Measuring success and failure in Afghanistan
By Michael A Innes
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's International Security Assistance
Force (ISAF) launched Operation Moshtarak in the Nad Ali and Lashkar Gah
districts of Afghanistan's Helmand province in mid-February.
The intent was to wrest it from Taliban control and create a "bubble of
security" for local governance, described in an ISAF press release as "an
Afghan-led initiative to assert government authority in the center of Helmand
province".  The operation involved the deployment of 15,000 allied and
Afghan troops, among them American, British, Danish, Estonian and Canadian
elements from ISAF's Regional Command South, as well as five
brigades of Afghan forces drawn from the Afghan National Army, the Afghan
National Police, Afghan Border Police and the Afghan gendarmerie.
Operation Moshtarak was meant to demonstrate several things. Its first priority
was to restore Afghanistan's ability to govern an area that had long functioned
as a hub of Taliban and narcotics trafficking activity - a "bleeding ulcer", as
then-ISAF commander General Stanley McChrystal recently called it.
The operation was also meant to be a litmus test for eventual reassertion of
government control over neighboring Kandahar. Fighting in the Marjah area was
intense in the first few days, but subsequently tapered off; some military
officers expressed with breathless optimism their opinion that the Taliban had
been routed or neutralized as a fighting force in the area. Continued general
insecurity and violence, however - three months after the commencement of
operations - suggests that reports of their demise were premature, at best. In
April, one Taliban leader indicated a clear and deliberate plan in the face of
a larger, better-equipped enemy: "We have only withdrawn tactically from some
areas," he said. "We never flee." 
This makes it difficult to discern what positive lessons might be learned and
applied elsewhere, such as the upcoming ISAF offensive in southern Kandahar.
Perhaps most frustrating for many observers is the manner in which political
pressures have apparently skewed expectations of progress.
One indicator of operational success, for example, has been the speed with
which change can be effected - a vital characteristic of the proper employment
of military force. More importantly, however, time pressures impose artificial
benchmarks on such operations, where a high turnover of personnel has an
elastic effect on how short and long term accomplishments are understood and
Worse, the contours of "success", particularly at higher levels of command, are
shaped not by changing conditions on the ground, but by requirements set in the
political capitals of NATO member states - which have consistently and
simultaneously expressed an understanding that progress in Afghanistan will
take time, but that they'd still like to get out sooner rather than later. For
some ISAF troop contributors, deadlines for drawdown or complete withdrawal
loom close, which leaves less time for mission personnel to rack up observable
Another problem area rests with contentions over the identity of displaced
persons. On the surface of things, hundreds of families have fled, claiming
anxiety over the possible consequences of being accused of Taliban or al-Qaeda
membership by one side, or of collaboration with allied forces by the other.
Others, however, are less sympathetic. Haji Mohammad Zaher, district governor
of Marjah, for example, alleged, "These families are mainly those who have
committed major crimes in the past. Now when the area is under government
control, they do not feel safe and flee the district." The head of Marjah's
Public Order Department, Colonel Ghulam Sakhi, made a similar claim. He
suggested that at least some of the displacement has little to do with the
conduct of military operations in the area. "I can show you the list of 16
families who had migrated from Uruzgan during Taliban times and were active in
the poppy trade ... Now they have harvested their poppy and left." 
If true, then some of the displacement is certainly consistent with ISAF aims.
It is also corroborated in part by at least one report that the Marjah campaign
has had a disruptive effect on the narcotics trade. One smuggler, Haji Abdul
Qudos, observed that the operation had put a major crimp in drug shipment
through Marjah, a major throughway. Interim subsidies to local farmers were
making old ways of doing business increasingly expensive, but "he would be
looking for other ways to get the drugs out, not ways to get out of drugs".
None of this seems entirely relevant to the larger pool of civilians who may or
may not have fled the area. According to Marjah resident Sardar Wali, the
operation "was a failure as now both Taliban and foreign troops had caused
trouble for the people". As another former Marjah resident, Haji Aminullah put
it, "We have trenches around us, set up by the rebels and foreign troops. As a
result, we are confined to our homes". In late May, a fresh wave of several
hundred families (numbers vary) was noted to have left Marjah and Nad Ali for
The short-term gains that come from disrupting the Taliban and narcotics
trafficking out of Marjah and environs may well be trumped by the longer-term
effect of driving up urban congestion in places like Lashkar Gah, the
provincial capital, as well as neighboring Kandahar - not to mention the
additional ill will towards ISAF that it will inevitably inspire. Displaced
persons and refugees, apparently caught between a rock and a hard place, have
the same effect as civilian casualties; the message they bear contradicts
ISAF's claim to be providing security to the population.
Despite good intentions and serious effort put into mitigating collateral
damage, almost every negative outcome, from civilian deaths to population
displacement to continued fighting, has been entirely predictable. This implies
that a declaration of failure in Marjah now is just as premature as were some
declarations of victory three months ago.
It may also suggest a certain degree of willfulness on the part of NATO forces
in Afghanistan: military operations, by their very nature, are about seizing
and holding terrain. This can't help but relegate the fate of human beings to
secondary status, a condition that is fundamentally at odds with a
population-centric counter-insurgency. It remains to be seen, on balance, how
this will shape future perceptions of success and failure - particularly once
ISAF turns to much more challenging objectives like securing Kandahar.
1. ISAF Joint Command – Afghanistan, "Operation Moshtarak," ISAF News Release
(Kabul, ISAF Joint Command Public Affairs Office, 13 February 2010). Available
2. Hewad, "Taliban Defiant Following Marjah Operation," Institute for War and
Peace Reporting, Afghan Reconstruction Report, Issue 358 (April 14, 2010).
3. Mohammad Ilyas Dayee, "Marja Residents Flee Unrest," Institute for War and
Peace Reporting, Afghan Reconstruction Report, Issue 361 (May 20, 2010).
Michael A Innes is a visiting research fellow in the School of Politics
and International Studies, University of Leeds, and a regular contributor to
Foreign Policy magazine's AfPak Channel.