Contemplating Post-Conflict Governance in Marjeh, Pt. 2

by Joshua Foust on 3/2/2010 · 13 comments

I have an op-ed in Wednesday’s New York Times, further discussing the prospects for securing the peace in Marjeh:

THIS year will be the third in a row that tens of thousands of new United States troops have arrived in Afghanistan with plans to “clear, hold and build” areas controlled by the Taliban. Those previous surges have achieved little success at holding or building, as the international coalition and Afghan government have inevitably failed to come up with realistic plans for what happens after the fighting is done. Is the campaign in Marja destined for the same fate?

The international coalition’s strategic goal for Afghanistan is to build “an enduring stable, secure, prosperous and democratic state.” Only by focusing on the messy medium-term stages of reconstruction — those months, and possibly years, after the fighting dies down — do we have any chance of achieving such a goal. In this regard, Marja presents us with four distinct hurdles.

Now, this might seem unusually credulous for me, given my normal predilection for ranting about how dumb everyone is. Indeed, as a friend pointed out, this veers surprisingly close to endorsing the McChrystal Strategy, something I have been weirdly alone in criticizing.

The easiest explanation for this is, I am trying to be constructive. I remain convinced, as I have been since the beginning, that Marjeh is a strategic backwater with almost no “real” importance to the Afghan campaign. And I am genuinely concerned about the most recent plans to tie up a significant number of Afghan security forces in the area when I think they should be used to help secure more important, more populous areas. Despite my deep skepticism, even pessimism, of the specific mission here it doesn’t seem like I’m expressing that very well.

So, since I cannot change that we are in Marjeh, and because I cannot change the time frame on which our ADD-saddled leaders are leaping into Kandahar, AND because I think our record of our mowing the lawn in an area then withdrawing is one of unmitigated failure, I want them to do this right, or at least as right as they can. If we just pull out to fry bigger fish, Marjeh will be significantly worse off than it was before we went in—even less receptive down the road to the legitimate government or coalition troops, even more dangerous for roads and sniper fire, and so on.

This (along with my discussion of how to establish property rights in the area) is my attempt to map out at least a vague plan to make things work. It’s not perfect by any means, and not even ideal. But it’s what we have, and I would rather us succeed partially than just fail again.


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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 13 comments }

cantueso March 3, 2010 at 5:28 am

I read your article in the IHT. I wonder whether Americans, since they have never been invaded, can’t imagine what it feels like. Otherwise, how could it be that the mistakes are so very basic?

Can’t an American imagine what it would be like if big armed foreigners destroyed your potato fields and then stood by the dozen around your town watching your supermarket, your schools, your business center for weeks or months?

anan March 3, 2010 at 11:10 am

American revolutionaries 1775-1783 would have understood. They requested and got substantial foreign help. In fact, foreign forces largely won America’s freedom for her. Large French conventional armies occupied America and fought alongside the Continental armies; not to even discuss the many French embedded combat advisors.

By contrast the Afghans, and their ANSF, are playing a larger role in fighting for Afghan freedom against the Taliban than American revolutionaries played in fighting for American freedom against the British.

Contueso, the US had no problem accepting foreign help during the 1812-1815 war with England either. Nor did the South during 1861-1865. The south wanted the French, Spanish and UK to directly intervene on their side against the Union. The Confederates nearly succeeded in their lobbying.

Why did the Confederacy want large foreign occupation armies to help them fight the Union?

cantueso, I don’t think Afghans want foreigners to fight for them. Rather they want foreigners to train, equip and fund the ANSF, and civilian Afghan institutions, so that they can defeat the Taliban and transform Afghanistan into a successful and prosperous nation.

BTW, Afghans are often frustrated by the “incompetence” of the foreign forces in their mission. Sometimes Afghans even feel that the foreign forces are supporting the Taliban against them.

Fabius Maximus March 3, 2010 at 11:31 pm

I don’t believe this is correct about either the American Revolutionary or Civil Wars.

French forces were active in the Revolutionary War only for 2 years. First was the fleet of d’Estaing from July 1778 to October 1779, active in the Battle of Rhode Island and the Siege of Savannah — but did not occupy territory. Later was the larger and more important expedition headed by Rochambeau, July 1780 – through Yorktown in October 1781. But this was only 5500 men (supplemented at times by other units), involved in many battles but no occupying and holding territory.

