WASHINGTON - Senior military officials decided to launch the
current U.S.-British military campaign to seize Marja in large part to
influence domestic U.S. opinion on the war in Afghanistan, the
Washington Post reported Monday.
The Post report, by Greg
Jaffe and Craig Whitlock, both of whom cover military affairs, said the
town of Marja would not have been chosen as a target for a U.S.
military operation had the criterion been military significance instead
of impact on domestic public opinion.
The primary goal of the offensive, they write, is to "convince
Americans that a new era has arrived in the eight-year long war...." U.S.
military officials in Afghanistan "hope a large and loud victory in
Marja will convince the American public that they deserve more time to
demonstrate that extra troops and new tactics can yield better results
on the battlefield," according to Jaffe and Whitlock.
A second aim is said to be to demonstrate to Afghans that U.S. forces can protect them from the Taliban.
Despite the far-reaching political implications of the story,
the Post buried it on page A9, suggesting that it was not viewed by
editors as a major revelation.
Jaffe and Whitlock cite no official sources for the report, but the
evidence supporting the main conclusion of the article clearly came
from information supplied by military or civilian Pentagon sources.
That suggests that officials provided the information on condition that
it could not be attributed to any official source.
Some advisers to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of the
International Security Assistance Force, told him last June that
Kandahar City is far more important strategically than Marja, according
to Jaffe and Whitlock.
Marja is a town of less than 50,000 people, even including the
surrounding villages, according to researcher Jeffrey Dressler of the
Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C.
That makes it about one-tenth the population of Kandahar City. Marja is
only one of a number of logistical centers used by the Taliban in
Helmand province, as Dressler observed in a study of Helmand province
published by the Institute last September.
Kandahar, on the other hand, is regarded as symbolically
important as the place where the Taliban first arose and the location
of its leadership organs even during the period of Taliban rule.
Nevertheless, McChrystal decided to commit 15,000 U.S. troops and
Afghan troops to get control of Marja as the first major operation
under the new strategy of the Barack Obama administration.
That decision has puzzled many supporters of the war, such as
author Steve Coll, who wrote a definitive history of U.S. policy toward
Afghanistan and is now executive director of the New America
Foundation. Coll wrote in the New Yorker last week that he did not
understand "why surging U.S. forces continue to invest their efforts
and their numbers so heavily in Helmand."
Coll pointed to the much greater importance of Kandahar in the larger strategic picture.
The real reason for the decision to attack Marja, according to
Jaffe and Whitlock, was not the intrinsic importance of the objective,
but the belief that an operation to seize control of it could "deliver
a quick military and political win for McChrystal."
Choosing Kandahar as the objective of the first major operation under
the new strategy would have meant waiting to resolve political
rivalries in the province, according to the Post article.
In public comments in recent days, CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus
has put forward themes that may be used to frame the Marja operation
and further offensives to come in Kandahar later this year.
Last Thursday, an unnamed "senior military official" told reporters,
"This is the start point of a new strategy," adding, "This is our first
On Sunday, Petraeus appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" and said the
flow of 30,000 new troops that President Obama recently ordered to the
region is starting to produce "output". Marja is "just the initial
operation of what will be a 12-to-18-month campaign," he said, calling
it the "initial salvo".
Petraeus suggested that Taliban resistance to the offensive in Marja
was intense, as if to underline the importance of Marja to Taliban
strategy. "When we go on the offensive," said Petraeus, "when we take
away sanctuaries and safe havens from the Taliban and other extremist
elements...they're going to fight back."
In fact, most of the Taliban fighters who had been in Marja before the
beginning of the operation apparently moved out of the town before the
Petraeus seemed to be laying the basis for presenting Marja as a
pivotal battle as well as a successful model for the kind of operations
The Post article implies that Petraeus and McChrystal are concerned
that the Obama administration is pushing for a rapid drawdown of U.S.
forces after mid-2011. The military believes, according to Jaffe and
Whitlock, that a public perception of U.S. military success "would
almost certainly mean a slower drawdown."
As top commander in Iraq in 2007-2008, Petraeus established a new model
for reestablishing public support for a war after it had declined
precipitously. Through constant briefings to journalists and
Congressional delegations, he and his staff convinced political elites
and public opinion that his counterinsurgency plan had been responsible
for the reduction in insurgent activities that occurred during this
Evidence from unofficial sources indicates, however, that the dynamics
of Sunni-Shi'a sectarian conflict and Shi'a politics were far more
important than U.S. military operations in producing that result.
McChrystal himself seemed to be hinting at the importance of
the Marja offensive's potential impact on the domestic politics of the
war in remarks he made in Istanbul just before it began.
"This is all a war of perceptions," McChrystal said. "This is not a
physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground
you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of
McChrystal went on to include U.S. citizens as well as Afghans
among those who needed to be convinced. "Part of what we've had to do
is convince ourselves and our Afghan partners that we can do this," he
The decision to launch a military campaign primarily to shape public opinion is not unprecedented in U.S. military history.
When President Richard M. Nixon and his National Security
Adviser Henry A. Kissinger launched a major bombing campaign against
the North Vietnamese capital in late December 1972, they were
consciously seeking to influence public opinion to view their policy as
much tougher in the final phase of peace negotiations with Hanoi.
The combination of the heavy damage to Hanoi and the administration's
heavy spin about its military pressure on the North Vietnamese
contributed to broad acceptance of the later conclusion that Kissinger
had gotten a better agreement in Paris in February 1973.
In fact, Kissinger had compromised on all the demands he had made
before the bombing began. But the public perception was more important
to the Nixon White House.