High Noon in Marjah

The battle will be won in Pakistan.

The aggressive new strategy in Afghanistan embraced by the Obama Administration, modeled on the successful “surge” in Iraq, is costly, with a third of all American casualties in the conflict occurring since the first reinforcements were sent in May 2009. The latest offensive in Marjah in Helmand Province is going slower than anticipated due to fierce resistance, and it is only a warm-up for a much larger battle in the coming months in Kandahar, the Taliban’s stronghold. And Pakistan remains the key to victory.

As tough as the fighting is in Marjah, the more difficult phase will be capitalizing on the military success by establishing local governance and civil institutions that have credibility with the Afghan people. The national flag now waves above the city and a new governor has taken power, and the fact that for every two foreign soldiers in the offensive there were three Afghan soldiers is very helpful. Roughly a quarter of the city still remains to be taken, but the last bastions of the Taliban forces are said to be running out of ammunition.

The international and Afghan forces now control the main roads and markets, but a significant amount of mines and roadside bombs planted by the Taliban still need to be located and dismantled. Afghan police forces, soldiers, and government workers from elsewhere in the country are being brought into Marjah, and over 2,000 people have taken jobs with the new administration.

The effort in Afghanistan is much more difficult because of the national government’s lack of credibility. The population, including many of those who voted for Karazai, is disenchanted because of the widespread fraud in the last election. Karzai’s latest decision to take control of the Electoral Complaints Commission so that he appoints all five members is a further blow to his credibility and that of the government. Unfortunately, transgressions such as these mean that the links between a national government and the people that are required for a functioning democracy probably cannot be re-established until Karzai leaves office. Luckily, the Taliban’s own failures will provide a sharp contrast to what the local administrations can offer, leaving open an opportunity for such links to be developed on the ground level that can prevent the Taliban from returning.

The Pakistani crackdown on the Taliban actually holds more long-term significance than the offensive in Marjah. The capture of Mullah Baradar, the second-in-command of the Taliban, is extremely significant as he had close control over every area of management. Subsequent analysis focused heavily on what caused the Pakistanis to finally arrest such figures operating on their soil, but new information helps to provide a clearer picture of what happened.

Mullah Baradar was not the target of the raid, and just happened to be among those arrested in what one American official described as a “lucky accident.” The Pakistani ISI intelligence service refused to allow the CIA to directly question him until two weeks after he was caught. Contrary to proving Pakistan’s credibility as an ally, the arrest of Baradar and their conduct in handling his interrogation actually indicts them, leaving no room for them to claim that the Taliban’s leadership isn’t in their country. It is certain that Baradar knows where Mullah Omar is located, and it is likely he has information on Bin Laden’s location as well, if reports that he was staying in Quetta last fall are accurate. The ISI’s delay and possible coaching of Baradar so their complicity can remain hidden may have led to losing some crucial opportunities.

The embarrassment of Baradar being captured in Karachi is a major factor in the arrest of several other figures in Pakistan, but it is still very possible that this tougher stance will be short-lived. Large amounts of Pakistani territory, particularly in Baluchistan, still need to be cleansed before the Taliban can be defeated, but this will require a lengthy, bloody battle that could quickly lose public support and exhaust the military’s resources.

Pakistan’s long-term commitment to the fight against the Taliban and other terrorist groups is in doubt, but their short-term cooperation is dealing the movement a mighty blow. Seven of the 15 members of the Quetta Shura Council that acts as their central headquarters have been captured by the Pakistanis. As The Long War Journal points out, this does not necessarily mean that half of the Taliban’s leadership has been eliminated, as there are four regional shuras and 10 committees that the Quetta Shura oversees. The four shuras are located in Quetta in Baluchistan Province; Peshawar in Northwest Frontier Province; Miramshah in North Waziristan; and the Gerdi Jangal refugee camp in Baluchistan Province. These captures are important, but the leadership has not been decapitated.

The drone strikes in Pakistan are also making the enemy pay a heavy toll. A son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a top Taliban commander, was recently killed in one. The Obama Administration is now launching three strikes a week on Pakistani soil on average, a three-fold increase from the days of the Bush Administration.

One more development on the Pakistani side deserves more attention. The Pakistani government wants to revise its law that charges those guilty of insulting Islam with blasphemy, carrying a penalty of death. This is a rebuke to extremists that argue that non-Muslims (which includes those they view as apostates) need to be violently targeted. President Zardari isn’t going to repeal the law, which would be truly bold, but it is positive that the government is trying to counter the viewpoint that such oppression is acceptable under that circumstance.

These successes provide much room for optimism, but that doesn’t mean the second phase of the surge in Afghanistan targeting Kandahar won’t be significantly bloodier. The Taliban’s strength has increased by 35 percent in the past two years, and now is estimated at about 27,000 fighters. The blood of Afghan and international soldiers and civilians is going to take the headlines, and their sacrifice can indeed prevent the Taliban from seizing parts of the country and bring stability to that country so that the West can be much safer. These sacrifices must be matched by sacrifices on the Pakistani side and the U.S. must make clear that if our soldiers are going to die in this war, we will accept nothing less than full cooperation from the Pakistanis.