The initial stage of Operation Khanjar (“Strike of the Sword”) appears to be going well in Afghanistan — but that doesn’t mean much.
Some 4,000 marines and 650 Afghan soldiers are sweeping into insurgent strongholds in Helmand Province. They have encountered little resistance so far, which suggests that Taliban fighters are doing what smart guerrillas always do: melting away in the face of superior enemy forces. The pattern in Afghanistan has always been that NATO forces march into villages then march out, leaving the Taliban to regain effective control.
The difference this time is that the marines don’t plan to leave. Just as in Iraq, they are planning to establish small combat outposts next to villages that will allow them to dominate the terrain they are now occupying. That will present insurgents with a difficult choice: either (a) cede the ground to the marines or (b) attack them and try to dislodge them. The likelihood is that they will soon try option B. That will mean heavy fighting and more casualties than the marines have so far suffered. (One marine was killed in the initial operation.)
But assuming that marines stick it out — and with the marines that’s a pretty safe assumption — they will inflict heavy casualties on their attackers and gradually gain control of the situation. The Taliban will have to shift their operations to other areas — and then those too will be targeted by NATO forces.
That is, in essence, the classic “spreading oil spot” strategy of counterinsurgency. It is a slow, difficult process, and we shouldn’t read too much into early reports of success. There will be much hard fighting ahead, but the likely result will be, just as in Iraq, a gradual extension of governmental control and eventually a decrease in violence. The key to success is to deploy enough forces to drive out the Taliban altogether from substantial swathes of the countryside rather than simply pushing them from one area to another. Whether there are enough troops on the ground to attain that goal remains to be seen, even with a total of 21,000 American reinforcements on the way. But the strategy is a sound one and should over time gradually improve the situation.