The martyrs of Marjah

April 6, 2010 — by Anoop Galivanche and Jason Wu

The hot and humid climate of Marjah, Afghanistan, is not particularly hospitable to American soldiers. Unsurprisingly, neither are the people.

NATO officials forthrightly stated that “civilian casualties are inevitable” and, with that, descended on Marjah with the explicit intent of wreaking as much havoc as possible. This would have caused political uproar anywhere else. In Helmand, the world’s largest opium-producing region responsible for over 42 percent of the annual global output, this is life.

Marjah is the central target of Operation Moshtarak, which seeks to drive out the Taliban from their current stronghold in the Helmand province in which Marjah is located. Moshtarak, meaning “together” in Dari, comes as the first in a new kind of offensives that NATO hopes will help to disengage the Afghani military stratum from the American one.

Political tribulation may not affect a soldier across the Atlantic trying to stay alive during a fire fight, but Gen. Stanley McChrystal is certainly feeling the pressure of antsy politicians back at home. His Afghani colleague, President Hamid Karzai, recently won a heavily contested election over a politically moderate yet widely supported opponent—with the allegations over his corruption only serving to further tarnish his reputation, which has already been marked with past instances of fraud.

In a hasty attempt to politically exonerate themselves, it seems, McChrystal and Karzai organized Operation Moshtarak. While well-intentioned, Operation Moshtarak has unavoidable shortcomings and should have been better organized prior to execution.

But the operation’s goals are fundamentally misguided. The United States held promising talks with its allies—talks that were prominently featured in publications such as Time and The Economist, to attempt a non-violent approach to defeating the Taliban; the idea was to capitalize on the Taliban’s large population of fighters who were not ideologically aligned with the group. That is to say, the U.S. would enlist young men that were fighting for the Taliban as a means of putting food on the table, not in the name of the mujahideen.

The United Nations even proposed the creation of a multi-lateral fund to buy these fighters off, thereby weakening the Taliban. This would be done in tandem with diplomatic negotiations with the group, that has no global ambitions and has a far better chance of bringing order to Afghanistan than the corrupt Karzai will ever have. Taking into consideration Karzai’s percent approval rating and the rampant fraud under his rule, this says much more about the NATO-backed Karzai than it does about the Taliban.

In order for this plan to get past its formative stages, NATO forces need to appease the Taliban. Operation Moshtarak effectively eliminates the possibility of any further negotiations with the Taliban, whether it be in buying off low-level-don’t-care fighters or in diplomatic exchanges with the group. An estimated 120 Taliban fighters were killed in the first few days of fighting. Considering this number, instigating further dialogue with the Taliban will be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Operation Moshtarak is a sorry excuse for NATO’s new agenda to promote the value of civilian lives. Despite Gen. McChrystal’s efforts to avoid civilian casualties, they have occurred. And even if civilian deaths are mitigated by the so-called “McChrystal Doctrine,” the fact remains that the lives of civilians have been severely impacted by the operation.

This inefficiency established, Gen. McChrystal’s effort to save civilian lives is still an admirable one, but McChrystal needs to realize that embarking on controversial, violent campaigns instead of peaceful diplomacy is counterproductive to his goal. In Marjah, the McChrystal Doctrine has amounted to little more than illusional superiority. Ironically, the best description of Operation Moshtarak comes from the corrupt Karzai himself, “In Marjah we have definitely failed.”