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Going the Distance in Afghanistan

A popular impression seems to be building that the Marine offensive into Marja, a center of narco-traffickers and the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, has already failed. In truth, as C.J. “Chris” Chivers, a former Marine turned New York Times correspondent, reminds us, it’s too early to tell. In a first-class report from the scene, he notes signs favorable and unfavorable. Among the good indications:

Most of Marja’s civilians returned after moving away ahead of the initial assault. Most of them remain. Compounds that were empty in February are inhabited. Roads once quiet are busy. Fields are thick with crops. Shops in some bazaars have reopened. Afghan units participate visibly in dangerous missions.

Yet the district is far from fully pacified. As he also notes:

Each day, American foot patrols move through farmers’ fields and irrigated villages. And each day some are ambushed or encounter hidden bombs. The patrols turn into gunfights in withering heat, or efforts to dismantle the bombs or treat the wounded.

What does this mean? Simply that counterinsurgency is a lengthy, difficult undertaking that cannot be completed overnight like an armored blitzkrieg. The Marines have only been in Marja since February. That may seem like a long time, but not in counterinsurgency warfare.

Remember Fallujah? That city in Iraq’s Anbar Province was first entered by U.S. troops in 2003. In 2004, the Marines staged two major offensives into Fallujah; the first failed, the second succeeded. But even after the ostensible success of the second Fallujah operation, the city did not become really secure until 2008, when the Anbar Awakening was in full swing. Yes, it can take five years to truly secure valuable real estate when it’s located in the enemy’s backyard.

That’s an important point to keep in mind as coalition troops ramp up for  an “offensive” — a word they now studiously avoid — into Kandahar, southern Afghanistan’s largest city. Defeating the Taliban is hardly impossible, but it will take a lot of patience. The question is whether President Obama, who has set next summer as the deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. troops, will show the patience needed to succeed.


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