Posts Tagged ‘Marjah’

Exactly one year ago, on February 13, 2010, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan launched the first major military operations enabled by President Obama’s 30,000 troop increase. President Obama and the high priests of counterinsurgency warfare, Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, made two major assertions about the escalation, that it would a) enable coalition forces to reverse the insurgents’ momentum and b) increase security for the Afghan people. After a year of fighting, neither of those things happened. The escalation is a failure, and it’s time to bring our troops home.

February 13, 2010: The Push into Marjah

Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, U.S. and other international forces began Operation Moshtarak, the invasion of Marja District in Helmand Province. Looking back, the hubris and hype surrounding this military operation boggle the mind. General McChrystal promised, “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in,” meaning that good governance and the extension of Kabul’s writ would be implemented very rapidly. The operation was supposed to be a prototype for future campaigns in Afghanistan and a “confidence builder” for both U.S. forces and a restive political class in Washington, D.C., not all of whom were happy about the escalation or McChrystal’s brashness in pushing it.

To put it mildly, Moshtarak failed to live up to the hype:

“[I]n the weeks leading up to the imminent offensive to take the Helmand River Valley town of Marjah in southern Afghanistan, the Marines’ commander, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, sat with dozens of Afghan tribal elders…offering reassurances that his top priority will be the safety of Afghan civilians.”Chicago Tribune, February 10, 2010.

Almost immediately, this hype about an operation purported to be proof-of-concept for the population-protecting counterinsurgency strategy fell apart in the face of U.S.-caused civilian deaths.  Just prior to the operation, coalition forces dropped leaflets on the largely illiterate district warning people to stay in their homes. An Italian NGO, Emergeny, warned that military blockades were preventing civilians from fleeing the area.  At the same time commanders bragged that the “evacuation” of the residents would allow the use of air strikes without the danger of civilian casualties. These contradictions soon bore deadly fruit: On the second day of the offensive, U.S. troops fired a HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) weapon on a house full of civilians, killing roughly a dozen people. By February 23, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that ISAF forces were responsible for most civilian deaths so far in the incursion.

As insurgents melted away (as all guerrillas do in the face of superior firepower–to bide time and return once counter-insurgents are dug in) the “government in a box” hype fell apart as well. The coalition’s hand-picked governor, Abdul Zahir, turned out to be an ex-convict who served part of a prison sentence for stabbing his own son. By July, he would be replaced as part of a “reform procedure.”

Sending Afghan National Police forces to establish rule of law proved to be a cruel joke on the local residents:

“In the weeks since they were sent to Helmand province as part of the U.S.-led offensive in Marjah, ANCOP members have set up checkpoints to shake down residents, been kicked out for using drugs and shunned in some areas as outsiders, according to U.S. officials briefed on a recent analysis by the RAND Corp. …More than a quarter of the officers in one ANCOP battalion in Helmand were dismissed for drug use, and the rest were sent off for urgent retraining. One Western official who attended the briefing termed ANCOP’s role in Marjah a disaster.”

As late as October 2010, residents of the town said the area was “more insecure than ever,” and Reuters classified the Taliban re-infiltration as a “full-blown insurgency.” And, although U.S. commanders want us to believe that the fighting in Marjah is “essentially over” as of December, the numbers tell a different story. According to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, in Helmand Province, in which Marjah is located, the number of attacks by insurgents in spiked from 620 in 2009 to 1387 in 2010, a 124-percent increase (.pdf).
A Wider Pattern of Failure

This pattern of hype (“Protecting civilians! Reversing insurgents momentum!”) followed by a failure to deliver extended from Marjah to the whole of the escalation strategy across Afghanistan. Even after a month of fighting in Marjah in which U.S. and coalition forces were responsible for the majority of civilian deaths, Defense Secretary Robert Gates characterized the offensive in this way on March 8, 2010:

“Of course the operation in Marjah is only one of many battles to come in a much longer campaign focused on protecting the people of Afghanistan.”

