x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Afghanistan's end game lies far beyond Marjah

The phrase "phoney war" would hardly seem to fit the Nato offensive in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, where last month's assault by some 15,000 US-led troops on the town of Marjah was the largest such operation since the Vietnam War.

The phrase "phoney war" was coined in the period between Germany's invasion of Poland in September 1939, and its invasion of France nine months later. It referred to the fact that while the western European allies had declared war on Hitler, they declined to do any serious fighting. The term would hardly seem to fit the Nato offensive in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, where last month's assault by some 15,000 US-led troops on the town of Marjah was the largest such operation since the Vietnam War.

Still, Marjah seemed less like a titanic showdown than a tactical exercise aimed at shaping perceptions of the war - both in Afghanistan and back home in the US. Lest this assessment sound a tad cynical, consider the words of the operation's architect shortly before it began: "This is all a war of perceptions," said Gen Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan. "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 the participants. Part of what we've had to do is convince ourselves and our Afghan partners that we can do this."

The Americans telegraphed their intention to move into the town weeks before the Marjah operation began, in order to allow civilians to get out of the way; most of the town's Taliban contingent appears to have done likewise. Many analysts supportive of the war suggest that a more appropriate target for a massive showdown aimed at showing the Taliban that they can't win would have been Kandahar, the movement's longtime symbolic "capital" and a city with 10 times the population of Marjah. But Gen McChrystal insisted Marjah was simply an "initial salvo", designed to test a new strategy that will be applied to Kandahar in the summer. The US would clear the Taliban out and secure Marjah, bringing with it what Gen McChrystal memorably dubbed "a government in a box" - a ready-made administration including a mayor and various government departments, a constabulary and the Afghan National Army to offer security and good governance.

The key to phase two of the Marjah operation is to demonstrate to the local population that they'd be better off with the Afghan government than under the Taliban, but it got off to an inauspicious start. The New York Times reported that some Afghan National Army troops looted the local marketplace, forcing the Americans to hand out hundreds of dollars to compensate local merchants for their losses. The mayor pulled out of Gen McChrystal's box was a businessman who was not from Marjah and who has spent most of the past 15 years in Germany.

And when the Americans flew in the country's deputy president to address local elders on behalf of the Karzai government, Abdul Karrim Khalili - an ethnic Hazara - addressed his Pashtun audience in his native Dari, a language most had difficulty understanding, without the benefit of an interpreter. The local marine commander conceded last week that Marjah's population is "sceptical" of the Americans and their Afghan allies.

The decisive struggle in Afghanistan may be happening far away from Marjah, however, much of it behind the scenes in Kabul, Islamabad and beyond. That would be the battle to shape the negotiated political settlement with the Taliban that everyone accepts will be the conflict's inevitable outcome. The US insists, in fact, that its military campaign in southern Afghanistan is an essential precondition for such a solution, by proving to the Taliban that it can't win on the battlefield. So, there was consternation in Washington last month when President Hamid Karzai invited the Taliban to join a national dialogue, amid news reports that he was hoping to get Taliban candidates to run for office in the country's next parliamentary election.

Seeking negotiations before the Taliban's military momentum has been stopped would be disastrous, the Americans insist. But others see it differently - Mr Karzai, for one, whose priority is his own survival. He'll seek whatever deals can best ensure his political longevity - and reject anything that diminishes his authority. (That, of course, may limit his chances, since the Taliban are unlikely to settle for anything less than his replacement by an interim government.)

Washington's European allies are in a hurry to get out, and Pakistan is determined to ensure that its reward for sheltering the Taliban leadership over American objections for the past eight years is that it gets to shape the political solution according to its own needs and timetable. These are competing agendas, of course, which may explain one of the more bewildering episodes of the war - the capture by Pakistani forces of the Afghan Taliban deputy chief Mullah Baradar in Karachi a couple of weeks ago. By some accounts, the Pakistanis held Mullah Baradar because he was negotiating directly with Mr Karzai behind their backs. Others suggested that the Pakistanis may be playing a double game: After all, they refused to hand Mr Baradar over to the US for interrogation or extradite him to Kabul. US officials suggested to the media that the Pakistanis may be using the arrest of Baradar and other key Taliban leaders to accelerate a negotiation process, and that Mr Baradar would be playing this role even while ostensibly in Pakistani custody.

The Americans do recognise a central role for the Pakistani military's intelligence service in the negotiation process: the US special envoy Richard Holbrooke recently told the BBC that "Pakistan's ISI can play a role in negotiations and I support that role. Pakistan has an influence in this area and has a legitimate security interest." The Pakistanis, for their part, have proven that they're determined to exercise that influence regardless of US preference. But the Karzai government is strongly opposed to giving the ISI any role in shaping Afghanistan's future.

The manoeuvring on all sides is hard to read, but the end game is clearly getting under way. And it may not have much to do with the military campaign and government-in-a-box in Marjah. Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst who blogs at www.tonykaron.com