Operation Moshtarak is the most important campaign in Afghanistan since the invasion in 2001. Its success, however, will not be measured in military terms but in terms of public opinion, both in Helmand and the rest of Afghanistan and in the Coalition's domestic electorate.
By Michael Clarke, Director of RUSI
The military campaign in Marjah and Nad e Ali will certainly work for the time being. The forces deployed are sufficiently strong, the planning and technology sufficiently good and, in truth, it has never been difficult to clear the Taliban out of an area. The problem has always been stopping them coming back. This is the yardstick by which the immediate success of Operation Moshtarak will be judged.
It will not be straightforward, because many of those disgruntled locals who fight with, but not for, the Taliban have undoubtedly hidden their weapons and resumed their day jobs as farmers, traders, even policemen. Keeping the trained Taliban fighters out of the cleared area also involves keeping the part time local Taliban who remain inside the area in a state of quiescence.
The military phase
Nevertheless, the military are well capable of achieving all this, though there will undoubtedly be sniping, explosions and unpleasant scenes after the first impetus of the advance. Phase one of any military operation tends to go the way it was planned; phase two rarely does. As US forces are discovering in Marjah, the Taliban are not leaving without a fight, but they are leaving. US intelligence estimates before the operation put active Taliban numbers in Marjah at somewhere between 400 and perhaps 1,000 fighters. In the 72 hours since the operation began it seems that 400 was probably an over-estimate. Incidents and skirmishes there will certainly be, since small groups have engaged US and Afghan forces regularly in the last three days. But Coalition forces are overwhelming at the local level, both in numbers and the technologies they can bring to bear.
The Coalition campaign is well co-ordinated. The arrival of more American troops in theatre and the beefing-up of existing NATO forces means that there are now, at last, enough boots on the ground to do the 'shape and clear' elements of the task. The challenges will come in the later 'hold and build' stages. Much less air power is being used by the Coalition, to minimise the risk of civilian casualties. But two civilian tragedies have already occurred - one in Kandahar, not connected to the offensive - and there may be more. The intention is that civilian casualties will not be widespread or an intrinsic part of the operation. Their political effects will be minimised as far as possible.
Most importantly, the operation is intended as a civil/military campaign that will immediately bring trained Afghan administrators into the towns and villages of central Helmand, deploy a new cadre of Afghan police, use development money and bring in very competent Afghan Army units to build security on the back of what Coalition forces have created. All this is part of the campaign plan. It is classic counter-insurgency strategy and at last - at long last - it is being put into practice with the resources to make it work.
The importance of civilians
This is a 'must-win' campaign for the Coalition that they hope will turn a psychological corner in convincing the Afghan people, the Taliban and their part-time supporters that the Coalition and the Karzai Government will be the eventual winners throughout Afghanistan. And for the next twelve months, it matters most in Helmand and Kandahar. This is where the psychological battle will be won and lost - among the 2 million people under the Coalition's security blanket.
That is why it would be a mistake to judge the military's success in Operation Moshtarak only by military measures. Yes, the military will take the ground. Yes, they will hold on to it. 'Where the troops go, they stay' is the motto; and this time it will be true, at least in Helmand and Kandahar.
The true judgement will, instead, revolve around other questions. Afghan administrators and special police have been trained for just this mission, but how good will they be after six months or more in a part of Afghanistan they have not lived in for a long time - or ever in many cases? It will be a real test of local politics to channel development money effectively through a new group of Afghan administrators who will still have to work with the tribal and family structures that were there already.
How expensive will the operation turn out to be in civilian casualties? An incident a week will undermine all the gradual trust Coalition forces and their Afghan colleagues are trying to build up in territories formerly controlled by the Taliban. After laying out a strategy that puts Afghan civilians first, the McChrystal plan is acutely vulnerable to any aspect of the operation that seems not to live up to this expectation.
Another test will revolve around what the Taliban do next. If most have moved out of the area, where will they regroup? Will their commanders in Quetta try to stretch the Coalition forces in a new direction? Given the informal nature of the Taliban it is possible that they will simply disperse and mount ineffective attacks on the populated areas of Helmand and Kandahar. But though they are not a well coordinated military force, the Taliban are good at spotting new Coalition weaknesses and eventually bringing their fighters to bear on it. If they can, they will try to provoke and fool the Coalition into causing many more civilian deaths as they do so.
Not least, the operation has to appeal to people, in Kabul, Herat, Jalalabad, Kunduz, as much as it does to people in London, Washington, Paris, Berlin or Copenhagen. It is only possible to have one strategic message at a time. Western leaders have tried to have different messages for different audiences and the results have been disastrous. This time they have to maintain their clarity, and their nerve, when the casualties begin to mount; to make the world believe that the military campaign can become progressively 'Afghanized' without becoming ineffective. They have to stop talking about withdrawal timetables and concentrate on the 'prevail or fail' choice that they really now face.
Threat of elections
This will be harder for some politicians than others. For President Obama the immediate priority is to get through the mid-term elections in November this year with a sense that his military is making progress in this difficult campaign. After that, he has an immoveable meeting with the electorate in 2012 and he will have to show real and sustained success in what is now 'Obama's war' by the autumn of 2011 in order to get re-elected. He is unlikely to win a presidential re-election on the strength of the Afghan war but he can certainly lose it on the issue. He, at least, has some time (short as that may be) to make an electoral impact with his Afghan policy.
For Gordon Brown, in the final two months of the current administration, there is little to gain but a lot of votes to lose from this phase of the war. If it goes badly he will be blamed, but there will be little credit for success in the midst of an election campaign. The real beneficiary might be David Cameron: if the Conservatives win the General Election. In the event of victory the Conservatives will announce a review of Britain's whole Afghan war strategy. This might just coincide in the late summer with real evidence of politico-military success in Helmand and Kandahar.
In Afghanistan itself, of course, this will be irrelevant. The eight unproductive years of international involvement in Afghanistan have been largely down to the political constraints that western leaders put on a nasty little war that dared not speak its name until very recently. Now, at least, our political elites in western countries are beginning to accept responsibility for what we have taken on.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the Evening Standard on 16 February 2010
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI
Professor Michael Clarke