Offensive Against the Taliban a Test of Afghan Strategy

Marines launched a large attack on Taliban forces in the Helmand River Valley.

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Some 15,000 U.S., British, Afghan National Army forces have launched the largest attack on Taliban forces since President Obama signed orders to send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. What happens in this offensive, and in its aftermath, will be a considerable test of the U.S. military's ability to successfully work with Afghan forces and to protect the lives of Afghan civilians, a centerpiece of the new American strategy there.

The U.S. military has been eyeing the 85,000-person farming town of Marjain in the hostile Helmand River Valley for quite some time, and the Marines made no secret of the fact that an assault was on the way. By affording them plenty of heads-up time, U.S. troops hoped to encourage large groups of Taliban fighters to pack up and go. "We intend to go in big, strong, and fast," Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the commander of Marines in the south, said. The warnings were also intended, of course, to persuade civilians to leave.

This did not happen in large numbers, however,forcing troops to fight around local farmers and enabling insurgent forces to use locals as shields. This all presents a test for Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, who has vowed to dramatically decrease civilian casualties throughout the country. The U.S. military officials have acknowledged that a number of civilians have been killed since the operation began. The question is whether this turns locals against NATO forces. So far, this has not been the case, say U.S. officials. They point to local tribal members who are helping NATO forces find Taliban insurgents--and refusing them shelter when they are forced to flee hideouts.

But the goal of clearing the town could take weeks, U.S. commanders say. There is no shortage of snipers, sabotage, and hidden bombs as many Taliban fighters remain dug in and prepared to fight. They have had the benefit of distressingly good cover--a network of tunnels and ditches built by Americans decades ago to improve agriculture have for some years now been used by the Taliban to hide out, and to transport drugs and arms. 

As the offensive progresses, Pentagon officials have been closely watching to see how the Afghan National Army performs. The operation is the largest joint operation between Afghan and U.S. forces since the war began, and one battalion of Afghan soldiers has been paired with each Marine battalion.

The performance of the Afghan soldiers in the months to come is pivotal to the U.S. exit strategy. Obama has announced that U.S. forces will begin to leave Afghanistan by July 2011 if conditions on the ground permit. This will depend in large part on how prepared Afghan forces are to take over security operations.

To this end, Defense Secretary Robert Gates lobbied NATO partners during a trip to Europe to contribute troops not for combat, but to train Afghan soldiers and police. While NATO has agreed to send some 9,000 trainers, U.S. military commanders would like at least 4,000 more.

Senior defense officials expressed hope during Gates's overseas tour, which ended last week, that NATO would be willing to commit more forces as a result of Obama's previously-announced July 2011 drawdown date. "Now they see a strategy that makes sense," according to a senior defense official. "It's not an open-ended commitment." But it remains clear to commanders on the ground that Afghanistan will continue to be a primarily American endeavor for years to come.