By Greg Jaffe and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 22, 2010; A09
A year ago, the mention of Marja, a speck on the map in southern Afghanistan, would have drawn befuddled stares in the Pentagon.
Today the town of 50,000 is the target of the largest U.S.-NATO military operation since 2001. U.S. commanders are describing the dusty Afghan outpost as a "cancer," a key center of opium production in Afghanistan's poppy belt and an area critical to the Taliban's power.
Marja is indeed a Taliban stronghold, and the resistance there is real. Nine U.S. troops have been reported killed from roadside bombs and sniper fire since the offensive began a week ago. Dozens have been injured.
But in purely military terms, sending 11,000 U.S. and Afghan troops to defeat a few hundred Taliban fighters in Marja won't change much in Afghanistan. The greater significance of the battle is in how it is perceived in the rest of Afghanistan and in America.
The campaign's goals are to convince Americans that a new era has arrived in the eight-year-long war and to show Afghans that U.S. forces and the Afghan government can protect them from the Taliban. It allows Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander, who months earlier described conditions in the country as "grave and deteriorating," to make a clean break from past failures.
"You want to be able to define your narrative, and we've had trouble doing that in the past," said Mark Moyar, who has served as a civilian adviser to U.S. commanders in Afghanistan. McChrystal is under pressure to show progress fast: President Obama has directed that U.S. troops begin to withdraw in July 2011.
In recent days, U.S. commanders in Kabul and Washington have gone to great pains to describe the Marja offensive as a new beginning. "This is the start point of a new strategy," one senior military official told reporters on Thursday. "This is our first salvo."
Such declarations aren't new in military history. When Gen. Creighton Abrams took command of troops in Vietnam from Gen. William Westmoreland, he began by refocusing the U.S. war effort on a handful of rural villages. Although the campaign showed some success, it could not arrest the growing skepticism about the war in the United States or prevent the North Vietnamese army from overrunning the South.
In Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus pushed his forces into a few especially violent neighborhoods in the south and in Baghdad to show that the additional U.S. troops could stem the sectarian bloodletting gripping the capital.
Military officials in Afghanistan hope a large and loud victory in Marja will convince the American public that they deserve more time to demonstrate that extra troops and new tactics can yield better results on the battlefield. Although Obama has set a date to begin a pullout, he has not said how quickly the troops will leave. Success in southern Afghanistan would almost certainly mean a slower drawdown.
The other group McChrystal wants to influence is the Afghan people and the Taliban, who saw the July 2011 withdrawal deadline as a sign of wavering U.S. will. "This is all a war of perceptions," McChrystal said on the eve of the Marja offensive. "This is all in the minds of the participants. Part of what we've had to do is convince ourselves and our Afghan partners that we can do this."
A swift victory over the Taliban in Marja, followed with a robust development effort, could sway some Afghan fence sitters.
"Marja is not the single most important geographical point in Afghanistan that will turn around the war," said Thomas Ruttig, a former United Nations official and co-director of Afghanistan Analysts Network. "It's not the battle of Stalingrad. It's more like a symbol."
When McChrystal took over command of NATO forces in June, some of his closest advisers argued that U.S. troops should not even be in Marja or the surrounding central Helmand province. Nearby Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, has been the epicenter of the Taliban movement for more than two decades and should be the focus of U.S. efforts, these officials insisted.
Shifting the U.S. focus, however, would have been a logistical nightmare. The Marines had been working for months to build Camp Leatherneck, their sprawling base in the desert, and were on the verge of launching their first big attack to wrest the towns of Nawa and Garmsir in the central Helmand valley from Taliban forces. Those operations, which took place last summer and fall, have been relatively successful in pushing out the Taliban.
Marja also seemed far more likely than Kandahar to deliver a quick military and political win for McChrystal. One big obstacle to securing Kandahar is its tangled political rivalries. Among the local power brokers is Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Ahmed Karzai has been dogged by accusations of being a drug kingpin and, simultaneously, a paid CIA asset. He has denied both allegations.
"There are issues there which need to be solved, particularly in terms of governance and in terms of the political equilibrium that exists there," British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the top NATO commander in southern Afghanistan, told reporters last week.
In Marja and surrounding Helmand province, U.S. officials have built a close relationship with the local governor, Gulab Mangal, who has a reputation as a clean and effective technocrat. His cooperation boosts the likelihood that money set aside for development projects in Marja will not be siphoned off by corruption.
Even if U.S. troops succeed in driving out the Taliban and establishing an effective local government, the overall success or failure of U.S. efforts in southern Afghanistan will be determined by what Carter called "the next challenge for us."
That will be the battle for Kandahar.