Afghanistan — Marja Success Proves New Afghan Strategy, Officials Say

WASHINGTON, May 6, 2010 — Ongo­ing oper­a­tions in Mar­ja, Afghanistan, are prov­ing the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion is on the right track in that coun­try, Defense and State Depart­ment offi­cials said today.
“Afghanistan is a work in progress, but we are turn­ing in the right direc­tion,” Army Brig. Gen. John W. Nichol­son Jr., the direc­tor of the Joint Staff’s Pak­istan-Afghanistan coor­di­na­tion cell, told the Sen­ate For­eign Rela­tions Com­mit­tee.

Nichol­son tes­ti­fied along­side David Samuel Sed­ney, deputy assis­tant sec­re­tary of defense for Afghanistan, Pak­istan and Cen­tral Asia; and Frank Rug­giero, the State Department’s senior civil­ian rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the military’s Region­al Com­mand South, on lessons learned from the command’s ongo­ing offen­sive in Mar­ja.

Oper­a­tions in Mar­ja are­go­ing well, the offi­cials said, due to increased troop strength, coor­di­na­tion with inter­na­tion­al part­ners such as Great Britain, hav­ing more civil­ian help in the area, the increas­ing size and effec­tive­ness of Afghan forces, and the sup­port of Afghan politi­cians.

“The Mar­ja oper­a­tions have been exem­plary for its lev­el of coop­er­a­tion,” Sed­ney said. “This is the biggest civil­ian-mil­i­tary oper­a­tion ever.”

The coali­tion, as of April, has half of the 30,000 addi­tion­al U.S. troops in Afghanistan that Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma ordered in Decem­ber and will have the rest by the end of sum­mer, Sed­ney and Nichol­son said in a joint pre­pared state­ment. They also expect to have 9,000 addi­tion­al NATO troops from 17 nations by then, 2,000 more than were pledged in Jan­u­ary. A hun­dred U.S. civil­ians also have been sent to work with Region­al Com­mand South to con­duct the “build” phase of the “clear, hold and build” coun­terin­sur­gency strat­e­gy, the offi­cials said.

The coali­tion has focused its atten­tion on Afghanistan’s south and east, where the insur­gency is the strongest, the offi­cials said. U.S. and British troops have cleared the most dense­ly pop­u­lat­ed areas of insur­gents, Nichol­son added.

Grow­ing and increas­ing­ly effec­tive Afghan troops, which will increase from one brigade to three by the end of sum­mer, also are help­ing the effort, he said.

When Marines moved into Mar­ja in Feb­ru­ary, one of the first things they had to do was clear it of a cor­rupt police force and replace it with the Afghan Nation­al Civ­il Order Police, which Afghans regard as more cred­i­ble, Rug­giero said. Replac­ing the force was an exam­ple of the impor­tance of lis­ten­ing to res­i­dents and local lead­ers, he said.

“The mes­sage from the peo­ple was very clear,” Rug­giero said. “If you are here to bring back the police force that was here before [the clear­ing oper­a­tion], we will sup­port the Tal­iban.”

Cor­rup­tion remains a prob­lem through­out Afghanistan, Nichol­son acknowl­edged, but he not­ed that some Afghans sup­port the Tal­iban only because they need mon­ey or are intim­i­dat­ed. “The ene­my is not pop­u­lar,” he said. “He’s dan­ger­ous, but he’s not pop­u­lar.”

Mar­ja, while not a large Afghan city, is strate­gi­cal­ly impor­tant because it was a Tal­iban strong­hold and a world leader in pop­py crops used in the ille­gal hero­in mar­ket – a cash cow for the Tal­iban.

Anoth­er part of the coun­terin­sur­gency is to rein­te­grate low- and mid-lev­el Tal­iban fight­ers back into soci­ety. Many low-lev­el fight­ers have rein­te­grat­ed, Nichol­son said, and he expects more mid-lev­el fight­ers to leave the insur­gency as secu­ri­ty improves.

Nichol­son dis­missed con­cerns about the effec­tive­ness of rein­te­gra­tion, say­ing for­mer Sovi­et-inspired com­mu­nists and their para­mil­i­tary fight­ers now serve togeth­er in Afghan gov­ern­ment roles. “Rein­te­gra­tion is very much some­thing in their tra­di­tion and is attain­able,” he said.

Nichol­son and oth­ers said the chal­lenge mov­ing for­ward in Mar­ja and the sur­round­ing areas is to main­tain secu­ri­ty while pro­vid­ing infra­struc­ture improve­ments, such as munic­i­pal ser­vices and schools, which will lead to eco­nom­ic pros­per­i­ty.

“On the hold phase, the key task is the con­nec­tion between the gov­ern­ment and their peo­ple,” Nichol­son said. “This is not a fore­gone con­clu­sion in Afghanistan.” Rug­giero said his biggest con­cern in Afghanistan is the government’s capac­i­ty to effect such change. “This has to be done by the Afghans, and it has to be done at Afghan speed,” he said.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)