KABUL // The largest offensive of the Afghan war began early yesterday, with more than 15,000 troops pushing into Taliban-controlled areas in the south-west of the country. US marines led the assault on Marjah in Helmand province, the epicentre of a conflict that is nine years old this autumn. Hours after Operation Moshtarak started, it was already being touted as a success amid fairly limited resistance from rebels who had promised to fight to the death. Further optimistic progress reports can be expected soon.
Why the mission was launched and what lasting value it will have are, however, questions that hang in the air like storm clouds. Both provide some key indications about the direction Afghanistan is heading. Rather than being a pivotal moment in the struggle against the Taliban, Operation Moshtarak shows only that the United States and its allies are desperate for some good news. It is the kind of major set-piece battle that continues to mean a lot to them while meaning little to the insurgents or to the ultimate outcome of the war. If this country teaches one thing, it is that lessons are rarely learnt.
The assault on Marjah - an area that few had heard of until recently - comes at a time when the US president, Barack Obama, has spent much of his political capital on pulling Afghanistan back from the brink. Having agreed to send 30,000 extra troops here in December and pledged to begin a steady withdrawal in July 2011, he has taken a gamble that he needs to pay off. Signs of progress are required, and fast.
On the face of it, Operation Moshtarak will provide them. The Taliban know they cannot defeat thousands of US marines and Nato troops, backed by Afghan forces, in direct combat. Instead, they will probably put up some token resistance before melting away. Marjah and surrounding areas will fall and that is what will make the headlines, while the devil remains in the detail. Other major offensives have garnered widespread publicity and all have followed a similar pattern.
In 2007, Operation Mar Karadad captured the town of Musa Qala in Helmand from the Taliban. The battle was inevitably portrayed as a "turning point" by some sections of the media. Then in 2008 came Operation Oqab Tsuka, the aim of which was to deliver a hydroelectric turbine to a dam in the district of Kajaki. The sheer scale of the mission received awestruck coverage in the British press. Last year saw Operation Panchai Palang to secure parts of Helmand for the presidential election.
All were false dawns. A lack of security has left the turbine unused, voter numbers were pitifully low and the entire province - including Musa Qala - is still synonymous with violence. Any small gains are overshadowed by the immense suffering that remains. This war will not be won or lost in the towns, or in firefights and major offensives. It will be decided in the villages, deserts, mountains and valleys and in the ability of the rebels to continue to plant roadside bombs, carry out suicide attacks and offer a genuine alternative source of justice to a people tired of corrupt governance.
Even if the insurgents are defeated in Marjah, they will emerge elsewhere and fight another day. They have always done so, not least in 2001 when the Taliban regime collapsed with barely a whimper. It is easy for generals, diplomats and officials to say security in Afghanistan is improving and important corners are being turned. No doubt they will do just that in the days and months ahead, following this and future operations.
At present, however, refugees from the south are still living in Kabul. Others have fled to relatively safe parts of Helmand, or to Kandahar or Herat. Each year, it seems, the numbers grow. They want to return home as soon as there is peace, but they fear that moment will never come. email@example.com