As was the case in Marjah, that broader campaign has utterly failed to protect the people of Afghanistan in terms of the reach of the insurgency, the levels of war-related violence and the number of civilians killed or injured in the conflict.

Although President Obama, General Petraeus and others have repeatedly asserted in public remarks that the U.S. has reversed the insurgents’ momentum, reports from the Pentagon and from NGOs agree that the insurgency continued to grow in size and sophistication throughout 2010. By one measure, insurgent-initiated attacks this January are up almost 80 percent versus last January. Worse, a new report from Alex Strick von Linschoten and Felix Kuehn at the Center on International Cooperation warns that the U.S. targeted killings of senior Taliban leadership is not only failing to retard the growth of the insurgency, but it’s providing opportunities for much more radical junior leaders to take control of the operation, making the Taliban more susceptible to al-Qaeda influence and making the insurgents less willing to negotiate. In short, over the year in which the U.S. was pursuing its escalated military strategy, the insurgency got larger, smarter and more radical.

When testifying to Congress immediately following President Obama’s 2009 West Point speech, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen asserted the escalation would “improve security for the Afghan people.” The past year proved him wrong. According to the Afghan NGO Safety Office’s (ANSO) Q4 2010 report (.pdf),

“Consistent with the five year trend…attacks by armed opposition groups continue to rise. This year they were 64% higher than 2009, the highest inter‐annual growth rate we have recorded… If averaged, the total of 12,244 armed operations (mostly small arms ambushes, below right) represents roughly 33 attacks per day, every single day of the year. …[T]aking the national data as a whole we consider this indisputable evidence that conditions are deteriorating.”

General Petraeus has taken to speaking of “security bubbles” in Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, but violence is up in those provinces by 20 percent and 124 percent, respectively, according to ANSO. Security in Afghanistan for Afghan civilians sharply declined in the period following the launch of the escalated military campaign.

This heightened level of insurgent-initiated violence, combined with attacks initiated by U.S. and coalition forces, led to a predictable result: 2010 was the worst year of the war so far for war-related civilian deaths.

President Obama and numerous Pentagon officials asserted that the escalation strategy, which began one year ago with the invasion of Majah, would enable U.S. forces to reverse insurgent momentum and protect the population. They were wrong. Measured by the standards of its backers, the escalation strategy in Afghanistan is a miserable failure.

Because It’s Time

Let’s have some accountability here. In the leaked strategic assesment that’s largely responsible for getting us into this mess, General Stanley McChrystal used dire language to describe the “need” for escalation (.pdf):

“The long-term fight will require patience and commitment, but I believe the short-term fight will be decisive. Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

McChrystal wrote those words in late August 2009, under Petraeus’ supervision. The insurgency’s momentum has not been reversed and security continues to deteriorate across Afghanistan. So let’s take the generals at their word when they say we had to reverse insurgent momentum by late August 2010 to have a chance at defeating the insurgency. Let’s also take the Pentagon at its word that insurgent “operation capability and geographic reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding.” That means that today, on the one-year anniversary of the launch of the escalated military campaign, we’re several months past the point of no return. And that’s if you bought the analysis of those who thought the escalation was a good idea in the first place.

The American people have been more than patient with Washington, D.C. when it comes to the Afghanistan War. In fact, we’ve been downright indulgent, having forked over more than $375 billion in tax dollars and debt and having given the Pentagon almost a decade now to play Risk with other people’s lives in other people’s country. Every deadline that’s been laid down has been fudged. Every justification that’s been given for just one more big push has fallen apart. Every guarantee of a positive outcome has been junked. We’ve had enough.

Rethink Afghanistan and our supporters are tired of politicans’ making excuses for their failure to rein in this debacle, so we’re doing a little escalating of our own. Starting on Sunday, February 13, Rethink Afghanistan will have a new ad on CNN in Washington, D.C., featuring the winners of our Because It’s Time contest, calling for an end to the Afghanistan War. They represent the voices of the 72 percent of Americans who support congressional action to speed up the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The ad buy also coincides with the upcoming reintroduction of U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee’s Responsible End to the War in Afghanistan Act in the House of Representatives. These actions send a strong message that we want decisive action from our elected officials to bring our troops home–because it’s time.

