Right now, in Afghanistan, in a joint US-Afghan operation is getting underway. In the wee hours of the morning, US Marines, paired with Afghan soldiers, began deploying into Marja, the Taliban’s main haven in Afghanistan. For weeks, NATO forces have been encircling Marja and broadcasting their intent to root out the Taliban there. As the New York Times notes, “The assault came as a surprise to no one.”
More surprising is the care and forethought put into the COIN strategy backing the assault on Marja. NATO is going in heavy with already identified “quick-impact” development projects—small projects designed to have an immediate, positive effect on the local populace like building wells—an Afghan civil administration ready to take control once the Taliban have been ousted, and NATO reconstruction teams ready with funding for longer-term reconstruction projects. While these might seem obvious components of a strategy designed not just to capture ground but to win sway over a skeptical population, they represent a sea-change after eight years of mishandling.
Still, it is imprudent to be overly optimistic. The duration of Taliban control of Marja (3 years) and repeated failures on the part of NATO to stick around will make it difficult to convince the denizens of Marja that NATO will be there for the long haul—the cautious Afghan may worry that cooperating with a transitory NATO force will earn them a label as a collaborator, inviting Taliban reprisals later.
Moreover, the Taliban have apparently dug-in in anticipation of the NATO operation. While there are reports that many Taliban fighters have fled, those that remain may have the capacity to render Marja a hornet’s nest, causing house-to-house fighting, incurring high civilian casualties ala the US assault on Fallujah in November 2004—descriptions of the staging of this operation bear an eerie similarity to that devastating attack. High civilian casualties, of course, will alienate the very people that NATO must win over in order to have modicum of success in Afghanistan.
Those concerns notwithstanding, it is heartening to hear the Marines and NATO use language that indicates a sincere responsiveness to the tenets of counterinsurgency. So long as those words translate into COIN-compliant kinetic activity, there may be hope for the eight-year NATO endeavor.