The major US-led offensive in Afghanistan against militants in Helmand Province is, according to reports, going well–military at least. This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise–militants were never going to offer much resistance in a stand-up fight against NATO. So realistically it’s always been about what happens next.
Writing on his Washington Note blog, Steve Clemons notes the eerie similarity in the way militants have apparently melted into the local population with the tactics of the Vietcong. He points to this passage in the New York Times to underscore his point:
‘On the first full day of operations, much of the expected Taliban resistance failed to materialize. Afghan and NATO troops discovered some bombs, narcotics and weapons caches, but the fighting itself was relatively desultory. There was certainly none of the eyeball-to-eyeball fighting that typified the battle for Falluja in Iraq in 2004, to which the invasion of Marja had been compared.
‘Abdul Rahim Wardak, the Afghan defense minister, said in a news conference in Kabul that the Afghan Army had suffered no dead at all, and only a handful of wounded. He seemed a little surprised at the day’s events.’
But even if the Taliban have fled the area following the considerable (deliberate) notice they were given of an impending offensive, winning the hearts and minds of locals fearful of their return will be no easy task. Locals will be left in a bind–do they trust NATO, which they know won’t be around forever, or hedge their bets.
And as analyst Juan Cole notes in his Informed Comment blog:
‘The Afghan government says it has 1900 police ready to go into Marjah and establish long-term order. But if these police prove corrupt, oppressive, or lazy (and many Afghan police are on the take and are regular drug users), then the area could easily fall back under Taliban rule.’