called daylight. The Taliban control the night. It is an open question–the most important question of this operation–when and whether the Afghan government will be able to control Marja day and night.