For all the fighting that lies ahead over the next several days, no one doubts that the American and Afghan troops swarming into the Taliban redoubt of Marjah will ultimately clear it of insurgents.
And that is when the real test will begin.
For much of the past eight years, American and NATO forces have mounted other large military operations to clear towns and cities of Taliban insurgents.
And then, almost invariably, they have cleared out, never leaving behind enough soldiers or police officers to hold the place on their own.
And so, almost always, the Taliban returned — and, after a time, so did the American and NATO troops, to clear the place all over again. “Mowing the grass,” the soldiers and Marines derisively call it.
This time, in Marjah, the largest Taliban stronghold, American and Afghan commanders say they will do something they have never done before: bring in an Afghan government and police force behind them. American and British troops will stay on to support them. “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in,” said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American commander here.
Indeed, Marjah is intended to serve as a prototype for a new type of military operation, based on the counterinsurgency thinking propounded by General McChrystal in the prelude to President Obama’s decision in December to increase the number of troops here to nearly 1,00,000. More than at any time since 2001, American and NATO soldiers will focus less on killing Taliban insurgents than on sparing Afghan civilians and building an Afghan state.
“The population is not the enemy,” Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the commander of the Marines in southern Afghanistan, told a group of troops this week. “The population is the prize — they are why we are going in.”
To realise their goals, the Americans and their allies want to capture the area with a minimum amount of violence. American commanders say the attack on Marjah is intended to be nothing like the similar size assault on the city of Falluja, Iraq, in November 2004. In that case, Falluja, under the control of hundreds of insurgents, was largely destroyed. The Americans killed plenty of guerrillas, but they did not make any friends.
“We don’t want Falluja,” General McChrystal said in an interview this week. “Falluja is not the model.”
Sparing civilian life may not be easy, especially in the close-quarters combat that lies ahead. Hundreds of Taliban fighters are believed to be in the area. And the American-led force may yet get bogged down — by the network of irrigation canals, built by the US, or by the hundreds of homemade bombs that Taliban fighters have planted in the roads and trails.
The chief worry among both American and Afghan commanders is that if a large number of civilians are killed, the Afghan government — including its sometimes erratic president, Hamid Karzai — could withdraw its support.