The Obama Administration’s clear-hold-build-leave strategy in Afghanistan is crucially dependent on the Afghan’s central government’s ability to displace the Taliban with clean local governance throughout a rugged country larger than Texas, with a population of 28+ million, where the vast majority of people live in small hamlets and villages. To this end, the combined forces clearing operation in Marjah, a poppy growing area of home to about 80,000 in southern Helmand Province, was to be a model operation. After clearing out the Taliban and setting up a “Hold” zone (a series of positions outside of town occupied by two battalions Marines and Afghan forces to secure the area), the operation was to be followed by the cookie-cutter installation of what the commander, General Stanley McChrystal, called a “government in a box” -- which to work, must be an honest government that will immediately go to work at improving the lot of the locals.
As usual, the Taliban, like all competent guerrilla forces when faced with superior firepower, bugged out ahead of the combined Nato-Afghan sweep through Marjah. Now, as Jeffrey Fleishman reports in the 7 Mar 2010 issue of the LA Times, it is beginning to look like McChrystal’s “government in a box” will be led by a typical thuggish representative of the morally challenged Karzai clique, which has a history of plundering those they rule. It turns out that the new leader, Abdul Zahir, a man who vowed “to bring back dignity and prosperity” to Marjah (a fertile opium growing area), stabbed his own son, was convicted of manslaughter, and served time in a German slammer. Just the sort of man to win the hearts and minds of those he rules.
The Marjah operation is off the front pages, and recent reports indicate the next target in our new strategy is the much more formidable Pashtun city of Qandahar, with population of about a million. But Marjah is not over. The people of Marjah know the Taliban are lurking in the shadows, waiting to install a another shadow government, when the US inspired “government in a box” does not win their hearts and minds, and the US focus of effort is elsewhere.