Allied officials in Afghanistan announced the operation around the town of Marjah in Helmand Province more than a week ago. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon the announcement was a particularly creative part of the strategy being implemented by the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal.
He acknowledged last week that the public notice of the impending offensive was unusual. "It is a little unconventional to do it this way but I think it gives everybody a chance to think through what they're going to do before suddenly, in the dark of night, they're hit with an offensive and they might not have thought through what they want to do," the general said.
What General McChrystal wanted the Taliban fighters to do is leave the area, and enable the Afghan government and the foreign forces supporting it to re-take Marjah with little or no fight. The announcement also gave thousands of civilians the chance to leave the area, which should reduce the non-military casualties from the operation.
But after the scenes of Afghans leaving on foot and in various types of vehicles, with many of their possessions in tow, not much happened for several days. A Pentagon spokesman, Colonel Dave Lapan, says the time lag did not affect the strategy behind the announcement. "What's telegraphed is just the fact that there's an operation, not what day it's going to start or what time it's going to start. Ten days, 11 days, 12 days, however many it takes to be ready to go, you still have the same effect," he said.
Lapan says combat commanders are more concerned about conditions on the battlefield than about setting specific dates to begin an operation. "Generally, in operations of this sort you need to have your forces in place, you want to retain some element of surprise. The enemy knows it's coming but they don't know when it's coming and they don't know how exactly it's coming. For example, weather. Weather impacts your operations. How developed your intelligence is and when you feel comfortable, all of those things go into the planning of when your forces are ready to go, because obviously you want to kick off the operation at a time that you believe you're going to have the most chance of success," he said.
Allied and Afghan forces conducted a series of what the military calls 'shaping' operations, designed to take small areas and test enemy capabilities in preparation for the major push. But speaking with reporters at a NATO defense ministers' meeting in Istanbul last week, General McChrystal indicated the decision to announce the operation also created additional risks, particularly regarding the deadly roadside bombs the military calls IEDs. Dealing with those risks could be part of the reason the operation took longer to start than many observers expected.
"Obviously one of the risks of being more overt about an operation is they can make the kinds of preparations, particularly IEDs. And so we're taking great care to put ourselves in a position where we can deal with those," McChrystal said.
General McChrystal also notes that the relatively inexperienced Afghan forces led the planning for the operation and its aftermath. "The big thing that I am most happy about where we are now is the progress with Afghan National Security Forces being in the lead. And I probably misspoke there because it's more than Afghan National Security Forces, it's 'Afghan Government,'" he said.
Confirming that the operation was imminent late Friday, a U.S. military official specifically noted that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was the final authority to give his approval.
The ability to make and execute detailed plans for military operations and civilian follow-up efforts is a key to fulfilling President Barack Obama's order to begin transitioning security responsibility to the Afghans by July of next year. General McChrystal would not say how long he expects that transition to take, once it starts, but he indicated the pace will depend more on how his forces conduct themselves, and how well the Afghan government performs in areas it controls, than on the specific results of operations like the one in Marjah. "This is all a war of perceptions. 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," he said.
The general says the most important participants are Afghan civilians, but he says the outcome of the conflict will also depend on the insurgents' perceptions of their ability to win, and on whether allied forces and members of the Afghan military and government believe they can succeed in re-taking control of the country, and holding it for the long term. The operation in Marjah is an early test of how the "war of perceptions" is going.