The Next Battle in Marja Will be About Governance
In Afghanistan thousands of NATO and Afghan troops in the so-called Poppy Belt are still working to stabilize the town of Marja, which they wrestled from Taliban control last week. The operation has been difficult due to geography--Marja is not far from the Pakistani border which for years the Taliban have been able to cross almost freely. But the struggle to win the city also stems from the intrinsic nature of the Taliban in the lives of the region's people.
The city most synonymous with Operation Moshtarak is now under NATO and Afghan control but it remains unclear how well it will prosper with a new government and an economy which has been dependent on opium produced with Taliban-sponsored loans.
On Tuesday, in a NY Times Op-Ed Joshua Foust wrote:
Unfortunately, Western leadership is undecided about the nature of the place itself. Depending on which official is speaking, Marja is either a teeming "population center" of 85,000 residents or an isolated farming town of about 50,000 or a district with about 125,000 people. But if Marja is a district, it is unrecognized by the Afghan Interior Ministry. And if Marja is a town, then it needs to hold a constitutionally mandated election to choose a mayor, and not face a governor forced upon it by Kabul.
Regardless of Marja's status, the choice of new "district governor," Haji Abdul Zahir, does not make sense. Mr. Zahir has lived in Germany for the last 15 years and had never set foot in Marja until two weeks ago.
After previous operations in Afghanistan, it's become apparent that major, organized offensives can have little lasting impact, fragmenting and scattering Taliban fighters only to have them regroup and once again occupy areas that took so much time and so many resources to clear.
To make sure this wasn't all a waste, the plan to stop them from coming back will have to be one that benefits the people in a way the Taliban couldn't. If Marja was really a test of Obama's new Afghanistan strategy, it's hard to know whether the model for shifting power will be a sustainable one.