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Night Falls on the Taliban: Nine years on, Western forces launch a ground war in Afghanistan. (U.S. Army / Spc. Victor Egorov)
Some 6,000 American, British, Canadian and Afghan forces launched Operation Moshtarak today, attacking the Taliban stronghold of Marja, a town of 80,000 in southern Afghanistan. (Moshtarak is Dari for "together.") The Times calls it "the largest offensive military operation since the American-led coalition invaded the country in 2001."
In fact, it is the largest assault involving American troops on Afghan soil ever.
In 2001, U.S. troops numbering only in the dozens--mostly Special Forces, plus CIA operatives--were used on the ground to assist Northern Alliance Afghan fighters as they overran Taliban positions in October and November. It was overwhelming U.S. air power that demolished the Taliban and sent it literally scurrying for the hills before it regrouped and successfully changed strategy, when the Bush administration was paying attention elsewhere.
Even at Tora Bora in mid-November 2001, when Osama bin Laden was pinned but allowed to slip away, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld refused to send in U.S. troops. "Fewer than 100 American commandos were on the scene with their Afghan allies and calls for reinforcements to launch an assault were rejected," according to a recent report by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Requests were also turned down for U.S. troops to block the mountain paths leading to sanctuary a few miles away in Pakistan. The vast array of American military power, from sniper teams to the most mobile divisions of the Marine Corps and the Army, was kept on the sidelines."
The reason? "Rumsfeld said at the time that he was concerned that too many U.S. troops in Afghanistan would create an anti-American backlash and fuel a widespread insurgency. Reversing the recent American military orthodoxy known as the Powell doctrine, the Afghan model emphasized minimizing the U.S. presence by relying on small, highly mobile teams of special operations troops and CIA paramilitary operatives working with the Afghan opposition. Even when his own commanders and senior intelligence officials in Afghanistan and Washington argued for dispatching more U.S. troops, Franks refused to deviate from the plan." Gen. Tommy Franks was the architect of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Today's assault on Marja is a 180-degree shift in strategy. It's not quite back to the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming the opponent with massive force. The United States has around 100,000 troops in all of Afghanistan, a country the size of Texas. But it's getting closer to the Powell Doctrine as possible. U.S. troops are in the thick of battle. They are, to use a phrase George W. Bush loved to use but never enacted in Afghanistan, "taking the fight to the enemy."
It hasn't been a pitched battle. Early reports suggest that the Taliban is up to its old tricks. Just as in 2001 it scurried off positions it had held to regroup elsewhere, it appears to have quit Marja well ahead of time, which may also have been part of the American plan. "Major General Nick Carter, Nato commander of forces in southern Afghanistan, said Afghan and coalition troops, aided by 60 helicopters, made a 'successful insertion' into Marjah without incurring any casualties," Britain's Independent reports.
There was never an element of surprise in the assault. The attack was advertised weeks ahead of time, as much to drown the Taliban in dread as to give them a chance to withdraw--and minimize American casualties. It's one way to fight a war, probably the best way: not to have to fight it. But phase two in the American strategy is holding the towns and terrains cleared of Taliban forces and influence. And doing so with Afghan forces, mostly. That's where the new strategy will be tested. We all know that American power can drop big bombs and take over towns. But can it hold them? Can Afghan forces?
The Taliban knows: every hill and cranny can be a Tora Bora.
- Barry Kolodkin: Operation Moshtarak in Afghanistan is Underway
- Why an Afghan Troop Surge Won't Work: The Karl Eikenberry Memos
- What and How to Win in Afghanistan
- A Chronological Guide to the War in Afghanistan
- Isn't It Time to Leave Afghanistan? - You Decide
- Predators Among Them: Why Al-Qaeda Is Lashing Out