STAFF NEWS & ANALYSIS
NY Times: Marja Undone?
By - April 05, 2010

Just a few weeks since the start of the operation here, the Taliban have "reseized control and the momentum in a lot of ways" in northern Marja, Maj. James Coffman, civil affairs leader for the Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, said in an interview in late March. "We have to change tactics to get the locals back on our side." Col. Ghulam Sakhi, an Afghan National Police commander here, says his informants have told him that at least 30 Taliban have come to one Marine outpost here to take money from the Marines as compensation for property damage or family members killed during the operation in February. "You shake hands with them, but you don't know they are Taliban," Colonel Sakhi said. "They have the same clothes, and the same style. And they are using the money against the Marines. They are buying I.E.D.'s and buying ammunition, everything." – New York Times

Dominant Social Theme: It is necessary to try harder.

Free-Market Analysis: This is a surprising story, given the ordinary lack of real reporting about what's going on in Afghanistan. Marja, which the Times spells without an "h" on the end, is not a city, not even town, it turns out. Just a rural, agrarian collective, though that's not how it was reported when the Marines were initially storming it. Then the reports seemed to paint Marja as an urban enclave with physical landmarks that could be overtaken and "secured." There were pictures of the Afghan army raising the Afghan flag, and much was written about the parts of Marja that the Marines and their allies had pacified.

The plan, once Marja was taken, was to drive the Taliban out of Marja for good while basically dropping bucket-loads of money into the agrarian retreat to reconfigure the local impulse, which is to grow poppies that can be used for drug-making. The Marines were even giving away seeds to encourage residents to turn to food-crops. The weakness of the plan, as we've pointed out in several articles, is that the Taliban is not a distinct fighting force, not an invading army that can be driven from the premises because the Taliban draws its resources and men primarily from the 40-million strong Pashtun tribe that occupies the areas the Marines are currently trying to liberate. The Marines are therefore in a position of trying to free the locals from themselves. Marja is not Taliban free because Marja is Pashtun. And some Pashtun are Taliban. Here's some more from the article:

"You shake hands with them, but you don't know they are Taliban," Colonel Sakhi said. "They have the same clothes, and the same style. And they are using the money against the Marines. They are buying I.E.D.'s and buying ammunition, everything." One tribal elder from northern Marja, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being killed, said in an interview on Saturday that the killing and intimidation continued to worsen. "Every day we are hearing that they kill people, and we are finding their dead bodies," he said. "The Taliban are everywhere."

The local problem points to the larger challenges ahead as American forces expand operations in the predominantly Pashtun south, where the Taliban draw most of their support and the government is deeply unpopular. In Marja, the Taliban are hardly a distinct militant group, and the Marines have collided with a Taliban identity so dominant that the movement appears more akin to the only political organization in a one-party town, with an influence that touches everyone. Even the Marines admit to being somewhat flummoxed.

"We've got to re-evaluate our definition of the word 'enemy,' " said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marine expeditionary brigade in Helmand Province. "Most people here identify themselves as Taliban … We have to readjust our thinking so we're not trying to chase the Taliban out of Marja, we're trying to chase the enemy out," he said. "We have to deal with these people."

The Times article makes a point of reminding readers of the bloodthirsty nature of the Taliban. But Taliban spokespeople and others continue to point to the continued depredations inherent in night raids by American special forces. These raids have not stopped, apparently, despite the focus on presenting a kinder and gentler face allied face to Pashtun/Afghans. And when there are other incidents of mistaken violence against Afghan civilians – as there must be in a shooting war – the news is broadcast far and wide by anti-American/allied agents.

While the news in Marja may be disconcerting to the American/allied high command, what is probably almost as upsetting are Hamid Karzai's continued verbal attacks aimed at both the UN and American/allied forces within Afghanistan. After Karzai's first outburst, the Afghan president reportedly called US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to apologize. But it seems the apology was premature as Karzai continued his rhetorical attacks days later, as the Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday:

President Hamid Karzai lashed out at his Western backers for the second time in three days on Saturday, accusing the U.S. of interfering in Afghan affairs and saying the Taliban insurgency would become a legitimate resistance movement if the meddling doesn't stop. Mr. Karzai, whose government is propped up by billions of dollars in Western aid and nearly 100,000 American troops fighting the Taliban, made the comments during a private meeting with about 60 or 70 Afghan lawmakers.

