Marja Serves as Microcosm of Military Failure in Afghanistan, But Failure is Country-Wide

Deputy Defense Secretary Aston Carter strolls through Marja marketplace on February 24. How many security forces were present out of camera range?

Back in February of 2010, US President Barack Obama’s surge of troops in Afghanistan began its offensive by trying to take the Marja district of Helmand Province. Then US commander of forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal famously touted his counterinsurgency program for the area, saying “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in”.

Eight months into the battle for Marja, we had this:

As U.S. involvement in the war enters its 10th year, the failure to pacify this town raises questions about the effectiveness of America’s overall strategy. Similarly crucial operations are now under way in neighboring Kandahar province, the Taliban’s birthplace.

There are signs the situation in Marjah is beginning to improve, but “it’s still a very tough fight,” said Capt. Chuck Anklam, whose Marine company has lost three men since arriving in July. “We’re in firefights all over, every day.”

“There’s no area that’s void of enemy. But there’s no area void of Marines and [Afghan forces] either,” said Anklam, 34, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “It’s a constant presence both sides are trying to exert.”


The result, so far at least: Residents say the town is more insecure than ever.

“There was peace here before you came,” farmer Khari Badar told one Marine patrol that recently visited his home. “Today, there is only fighting.”

Of course, the Defense Department would have us believe everything is now fine in Marja. They staged a stroll through the marketplace back in February by a Deputy Defense Secretary, presumably to mark the two year anniversary of the offensive. I wonder if this stroll was as heavily protected as John McCain’s 2007 stroll through a Baghdad marketplace.

But even though we are supposed to believe the offensive worked in Marja and the Taliban were routed, there was this from DoD on actions from April 15 of this year:

A combined force detained several suspects while searching for a Taliban leader in the Nad-e Ali district of Helmand province. The leader oversees Taliban operations in the province’s Marjah district, including roadside-bomb and other attacks against Afghan and coalition forces. He also attempts to impose Taliban law on Afghan civilians.

Yup, despite our “success” in Marja, the Taliban still have a leader who “oversees Taliban operations” in the region, and he seems to be eluding capture even though we seem to know who he is.

And Marja was back in the news over the weekend, as the US base in Marja saw its second green on blue killing of the year (is this incident less isolated since it’s the second one here?) and a significant number of Taliban forces were killed in the region on Friday and Saturday.

Couple the Marja failure with other bad news coming from Afghanistan and we see just how the entire effort there is crashing into disarray.

We learned Saturday that the planned site for a US consulate in Mazar-e Sharif, in the north of Afghanistan (Marja is in the south) has now been abandoned (after signing a ten year lease and spending $80 million) because it is too risky to have a US presence there.

On Sunday, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and Republican Congressman Mike Rogers, Chair of the House Intelligence Committee teamed up to publicly call out Obama administration claims that the Taliban is being defeated in Afghanistan:

The leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees said Sunday they believe that the Taliban has grown stronger since President Obama sent 33,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan in 2010.

The pessimistic report by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) challenges Obama’s assessment last week in his visit to Kabul that the “tide had turned” and that “we broke the Taliban’s momentum.”

Feinstein and Rogers told CNN’s “State of the Union” that they aren’t so sure. The two recently returned from a fact-finding trip to the region, where they met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

“President Karzai believes that the Taliban will not come back. I’m not so sure,” Feinstein said. “The Taliban has a shadow system of governors in many provinces.”

When it comes to McChrystal’s government in a box, it seems that US likes to put the Afghans back in the box now and then. One of Obama’s claimed recent successes was the agreement handing over control of the prison system in Afghanistan, including the huge Parwan prison. It turns out, however, that the US has maintained the real decision-making power, and has completely bypassed Afghan authorities with its program of secretly releasing key insurgents through negotiations aimed at pacifying certain regions.

With only two weeks to go until the Chicago NATO summit, I expect the Obama administration and Department of Defense to completely ignore Feinstein and Rogers. They will insist their plans are still working and that no changes are needed for this summer’s “fighting season”. This is a huge gamble for Obama, as he does not want to enter the November election trying to defend a failed surge strategy. However, with even key members of Congress now openly disputing Obama’s claims, there is a strong possibility that the “success” narrative will have taken many more hits by November.

10 replies
  1. allan says:

    Apologies for going slightly OT, but speaking of Stanley McChrystal:

    Like all his sessions, it was off the record — students are not supposed to talk about it outside class — because General McChrystal wanders into anecdotes about sensitive operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  2. der says:

    As a veteran when I read the stories The Government tells about the back and forth of strategies and counter-strategies, fighting and running away, winning hearts and minds, time-lines, and reasons why we must continue on and on, I’m finding myself much in agreement with a recent post by David Swanson on reviewing Rachel Maddow’s book “Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power” when he writes:

    – “Maddow writes that “there are no examples in modern history in which a counterinsurgency in a foreign country has been successful. None!” Then, a few pages later, back on the theme of reckless spending, Maddow writes: “‘We don’t have any enemies in Congress,’ a senior defense official told me in 2011. ‘We have to fight Congress to cut programs, not keep them.’ And those are basically the only fights the Pentagon ever loses.”

    – Well, except for every single counterinsurgency, every single war, the war on Iraq, the war on Afghanistan, the war on Pakistan, the war on Libya, the wars back to the start of the book in Vietnam. None of those nations are better off because of U.S. bombs. The United States is not better off because of having bombed them. The United States does not control them. They have not submitted to its will. Why not admit that the Pentagon always loses?”

  3. Jim White says:

    Gareth Porter just tweeted this about the latest green on blue attack:

    19th attack by Afghan soldier on NATO soldier for 1 every 6.6 days this year. Cf 1 every 17 days in 2011. Do the math.

  4. Bob Schacht says:

    Thanks for this! Marja was supposed to be the shining example, showing us how to “win.”

    But here’s the problem: If Obama admits that we are losing, won’t it be harder to leave? Aren’t we facing the old strategy of declaring we won, so we can get out?

    If so, is this one of those awkward moments when speaking the truth may only make things worse?

    Bob in AZ

  5. bsbafflesbrains says:

    @der: I have a Kansas City Chiefs ball cap(made in Viet Nam), a Crate & Barrel platter (made in Viet Nam) and I just read that the Hilton in Hanoi has opened an Opera House next to it’s Grand Hotel. The Pentagon may always be losing but the plutocracy that runs Corporate America is winning; they will always win because the system is gamed for them. Ben Franklin said “sunshine is the best disinfectant” but no matter how much exposure the failures of the Pentagon get nothing seems to change. I don’t think they have any care what the “people” think.

  6. quixote says:

    The US didn’t “do nation-building” because it cost too much. Trillions of dollars later, something tells me it would have been way cheaper, more effective, and longer-lasting to have poured one hundredth of that money into female education. To say nothing of the lives saved.

  7. Jim White says:

    @Bob Schacht: Yes, there is a bit of that risk and in fact it seems likely Feinstein and Rogers would argue we need to stay until we win. But I think the public is a bit more aware than these folks think, and the surge was seen as the “last chance” for victory. News that it didn’t work will end in a large public outcry to just get out, victory be damned. That’s reflected in the bipartisan poll numbers showing a large majority now feel the whole effort hasn’t been worth it.

  8. Jim White says:

    @emptywheel: And dangit, I wrote too fast. McChrystal is the expert at war crimes and covering them up while his boss Petraeus is the ass-kissing little chickenshit.

    So hard to keep all the evil-doers properly categorized early in the morning.

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