NATO ministers, commanders advertise planned offensive in southern Afghanistan

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 6, 2010

ISTANBUL -- For the upcoming Battle of Marja, the element of surprise has already gone by the wayside.

NATO ministers and commanders, gathering Thursday and Friday in Istanbul, could barely contain themselves about a major military offensive set to launch 2,000 miles away in southern Afghanistan. Ignoring the usual dictums about keeping battle preparations secret, officials were keen to talk about what they touted as their biggest joint operation since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

"In the coming days, you will see a demonstration of our capability in a series of operations, led by the Afghans and supported by NATO, in southern Helmand," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen volunteered to reporters.

Although Rasmussen said he could not go into details "for security reasons," other NATO officials said an allied force, led by U.S. Marines, was preparing for an assault on the town of Marja, a Taliban stronghold in Helmand province. Senior military officials began touting the offensive, the first operation since a U.S. troop increase in Afghanistan, even before President Obama announced in early December that he would be sending more forces to the country.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and allied commander in Afghanistan, said the offensive would start "relatively soon." When asked why he and other commanders were being so open about their plans, he said it was partly to try to persuade as many Afghans as possible in Marja to throw down their arms and side against the Taliban.

"If they want to fight, then obviously that will have to be an outcome. But if they don't want to fight, that's fine, too," he told reporters Thursday. "We'd much rather have them see the inevitability that things are changing and just accept that. And we think we can give them that opportunity. And that's why it is a little unconventional to do it this way."

Since taking command last summer, McChrystal has embraced a counterinsurgency strategy that places more emphasis on winning the allegiance of Afghan civilians and less on body counts.

The conventional wisdom among U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan is that killing large numbers of enemy fighters leads to more blood feuds, more violence and a longer war. "The best victories are those you win without firing a shot," a senior military official said.

Senior military officials at the Pentagon said the success of the operation will not be determined by how many fighters are killed, but by how many Afghans in the area are willing to support the central government after the operation. One key measure of success will be the number who later join the national army or police, the officials said. Recruitment in southern Afghanistan has badly lagged that in the rest of the country.

U.S. and NATO commanders have dubbed the planned offensive Operation Moshtarak, which means "together" in Dari. It is meant to underscore how Afghan forces are intended to play a key role, along with U.S. Marines, British forces and other foreign troops.

Advance word of the assault on Marja had circulated so widely by Friday that reporters from other allied countries wanted to know whether their troops would take part, too. At a news conference in Istanbul, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was asked whether troops from Georgia -- which is not a NATO member but recently deployed forces to assist the Afghan mission -- would take part. "I honestly don't know," Gates replied.

More than 15,000 troops will be deployed for the attack, Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, a British commander, told the Daily Telegraph of London. "This operation is bigger than anything that has gone before, and yes there will have to be a fight," he said.

Staff writer Greg Jaffe in Washington contributed to this report.

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