March From Marjah

A sigh of relief settles over the United States news media as the Marjah campaign winds down to a temporary close. The operation began on February 13, but it had been announced weeks in advance. There was to be no surprise here. The plan was simple – make it clear that the U.S.-led force would enter the town in strength and force the Taliban insurgents to quit the field.

Indeed, it appears that the Taliban, as they did in 2001, hastened out of Marjah to other redoubts. But in 2001, they slowly reorganized and began guerrilla strikes against the U.S.-led forces. One reason for the Taliban returning with such ease was that the U.S-backed government of Afghanistan, led by Hamid Karzai, failed to earn the people’s trust. Its failure to provide basic services despite the vast amount of donor aid, and the corruption scandals fattened by that very aid, turned ordinary people towards the Taliban once more.

The latest strategy was designed to prevent such a lapse. Once the U.S.-led forces chased the Taliban out of town, the analysis went, the U.S.-backed “government in a box” would quickly set to work earning the people’s trust.

News that the guns are now largely silent, and that the government is in charge, renews faith in President Barack Obama’s judgment. More than half the U.S. population now supports military operations in Afghanistan, the proportion of supporters is up by about five percentage points since December. When General Stanley McChrystal spoke of the Marjah campaign, he characterized it as a “war of perceptions…. This is a not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants. Part of what we’ve had to do is convince ourselves and our Afghan partners that we can do this.”

No one needed to be convinced of the superior firepower in the hands of the U.S. Its armed forces came in with a blast, with an early death of 12 civilians. The Taliban had fled and the city fell in a flash. The Afghan National Army fell apart along with the city. It could not control itself and went on the rampage in Semitay bazaar, for which the U.S. Army had to pay thousands of dollars to shopkeepers in recompense.

Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. Ambassador and former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, wrote in a leaked cable to Washington, “We overestimate the ability of the Afghan security forces to take over.” He thought that nothing significant could come from these forces until 2013. Obama cannot wait that long. If it is all a matter of perceptions, as McChrystal put it, then it is enough to have them along for the ride, and hope that they do not smoke too much hashish  [or rape too many local boys, AC/JSC] during their operations.

The “government in a box” is equally chimerical. Haji Abdul Zahir, the Mayor of Marjah, is a native of the area who spent 15 years in Germany. The local people do not trust him. Then it turned out that in the 1990s he spent part of a four-year prison sentence in Darmstadt for attempted manslaughter of his son.

This does not bode well. Even less that he was highly recommended by Gulab Mangal, the Helmand Governor, and that he is a leader of the Alizai tribe. His judgment should be in question. So should that of the Kabul government, which hastened to send Deputy President Abdul Karrim Khalili to Marjah. Khalili spoke in his native Dari, a language not comprehended in this Pashtu-speaking area.

Marjah’s population has not welcomed the new invaders with flowers. Brigadier General Mohayden Ghori admitted that the force used by the U.S. aircraft destroyed many houses, but he hastened to ask the people to solve “our problems with negotiations, not with weapons”. The point was always not so much to take Marjah, as to hold Marjah. The entire game plan rests on people like Ghori being able to turn the population’s suspicions around. All this assumes that the Afghan people actually despise the Taliban, and await Kabul’s beneficence.

Few in the U.S. asked why the new surge struck Marjah, a town whose name is now as well known in the U.S. as in Kabul. The current U.S.-NATO  strategy is fairly clear. Since 2001, the NATO forces (mainly troops from the U.K., Canada and Holland) have avoided any major conflict with the Taliban. This meant that there was no strategy to uproot the social basis of the insurgency. The NATO troops simply fought off the Taliban and prevented their wholesale reappearance.

The current strategy also seeks to avoid a direct confrontation with the Taliban. It is geared toward breaking the Taliban’s logistics, namely its control over the opium trade. More than 40 per cent of Afghanistan’s opium comes from the Helmand river valley, the area known as “Little America”, the canal zone around Marjah and Nad-i-Ali, where the U.S. built irrigation canals in the 1950s and 1960s. The U.S’ counter-insurgency in Marjah will soon spread to other opium towns nearby.