As for the Civil War, the South hoped for financial aid (such as the large and critical sums provided by France and Spain during the Revolution), but not large numbers of troops. And even those hopes were dashed. Egypt’s cotton replaced that from the South. Nor were the strict Methodists and Baptists of the English mill towns likely to ally with Satan and slavers in exchange for worldly advantage.

anan March 4, 2010 at 1:36 am

Fabius Maximus, in 1775 on the French provided 90% of all gunpowder used by the revolutionaries free of charge. The US revolutionaries were largely a French funded and French advised phenomenon.

During the revolutionary war, perhaps 1/3 were for the French backed revolutionaries. 1/3 were neutral. And 1/3 were Loyalists.

The revolutionaries were helped greatly by France going to war with England in 1778, Spain going to war with England in 1779, Netherlands going to war with England in 1780, the Marathas fighting with England 1775-1783, Mysore fighting with England 1780-1784, Catherine the Great’s hostile neutrality.

While negotiations between the British and Revolutionaries began in 1781; the war in the America’s raged on at a rapid clip 1781 to 1783. If the British had won major military victories against the French and revolutionaries in 1782, the British negotiating position would likely have hardened.

You understate the degree to which the revolutionaries were dependent on French money, equipping, logistics, training and advising; and France’s importance in winning many key battles.

The US revolutionary war was really a civil war where the French/Spanish (lesser degree Dutch) backed the revolutionaries against their loyalist and British countrymen. Granted the British used German Hessians and others in America too.

I think the model ISAF, OMLT/ETTs, and NTM-A should use for Afghanistan is the French advising model during the US revolutionary war. I have read actual ANA advisers writing the same thing.

McChrystal’s emphasis on “Embedded Partnering,” “Combined Action” and “Combined Partnership” or joint ANA/ISAF headquarters at the Corps HQs and Brigade HQs level; is a step in this direction.

Today, the chief ISAF advisor for 201st ANA Corps–RC East DCG BG Chinn–also commands all RC-East assets in 201st ANA’s battlespace. Similarly the chief ISAF advisor for 203rd ANA Corps–RC East DCG BG Fuller–also commands all RC-East assets in 203rd ANA’s battlespace.

Gjon March 4, 2010 at 9:35 am

Not only that, look at some of the leadership of the Brigades of the Revolutionary and Civil War. Revolutionary Leadership were names like Lafayette, Von Steuben, Pulaski, Kosciusko, and L’Enfant. The armies of Washington in the North and Howe to Green in the South had armies that were up to 1/2 first generation immigrants, and up to 1/3 non-English (Scots and Irish were still “separate” to some extent–like the FATA). Additionally, the US Civil War was a proxy war between Britain and France. Read any English-centric history book of that era, and it becomes clear that the Brits gave up because of a failing economy and the need for troops on the Continent, and decided a “potentially friendly” English speaking partner across the Atlantic was better than a French speaking enemy 20 miles across the Channel.
In the Civil War, again, 1/3 of both armies were first generation immigrants, and had immigrant commanders like Corcoran, Meagher, Schoepf, Sigel, and Trobriand. Plus look at all the troops from Austria-Germany, Ireland and Italy who came to America after they were kicked out of their own nation for being the wrong religion and taking leading roles in the Papal Wars of the mid-1800’s, and it cannot be said that other nations had no interest in the American Civil War.

Gjon March 4, 2010 at 9:42 am

Anan;
Thank you.
This is what I’ve been trying to tell NATO in Kosovo and US Army in Afghanistan. Read American Revolutionary history. Read about our Founding Fathers being smugglers, organized crime figures and turncoats. Yes, they were Great and Educated men — but that’s exactly how our adversaries see their own leaders.
Second, Western Military commanders have to stop seeing their adversaries as “warrior-monks”, the leaders of these groups have vested economic and political goals in mind. “We” are the warrior-monks, no US commander sees the end state as gaining some booty or land to occupy, in perpetuity. But they fight merely because he was trained and told to do so.

Fabius Maximus March 4, 2010 at 11:08 am

I totally agree with you that the American Revolutionary War was heavily sponsored by France and Spain.

