KABUL, Afghanistan — Six years before U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Matthew McClintock was killed in a firefight on the outskirts of Marjah, thousands of Marines were poised to strike that same patch of ground in a battle that coalition commanders confidently predicted would mark the beginning of the end of the Taliban insurgency.
The plan was for Marines to sweep through Marjah and its opium poppy fields, driving out the insurgents, and then roll out a prepackaged local government to resolve all the complaints of villagers who had rallied to the Taliban cause. Lessons learned in Marjah could then be applied nationwide.
“We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in,” Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and international forces, told The New York Times in February 2010. On the eve of battle, the commander of British troops, Brig. James Cowan, told his soldiers the Marjah operation “will mark the start of the end of the insurgency.”
Today, Marjah is back under Taliban control. McClintock’s death on Jan. 5 illustrates how badly things have deteriorated since the United States began pulling out its troops and NATO ended its combat mission a year ago.
Experts say U.S. officials failed to take into account how much time and resources it would take to cement gains won on the battlefield.
U.S. and British troops did take control of the collection of rough farming villages that make up Helmand province’s Marjah district and nearby Nad Ali. But the hope that a “government in a box” would cement those gains proved illusory.
Despite years of fighting in Helmand that cost nearly 1,000 foreign troops’ lives, effective local governance never took hold in many rural areas.
“In a counterinsurgency, you’re only as good as the government you support, and in Marjah, the government didn’t have the support of the people,” said David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency expert and author.
In 2010, Operation Moshtarak — Dari for “together” — as the campaign to retake Marjah was known, went well militarily. Marines captured the area, and the Taliban melted away. It was the beginning of the so-called troop surge, an influx of foreign troops sent in to roll back a suddenly resurgent Taliban, and this was its much-publicized showpiece, touted for weeks before the actual operation.
“As we push the Taliban out, there is nothing but a bright future ahead: good schools, good health clinics, a free-flowing market,” Marine Lt. Col. Brian S. Christmas said during a meeting with Marjah elders, according to a 2010 U.S. military news release.” Marjah can do nothing but grow, and what a great place to grow because there is an awful lot here.”
Even the choice of the name for the operation carried foreboding for the pending governing and development portion of the counterinsurgency effort, which pinned success on winning over the people. “Moshtarak” is a Dari word, and Dari is largely the language of the country’s north; residents of the southern province of Helmand overwhelmingly speak Pashto and often feel little kinship with Dari speakers.
Although guerrilla fighters scattered in the face of U.S. firepower, the Taliban maintained a covert presence, and the governance side went wrong almost immediately after the violence subsided.
With no eyes and ears on the ground inside the Taliban-controlled area before their operation, U.S. forces had trouble discerning friend from foe once local fighters put down their weapons, said Dr. Theo Farrell, head of the department of war studies at King’s College London who has conducted assessments for American and British forces in Afghanistan. Many of the Taliban who had controlled Marjah melted back into the population, coming out at night to intimidate the population, keeping many from openly supporting the government.
Since the command wanted to woo fighters away from the Taliban, troops were told in effect to tolerate their presence as long as the fighters didn’t openly threaten them.
“It was impossible for ISAF to get intelligence assets into Marjah ahead of time,” Farrell said of the International Security Assistance Force, as the NATO-led coalition was known then. “No one knew what was happening in Marjah. How can you realistically go in and rapidly establish governance in a place where you don’t know what was happening?”
McChrystal’s hand-picked Marjah district governor, Abdul Zahir Aryan, had spent the last 15 years in Germany, four of them in prison for stabbing his stepson, who intervened when Aryan was beating his wife. In Marjah, he lived on a U.S. military base, was out of touch with a country he had left so many years before and was despised by local residents. He lasted six months in the job before being quietly removed. He was later murdered under mysterious circumstances.
Dari-speaking Afghan soldiers brought from other parts of the country were nearly as ill-prepared as Americans to keep abreast of what was happening around them.
Also, there was no concurrent wave of foreign civilians behind the military to help build up government structures, the local economy and, perhaps most crucially, a local justice system, Kilcullen said.
A breakdown in law and order and the terror of rapacious warlords during Afghanistan’s bloody civil war in the early 1990s is exactly what led to the Taliban’s initial popularity — locals saw them and their strict brand of Islamic justice at first as a brutal but welcome alternative to the murder, rape and robbery that had become the norm.