Today is the one-year anniversary of the launch of the escalated military strategy in Afghanistan. It’s clear from the last 12 months that the escalation strategy is a failure. It’s time to come home.

If you’re tired of this war that’s not making us safer and that’s not worth the cost, join Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook and Twitter.

Last week, the military published an ironically titled “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan” that wrapped blunt admissions of strategic collapse in typical Pentagon happy talk. Short version: Violence is up 87 percent (p. 39), the insurgency has population sympathy/support in 92 of 121 key regions, and local support for International Security Assistance Force’s mission in the toilet (p. 38-39). Oh, and we’re killing more civilians, too. Oh, and Marja is crumbling under NATO’s feet. But worry not! Unnamed senior administration officials tell us, “We are on the cusp! Moving in the right direction!”

Anyone who bothered to read the report could see right through this silly bit of P.R. work. But senior administration officials and elected Democrats can’t be bothered with such petty details as mission failure. They have neocons and neolibs to sop and hippies to punch. Thank G-d for talking-point-laden CODELs!

Here’s TIME’s Joe Klein, quoting an unnamed senior administration official:

McChrystal’s optimism is based on information that he cannot share. …”The counterterrorism effort has broken the momentum that the Taliban built up over the past few years.”

Here’s U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Missouri), paraphrasing General McChrystal from his latest razzle-dazzle CODEL:

Speaking from Pakistan before returning home, Carnahan, D-St. Louis, said the United States is making progress but that tough challenges remain. He said Gen. Stanley McChrystal…told Carnahan and fellow members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the trip that the tide may be turning.

“He believes that they (the Taliban) had lost momentum and that we have an opportunity … but we’re not there yet,” Carnahan said.

Here’s U.S. Rep. Michael McMahon (D-New York):

McMahon said U.S. military leaders, including Gen. Stanley McChrystal…told him and other members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the “new counter-insurgency strategy is taking hold.”

“They are seeing progress,” said McMahon…and praised the “marriage of military and civilian support” forces.

McMahon plans to vote for that $33 billion supplemental war spending bill, by the way.

These Democrats would have better served constituents and taxpayers had they stayed home, read the reports that they mandated the military provide them, and applied their critical thinking skills rather than getting a Potemkin-village tour from the military. Instead, though, they opted for a little war tourism and spent a nice afternoon regurgitating the talking points given to them by the military over which they supposedly have oversight authority.

Recall that in December 2009, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn gave a presentation, The State of the Insurgency [h/t Wired’s Danger Room blog], that described insurgent momentum:

“Organizational capabilities and operational reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding”

Now see this assessment from the list of insurgent strengths from last week’s report:

The Afghan insurgency has a robust means of sustaining its operations…A ready supply of recruits is drawn from the frustrated population…Organizational capabilities and operational reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding. …Insurgents’ tactics, techniques, and procedures for conducting complex attacks are increasing in sophistication and strategic effect. (p. 21)

See all that “broken,” “lost” momentum? Me neither. The list of insurgent strengths listed on page 21 of last week’s report is almost identical to the list of strengths on slide 16 of Flynn’s December presentation. The insurgents’ momentum apparently carried on such that the report authors could cut and paste its description from the December 2009 report.

There’s a major set of votes coming up on $33 billion in new war spending to fund President Obama’s latest massive deployment of U.S. troops to Afghanistan and on U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern’s (D-Mass.) bill to require an exit strategy. But, it looks like many Members of Congress can’t be bothered to do their homework or question the happy-talk handed to them during their tourist stops in Kabul. While the military is cutting and pasting its reports together, some Members of Congress are cutting and pasting their talking points.

Fantastic.