Robert Gates, the U.S. Defence Secretary, visited Afghanistan on March 8 and signalled that the U.S. might soon begin an offensive inside Kandahar, which has a population of half a million.  Gates, standing among the troops in a base outside Kandahar, said: “There won’t be a D-Day that is climactic. It will be a rising tide of security as it comes.” There is no sense in a direct assault on such a heavily populated centre. It is better to pull out the roots of the Taliban, and create a loss of morale among its members.

It is not clear whether the strategy will succeed. It has, however, rattled the Taliban. The Pakistani military announced, as this campaign got under way, that it had arrested a number of key Taliban leaders, including Mullah Baradar, from its Quetta shura – the nerve centre of the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan’s Army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, arrived in Islamabad from Brussels at this time and said that “Pakistan does not want a Talibanized Afghanistan” and that “Pakistan wants no different from Afghanistan than it does for itself, which is peace.”

Kayani had been a reluctant player in the U.S. war on terror, but Obama’s election and Kayani’s close relationship with Admiral Michael Mullen turned him around. If the U.S. was going to be serious in its campaign against the Taliban, then Kayani wanted to be on what he considers the winning side. That, at any rate, is how the U.S. strategists see his volte-face.

In October 2009, the Quetta shura sent a letter to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) imploring it to “render assistance in the work of liberation of people and countries of the region from the claws of the colonialists and take a decisive stand regarding the West’s invasion of Afghanistan”.

This is a bit opportunistic and hopeful. The SCO was founded in 1996 by Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as a platform to help them deal with the type of political Islam represented by the Taliban.

The SCO countries, along with the four observers – India, Pakistan, Iran, and Mongolia – remain eager for some role in the Afghan crisis, although none of them is willing to shoulder the military burden as long as it is to serve U.S. interests.
Under U.S. military cover, India, the largest civilian donor, builds up its goodwill through civilian projects and China builds up its economic relations (it is busy mining in eastern Afghanistan). Russia was discomforted by the role of Richard Holbrooke as the Special Envoy to the region, for Holbrooke had played a decidedly anti-Russian game during the crisis in the Balkans in the 1990s. Equally, the Russians are unwilling to be allies of the Taliban. One might recall that it was the Taliban emirate which was the only country in the world to recognize the breakaway Chechen Republic, a move that soured its relations with Russia. There is no special fealty among the SCO countries for the Taliban. It is isolated.

But the SCO no longer languishes on the sidelines. It is likely that the Obama administration will take it more seriously than the Bush administration. In February 2009, the U.S. sent an envoy, Patrick Moon, to the SCO meeting in Moscow. Moon commended the SCO, saying that its actions “are positive steps and we will look at where we might be able to contribute” to the joint action plan between the SCO and Afghanistan. The U.S. has not allowed Afghanistan to join the SCO. The Obama administration wants Afghanistan to join some kind of NATO-led body. The tussle between NATO and the SCO around Afghanistan is clear, but it is now muted.

At the January meeting of the SCO, the member-states affirmed their commitment to the NATO operations, whose final intent they believed was the creation of an Afghan army. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) should not withdraw, they pointed out, until the Afghan army was able to provide security. In addition, they proposed that Kabul continue to talk to the “moderate” Taliban and seek a wider political dispensation for the current constitutional order. None of this is unfamiliar to Washington. It lines up with what Obama wants.

Washington is not the favored son of the SCO. Kyrgyzstan only recently shut down the Manas Air Base to U.S. traffic. Tensions between NATO and Russia continue. China remains under pressure to revalue its currency vis-a-vis the supine dollar. It is now clear that the U.S. will eventually withdraw from Afghanistan, whether or not by Obama’s deadline (scheduled to begin in July 2011).

The SCO is jockeying to position itself as the heir once NATO leaves. But when this idea was broached to several strategists in Washington, DC, they demurred. It seemed inconceivable to them that the U.S. government would hand over the region to the SCO. The Baghram Air Base seems to be one permanent footprint in the region, as does the newly planned “expanded embassy” in Islamabad. Marjah will be less the start of a departure, as far as these analysts are concerned, than the beginning of a new hegemony in the region. That is, if the U.S. strategy for Marjah pans out.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at:



Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).