It’s a history of which Kilcullen says many in the international coalition were ignorant, and those who did understand it lacked the resources to address the problem.
“We always kind of treated the rule of law as a secondary issue, but it’s fundamental to the life of Afghans,” he said.
Despite all of the problems, U.S. and British forces did achieve enough security gains while they were there to allow some infrastructure-building and stability in the area. They built schools, dug wells and fixed roads.
While experts agree that there were multiple failures in the reconstruction effort in Marjah and across Helmand, the main factor they point to in the near-Taliban takeover last year was simply that international troops left.
Former Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak said the coalition was too eager to end its war and that the administration of then-President Hamid Karzai pushed too hard for foreign troops to leave and give Afghans a chance to secure their own country before they were ready to take over the fight.
“The whole transition process was premature,” said Wardak, who served during the initial Marjah invasion and left office in 2012. “The international community wanted to relieve itself of the burden, and in the meantime, the Afghan government pushed for national sovereignty.”
Successful counterinsurgency operations generally take 10 to 15 years, Kilcullen said. The surge lasted 30 months.
“We just didn’t put the time in,” he said.
A most dangerous posting
What the U.S. and their its allies left behind when they turned over the Helmand military hub Camp Leatherneck to Afghan control at the end of 2014 was a still-shaky Afghan security force and even more lackluster local political leaders who were unprepared for the insurgent onslaught to come.
Wardak said there was no mechanism to continue the work of international forces on both a civil and military level. Money for projects dried up, along with military intelligence, surveillance and air power.
“The PRTs disappeared with all their resources and backup and professionalism,” he said, using the acronym for Provincial Reconstruction Teams, the military units tasked with civil projects.
Afghan troops were poorly supplied, and for the most part, only troops without connections ended up in Helmand, arguably the Afghan security forces’ most dangerous posting. The official troop numbers included many “ghost soldiers” on the rolls, meaning many units were undermanned, as chronicled by a recent Associated Press report.
So unresponsive was the central government to Helmand’s woes that Deputy Provincial Governor Mohammad Jan Rasoolyar took to Facebook in December to write an urgent plea to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, begging for military support as much of the province crumbled to Taliban forces. Ghani subsequently fired him.
A year after the NATO-led coalition formally ended its combat mission in Afghanistan, the U.S. sent McClintock, a Green Beret, and other special operations forces out with Afghan counterparts into the dusty farmland of Marjah on Jan. 5 to again try to retake the district. The Taliban were on the doorstep of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, threatening to overrun an entire province for the first time since the initial U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 — an even more embarrassing prospect than their brief takeover of the country’s fifth-largest city, Kunduz, in September. It was exactly the scenario the 2010 operation aimed to avoid.
The January operation succeeded in driving out insurgents and opening the once-heavily mined road between Marjah and Lashkar Gah for the first time in two months. But given the history of the area — even with thousands of U.S. and British troops in the province, Helmand was contested — there is no guarantee the Taliban won’t come back.
“They don’t pay attention if there is a threat to a district,” said longtime Helmand resident Sardar Mohammad Hamdard, head of the provincial government watchdog Helmand Civil Society. “When it falls to insurgents and all the equipment and ammunition is taken (and) the district governor’s office and the police station are burned, only then will they take action.
“After the Marjah offensive (in 2010), there were some fundamental projects implemented, there was money spent; it was completely peaceful after; there was attention to health and education,” Hamdard said. “But unfortunately, those achievements could not be maintained by the authorities because they didn’t pay attention to threats.”
Helmand’s troubles have been particularly dramatic, owing in part to it being part of the Taliban’s original heartland, giving them deep roots in the province. But what’s happened there is a microcosm for the situation across the country: Lack of faith in government is keeping Afghans from openly supporting Kabul, undermining security and emboldening insurgents.
Also, with the U.S.-led military coalition now slimmed down to about 13,000 troops tasked primarily with training and advising Afghan forces and with an eye on the exit, few see that as a problem that can be fixed quickly.
“We in the West expect to see the rapid development of governance so we can get out, but of course, you’re in a part of the world where corruption and incompetence is the norm,” Farrell said. “I’m afraid the history shows consistently that the United States, in particular, is very bad at this, and the reason is very simple: Governments have political and financial interest in not reforming, and those interests will far outweigh any leverage that any foreign power can bring to bear.”
Zubair Babkarkhail contributed to this report.