The Battle for Marjah

The largest U.S.-led offensive to date in Afghanistan targets a Taliban stronghold.

After promising every spring to drive foreign troops out of Afghanistan and capture Kabul, the Taliban are now facing a powerful spring offensive of their own.

In a massive assault launched last Saturday – the biggest since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 – about 15,000 American, British and Afghan troops successfully breached Taliban defenses around Marjah in turbulent southern Afghanistan’s central Helmand province. With about 80,000 inhabitants, Marjah is the last Taliban-held city on Afghan soil and the center for 90 percent of the world’s heroin trade, a major source of insurgent funds.

Codenamed Operation Moshtarak (meaning “together” in the Dari language), the offensive got off to an excellent start when US troops surprised the estimated 2,000 Taliban defenders with a helicopter lift into the city center behind enemy lines. The daring attack seized important points, disrupting Taliban defensive plans and subjecting Taliban fighters to attacks from both front and rear.

Shock and awe: A helicopter assault by U.S. Marines caught the Taliban off guard in Marjah.

Since then, the going has, as expected, been tough. This is due to the Taliban having planted booby traps throughout the city as well as to their snipers. According to one report, the enemy is concentrating in a central bazaar and in a densely-populated residential neighborhood, which they are defending fiercely. “The Taliban have booby-trapped everywhere. We can’t even come out of our homes,” one Marjah resident told Reuters.

The Taliban have used Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) extensively in the Afghan conflict. But the weapon’s presence in Marjah is so widespread, Marine Captain Ryan Sparks called the IED threat “the most significant…that anybody has ever faced. “I know there’s pressure plates, command-detonated, kite-string and pressure release IEDs. That will definitely be a problem, the IEDs,” he said.

Clearing booby-trapped neighborhoods of enemy fighters in house-to-house fighting is a time-consuming process. Fortunately, the American army has the experience of the 2004 Battle of Fallujah in Iraq to draw on, in which American troops quickly defeated, street by street, several thousand enemy combatants. This experience should also help make the Marjah battle a short one. When all is lost, the Taliban fighters are expected to melt into the civilian population or flee, as some are reported to have already done.

But the task of clearing Marjah has been slowed and made more difficult by the extra sensitivity American and allied troops must now show regarding civilian casualties. This was caused by what is perhaps the biggest Taliban victory of the war so far, namely, the change made to the allied Rules of Engagement (ROE) last year.

Due to media controversies about civilian deaths, the ROE were altered and now state American and NATO troops have to be very careful when conducting operations around civilians. It is now much more difficult, for example, for western forces to drop smart bombs or missiles on targets where civilians might be present.

One military analyst claims the ROE change occurred because of the Taliban’s ability to manipulate the media and western journalists’ “enthusiasm for jumping on real, or imagined, civilian deaths”, since dead civilians are considered news. In other words, the Taliban, who are very media-savvy, successfully turned civilian casualties in Afghanistan into “a powerful propaganda weapon” that many in the western media ran with.

In the liberal media’s world, civilian death scandals have other uses besides selling newspapers and boosting viewer ratings. They also come in very handy for assailing the military. Worst of all, the media’s agonizing over civilian casualties in Afghanistan seems one-sided. Thus, one sees few stories about the countless civilians the Taliban have brutalized and killed. And yet, according to one report, the Taliban have killed four times as many civilians as American and NATO troops. But that kind of civilian casualty scandal does not make for headline news.

For example, one does not often see a quote like the following from an Afghan father whose son lost his leg to a Taliban roadside IED:

“I do not mind if I am killed, provided the Americans get rid of the Taliban. Those tyrants have taken my son’s leg.”

There have been even fewer stories about the brutal treatment of Marjah’s civilian population under Taliban rule. One report states that Marjah families were forced to give their daughters as wives to Taliban fighters. People have also been executed as “spies.”

Instead, in the first days of the assault, it appeared publications like the New York Times were more focused on the 12 Afghan civilians that were killed in a house outside Marjah by an American missile than on the battle and the heroism of our troops. At first, it was thought this was an errant air strike, for which General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander, apologized. But it later turned out fire was being received from the house.

In all probability, the Taliban were using the civilians as human shields. American and NATO troops have reported similar human shield incidents in the Marjah battle. Exploiting the ROE, the Taliban have used innocent civilians as cover in attacks against western soldiers in other parts of Afghanistan as well.

One analyst believes the changes to the ROE have not just increased the danger to the lives of western troops, but also to those of the civilians they were supposed to benefit. Since American troops in Marjah have to advance more slowly out of concern for the civilian population, this leaves civilians longer in the unpredictable and dangerous hands of the Taliban as well as prolongs the battle.

Besides the bravery and professionalism of American and allied soldiers, the real story of the Marjah battle is not how many civilians have been killed, as the liberal media like to emphasize, but how few. According to one report, 15 Afghans have perished so far in the fighting. This, one observer states, is “spectacularly low by historical standards.” But that, unfortunately, is not news.