At one point, Mr. Karzai suggested that he himself would be compelled to join the Taliban if the Parliament didn't back his controversial attempt to take control of the country's electoral watchdog from the United Nations, according to two of those who attended the meeting. The people included a close ally of the president. Mr. Karzai's latest remarks came less than 24 hours after he assured U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that he was committed to working with the U.S. That phone call followed a similar, but less vitriolic, anti-Western diatribe that the Afghan president delivered earlier in the week.

After Friday's call, U.S. and Afghan officials said they were putting the incident behind them and moving on. Mr. Karzai's fresh round of accusations against the U.S. and its allies laid bare his deep distrust of the West and was likely to further damage an already bruised relationship. The U.S. Embassy here declined to comment on Saturday's speech.

Karzai seems to have made a determination that he would rather alienate the West than his own tribesman, a fairly logical conclusion in that the Pashtuns are not known as a forgiving people and it is generally acknowledged that American/allied forces are not going to wipe out 40 million Pashtuns. Absent "total war," Karzai will have to face his own people and negotiate with them over time. But while the Americans want to drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan, so that Karzai can negotiate from a position of strength, Karzai seems not to want to wait.

The situation is in Afghanistan is complicated by renewed violence in Iraq, which has suffered from a "hung" election that has not yet been resolved and may not be for another month or longer. Car bombs have been going off, injuring both Shias and Sunnis, and there is said to be growing bitterness among Sunnis (non-Persian Muslims) over their reduced role in Iraq governance. If political instability mounts in Iraq, it could complicate plans to transfer troops from Iraq to Afghanistan to participate in the planned, upcoming military surge.

As if all this were not enough, we have noted recently that the rhetoric against Iran has stepped up quite a bit, with insider sources in Washington DC grimly predicting that some sort of action may be taken against Iran since that country refuses to suspend or otherwise ameliorate its nuclear programs. In fact, we have wondered if all the military activity that the US is engaged in is not purposeful – a way of drawing citizens' eyes away from economic difficulties at home. Despite the administration's protestations that the economy is improving, unemployment remains high and it seems to us there is no clear indication that the economy has turned the corner, even after two years' efforts.

And of course, as we have speculated before (and in today's other article) there are compelling reasons why the Obama administration may not want the economy to improve too quickly – if one of the administration's unspoken goals is to create closer ties to America's northern and southern neighbors, especially Mexico, which is virtually imploding under successive waves of drug violence and the generous application of narco-terror. Regardless of intention, the administration, by bailing out too-big-too fail corporations has done much to retard a fast recovery, despite its rhetoric. Supporting failed enterprises only perpetuates the economic distortions that bankruptcy is designed to reduce.

We have no idea if the administration really intends a further military escalation in the Middle East – up to and including a strike on Iran. Some have pointed out that Israel might take matters into its own hands, but we have a hard time believing that Israel would "go it alone."

What is certainly true is that America's Middle East wars and the economic war against recession being waged at home are playing out in real time on the Internet. Hard times have made people aware of many questionable policies pursued by the current administration – most of which admittedly are carried over from the past Bush presidency. But if Obama cannot find a way to extricate the US from Afghanistan, cannot bring America's involvement in Iraq to a successful closure and cannot definitively bring the American economy back from its current doldrums, the administration and the country may face a kind of perfect storm of discontent.

After Thoughts

The scenario we are painting would obviously have significant economic and investment impacts, and it is likely one reason among many that precious metals – especially gold – have continued to make higher highs. With so much in flux, it seems to us that the American administration is playing a dangerous game. Add domestic unrest to the picture, and the challenges become a even more complex. As Frank Rich pointed out in today's other staff article (click here to read), it may indeed take a kind of Superman to solve them.

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