The full fury of a U.S. military air-ground task force is being unleashed on a small town in southern Afghanistan. Strike jets, helicopter gunships and armed robot drones directed by airborne and satellite sensors tracking enemy movements, and thousands of heavily armed infantrymen are advancing (with a heavy media presence) behind armored trucks and ground-penetrating radar sweeping for IEDs, while rapid-fire artillery rockets whoosh overhead.
It could be Armageddon for the lightly armed bad guys. But I doubt it.
Ever since U.S. combat troops descended on Afghanistan in October 2001, the Taliban fighters have been flaunting their ability to fade away when facing this kind of combat power. It seems childishly petulant even to repeat it: insurgents simply don't fight big modern armies head-on. They disappear, only to pop up later at a time and place of their own choosing.
In fact, that's what they did almost exactly eight years ago when I covered the first big conventional U.S. military strike against the Taliban. Operation Anaconda
was designed as a classic anvil-and-hammer maneuver, where you drive the enemy up against an anvil of dug-in troops, then pulverize them with the hammer of assault forces.
Except in that case, the Taliban fighters vanished from the high Shah-e-Khot valley into the towering mountain passes, and by the time the 10th Mountain and 101st Airborne troops arrived, the trap was empty.
Now, just 48 hours after the battle for the southern Afghanistan market town of Marja was launched, military commanders are confirming
that many of the Taliban fighters who had made Marja a base of operations had slipped away during the weeks that U.S. forces were loudly preparing the assault and freely broadcasting its location and purpose. A senior officer told me this morning that the Taliban leadership had "bugged out,'' leaving behind 100 to 150 fighters with orders to fight and die in place. "And they are,'' this officer reported. As in previous battles, the Taliban are fighting from compounds jammed with families, and there have been resultant civilian casualties. Given all this, it was odd to hear a British military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Gordon Messenger, assert that the goal of "surprising the Taliban'' seemed to have been met. His evidence: "The Taliban have not been able to put up a coherent response. They appear confused and disorientated.''
I saw the same thing happen 18 months ago with the Marines in Garmsir, a town just down river from Marja. There again, the Marines assaulted the town with waves of helicopters, but the Taliban counter-attack they expected (hoped for, actually) never materialized. With the insurgents gone or just mingling with townsfolk, the Marines took over the town, re-opened the market and stayed for a few months. As soon as they left, the Taliban moved back in, reportedly executing those who'd befriended the Americans.
That's not going to happen this time, Obama administration officials vow
. This time, as soon as the insurgents are chased out of town, U.S. aid will pour in to make Marja a model, modern community. U.S. and Afghan security forces will stay on, officials say, indefinitely.
What could make a difference is the capture by Pakistani and U.S. intelligence teams of the Taliban's top military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani
. His detention in Pakistan, where he is said to be talking with his captors, could at least temporarily paralyze the Taliban, hampering its ability to maneuver in southern Helmand Province.
This concept for the Marja operation grew out of the intense political-military studies undertaken last summer and fall by the Obama White House, counterinsurgency experts drawn from the State Department, CIA, the Pentagon and academia, and the battle staff of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top allied commander in Afghanistan. The problem was this: given limited military manpower (American, allied and Afghan) and an impatient and skeptical public at home, how could U.S. forces score an impressive victory and demonstrate that this eight-year war is not lost and could, in fact, be won?
Thus was conceived the idea to demonstrate, in microcosm, what U.S. counterinsurgency strategy could achieve in Afghanistan with a potent application of military and civilian power.
What was attractive about the idea of a mini-victory was that it would nimbly skip around the obstacles that the United States has placed in its own way in Afghanistan: too few troops, too few military resources, too few civilian reconstruction experts and too little time, attention and money. If there were too few combat troops spread across Afghanistan to be effective, that could be fixed by pouring Marines and soldiers into the town of Marja. If there were too few Afghan soldiers and police being trained and equipped to make all of Afghanistan secure, at least there could be enough for Marja. And if the U.S. civilian aid effort was under-funded, under-manned and disorganized, those problems could be fixed, at least temporarily, in Marja.
The hope behind Operation Moshtarak ("Together,'' in local Dari dialect), is that a victory in Marja can buy time for the same approach to be used elsewhere, at some point in the future.
Moreover, some of the planners told me, a victory -- clearing out the Taliban, setting up Afghan government services, bringing in civilian aid to restart a vibrant marketplace, open schools and begin weaning local farmers away from growing poppies -- could reverse the deepening pessimism about the war and convince Afghans and Americans alike of eventual victory.
And public opinion, in both Afghanistan and America, needs some shoring up. A series of polls
by the Independent Republican Institute found that Afghans who believe that their country is "headed in the right direction'' dropped from 67 percent in 2004 to 30 percent last year. A huge majority -- 68 percent -- said their government should talk to and reconcile with the Taliban, not try to kill them.
Here at home, meantime, opposition to the war has risen to 52 percent, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Poll
in January. After eight years of war that has killed or wounded 5,684 Americans, two-thirds of Americans said they believe neither side is winning in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is a notoriously difficult place to pull off elegant concepts conceived in faraway capitals. Ask Alexander the Great of Macedonia, or Alexander Burnes and William McNaughton
, two 19th
century British diplomats who led a well-intentioned but ill-fated expedition to Kabul. Or any of the Soviet officials who planned to create a new Afghanistan in the 1980s.
It's not likely that the United States will follow their fates in being violently ejected from Afghanistan. It seems more likely that the battle for Marja will dwindle into a peacekeeping operation which will, save for tragic combat deaths, be described as a success. The Taliban will regroup. Suicide bombers eventually will reappear in Marja. And the war will go on.
Meantime, of course, the larger war against Islamist extremists rages on well outside Marja, with a U.S. drone attack this morning in Pakistan
that reportedly killed four Taliban insurgents in North Waziristan. They were part of a network allied with al Qaeda and the brutal Haqqani gang who have been killing Pakistanis as well as U.S. troops and Afghan civilians across the border.
As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the war's various fronts, during a speech at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar, on Sunday, " Extremists have recently attacked pilgrims in Iraq with the intent of destabilizing the government and reigniting civil war. In Nigeria, extremists are exacerbating Muslim-Christian tensions. In Somalia, they are working to take down the government. And in Yemen, al-Qaeda seeks to exploit internal and regional divisions to create a new base for global terrorism.''
Even as American and Afghan troops continued what a spokesman described as "steady, methodical'' progress into Marja, Clinton summed up the U.S. policy toward Afghanistan: "The United States has no interest in occupying Afghanistan,'' she said, adding: "We also have no intention of abandoning Afghanistan.''