I’d like to remind my readers that in September 2009, McChrystal said:

“Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

For those who are counting, that was almost 9 months ago.

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According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, U.S. and Allied forces have killed and injured more civilians than have the insurgents during Operation Moshtarak. Incredibly, the Pentagon continues to insist that this operation "protects the people." AIHRC’s Feb. 23 press release reports [h/t Josh Mull, our new Afghanistan blog fellow]:

"AIHRC is concerned at the loss of life and civilian harm already caused by this operation. AIHRC found that in the first 12 days of Operation Mushtarak 28 civilians, including 13 children, were killed and approximately 70 civilians, including 30 children, were injured.

"Witnesses suggested the majority of the casualties were caused by PGF artillery and rocket-fire."

Late last year, just after the President announced his escalation, I wrote:

The president’s decision to add more troops is a mistake that will result in deep costs which we cannot afford; increased U.S. casualties; and increased civilian casualties as our troop increase further raises the temperature in the conflict.

A separate update from Brookings shows that President Obama’s escalation and subsequent military operations have indeed raised the temperature of the conflict, increasing the level of violence across Afghanistan:

“In terms of raw violence, the situation is at a historic worst level, with early 2010 levels of various types of attacks much higher than even last year at this time. Much of that is due to the recent Marja campaign and, more generally, the deployment of additional U.S. (and Afghan) troops to parts of the country where they have not been present before.”

War does not protect civilians. War doesn’t make us safer. The Afghanistan war needs to end, now.

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A few days ago a commenter on my blog took issue with my post, “Fallujah, New Orleans and Marjah“. Part of our disagreement focused on whether the Marines could precisely target their munitions. The commenter said in part:

What do you know about Marine Corps military operations? What do you know about the accuracy of any of the weapons in their arsenal? We are not talking about the CIA lobbing missiles at some Taliban bad guys from a UAV. We are talking about precision guided weapons.

I don’t often call out commenters like this, but at least 10 people including 5 children were butchered today because someone bought this kind of thinking in Marjah, Afghanistan:

An errant American rocket strike on Sunday hit a compound crowded with Afghan civilians in the last Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province, killing at least 10 people, including 5 children, military officials said.

…Officers said the barrage had been fired from Camp Bastion, a large British and American base to the northeast, by a weapons system known as Himars, an acronym for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. Its munitions are GPS-guided and advertised as being accurate enough to strike within a yard of their intended targets.

The hype surrounding so-called “smart bombs” and “precision guided munitions” is one of the reasons Americans feel so free to go to war in civilian areas, and it’s one of the most pernicious pieces of misinformation spread by the pro-war crowd. These devices may be more precise than, say, a World-War-II-era blockbuster, but, as February 14th’s outrage shows, they are anything but foolproof. In fact, of the first 50 “precision” air strikes launched at the opening of the Iraq War, “All were unsuccessful.”

The public’s mistaken perception that the U.S. military can fire munitions into a civilian area without harming noncombatants makes many Americans much more willing to back the use of military force. For example, this war-industry hype helped convince the Society of Christian Ethics to declare the Afghanistan war a “just war” in 2002.

There is no such thing as a humane war, and our inability to admit this to ourselves just butchered more than 10 noncombatants, including 5 children.

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Military officials say that civilian casualties in Marjah, Afghanistan are “inevitable” as U.S. and allied forces launch Operation Moshtarak, the largest military action since the U.S-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Thanks in part to conflicting messages from ISAF and in part due to some residents’ inability to flee, many civilians remain in Marjah, in the crossfire.

Statements from Brig. Gen. Nicholson, commander of the operation, indicate that he feels he has leeway to use airstrikes in the civilian area, and that he intends to use fast, furious attacks to try to overwhelm the Taliban. The problem: airstrikes in support of troops in contact are the leading cause of U.S.-caused civilian deaths.

All of this is very, very bad news for civilians in Marjah. And it’s bad news for the troops in the fight as well.

Cross-posted at Rethink Afghanistan.