My objection was to this: ” Large French conventional armies occupied America”. As indicated above, that is not correct, and is a substantial difference between that war and the Af-Pak War.
* Foreign troops fighting alongside — and UNDER THE DIRECTION OF — the local troops tend be seen as heros. * Foreign troops as occupiers and commanding the locals tend to become hated invaders.

Nor have I ever seen evidence that the Confederacy wanted “large foreign occupation armies to help them fight the Union”.

This is an important point, commonly glossed over in discussion of the Af-Pak War.

Gjon March 4, 2010 at 1:43 pm

My objection was to this: ” Large French conventional armies occupied America”. As indicated above, that is not correct, and is a substantial difference between that war and the Af-Pak War.

While I hate getting caught up in a debate about colonial history on an Afghanistan blog…

Flavius, I think you’re too caught up by the term “occupy”.
So, if the Siege of Savannah had been successful, the French – who made up more than half of the forces involved – would not have “occupied” the town? Isn’t that a bit far fetched?

Are you really suggesting that the French would not have taken a portion of the town to station its troops and controlled a bastion?

And to say “they were only there for 2 years” overlooks two simple facts;
1) The French Army and Navy fought the British the entire Revolutionary Period, everywhere in the Western Hemisphere, not just America. They were in the Indies, the Eastern Atlantic (West Africa) and Canada, all trying to subvert the British. If the French were not in those areas, the British would have brought more power to bear on the rebelling colonists.
2) The French were there at the end for the decisive victory. They had a share in the spoils, namely, they regained possessions in the Indies and Africa they had lost in the French Indian War. In this case, they absolutely became an occupying force where they fought, but people forget the fight was not all in America.

* Foreign troops fighting alongside — and UNDER THE DIRECTION OF — the local troops tend be seen as heros. * Foreign troops as occupiers and commanding the locals tend to become hated invaders.

In both the Civil War and Revolutionary war, foreign commanders ABSOLUTELY led locals in battle. von Steuben in the Revolution and Meagher in Civil War being the most glaring examples. Both are seen as heroic figures, and today, statues to both populate our landscape. Thus, I can’t by the generalization that foreign troops are hated. They are only hated when they don’t win.

MILNEWS.ca March 3, 2010 at 7:13 am

Good piece in the NYT – just one question: when you say two battalions should live in Marjah, do you mean ISAF, AFG or both?

Jim Luther March 3, 2010 at 12:46 pm

3 editorials in the New York Times today describing domestic and foreign REALITIES. Why don’t policy makers and politicians GET IT ????

RICHARD CAHALL March 3, 2010 at 1:24 pm

“an enduring stable, secure, prosperous and democratic state.” Come again? How long do those with troops in Afghanistan think that the Pakistanis will hold still for being surrounded by democracies?

Toryalay Shirzay March 3, 2010 at 2:20 pm

The Taliban base is the Afghan village and their main base is in Pakistan.Until these bases are no longer available to the Taliban,this war will continue.Because the Pakis have nuclear weapons,this makes them feel very cocky which in turn make them want to control Afghanistan.And the money flowing into Pakistan from US and Arabs comes quite handy for this purpose.This is why US/NATO are making little progress in Afghanistan.

Gjon March 3, 2010 at 4:00 pm

[NATO Forces] shouldn’t build a new base outside the town for this, or “commute” to the area from strongholds in Helmand like Camp Leatherneck. They should live right inside the town, providing security and guidance from within. You can’t have a “population-centric” counterinsurgency unless you take care of the people.

Agreed.
The worst thing the military in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan did was to build montrosities like Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, seal off presidential palaces like Camp Victory in Iraq or “hole up” in airports like Nha Trang in Vietnam or Bagram AB in Afghanistan.
Major General Flynn’s report should be seen as a stirring critique of that strategy:

Anti-insurgent efforts are, in fact, a secondary task when compared to gaining and exploiting knowledge about the localized contexts of operation and the distinctions between the Taliban and the rest of the Afghan population. There are more than enough analysts in Afghanistan. Too many are simply in the wrong places and assigned to the wrong jobs. It is time to prioritize U.S. intelligence efforts and bring them in line with the war’s objectives.

The US and Coalition military needs to relearn the lessons from WWII, if you desire to affect the population, you need to live among them. when they are part of the community, their lives, their social networks and their money have more affect and effect on the community. But, of course, more soldiers may die via targeted killings, and that will be what receive more attention, not the actual benefit that living within their community had in stopping insurgency.

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