14 January 2010

More Killing Ahead

In the news these days; American generals sharing battle plans with the press. One Larry Nicholson, as we learn - a brigadier general in charge of Marines in Helmand, has been particularly busy. Piecing together all of the disjointed quotes, he has said something like:
"Well it's pretty obvious, there's only one place left: that's Marjah. I don't think its any great leap of logic to say where we're going next."

"We're bringing in 10,000 Marines. It's not a secret. There's only one place left in the entire area of operations where the enemy is at."

"There is a certain inevitability to this, Marjah is next."

"We're going to go in big, I'm not looking for a fair fight."

"We are going to put the enemy on the horns of a dilemma. He has to decide what to do. Really the enemy has three options in Marjah."

"One is to stay and fight and probably die. The second one is to make peace with his government and reintegrate. And the third one is to try to flee, in which case we'll probably have some people out there waiting on them as well."
If all of this sounds eerily reminiscent of the supposed inevitability that preceded the onslaught on Fallujah it is because it is. So is Marja the next Falluja? The number of occupiers allocating to its pounding sounds about right, not much more than 10,000 US forces took part in the Second Battle of Falluja. On the other hand Marja is apparently a much smaller town, not even a town but really a dense collection of small irrigated farms on the Helmand riverbank.

But the bigger difference is that where Falluja had been a symbol for months before the final onslaught and a symbol that shone far beyond Iraq at that, nobody would have ever took note of Marja had Nicholson and the rest of the brass not made sure it popped into the news.

What is the point of the generals alerting the press to this operation? We can't know, but we can speculate. My bet would be that now that they got the buck they need to show some bang. The brass got an escalation and now they feel they should show something for it. Chasing ghosts around the countryside and setting up small outposts in the mountains is not going to cut it. They need to pound something and pretend it is another Iwo Jima. Or at least another Falluja.

With this in mind it does not even matter if Marja is an enemy stronghold. It probably is, but so is every other town in southern Afghanistan. Besides, combined arms, massive assaults, the taking of a city, operations with Hollywood-style names, this is how generals get made. Nicholson is saying to the press come see me play with my new toys. Pay attention as I move unit indicators on the map. Come help me make lieutenant general.

It is doubtful the operation is going to have much of an effect on the enemy fighters. In Falluja itself, albeit the fighters who were left behind exacted a price of over 600 casualties on the attackers, most of the fighters had in fact moved out weeks earlier in anticipation of the onslaught. I would not put it past the occupiers that this is actually meant as a demonstration of the newfound willingness to carry out collective reprisals either. Especially in the view of Nicholson going on about putting the enemy "on the horns of a dilemma" and telling they can either "integrate" or be killed.

Is the occupation talking up this attack in advance to alert the Afghans to its newfound willingness to enact collective punishment on towns when they fail to pacify a province? It would be an alternative explanation. And whether true or not it is likely this is how any hammering of Marja is going to be understood locally.

In any case one would think that it is actually the occupiers who are really "on the horns of a dilemma" seeing how being in a conflict they can not win they can only choose between leaving now and - having spent more lives - leaving at a later date. But it is not really a dilemma for the military. As long as the war goes on the budgets grow, commanders safe in their bunkers get to move units over a map, self-absorbed higher officers get gratified by the media, the populace at home is being conditioned to stand in awe of military personnel at twice the normal intensity, the prestige of the officers rises, the political influence of the generals too. And when they lose the war in five years time or so and finally leave, well they can always blame the press and the people at home for stabbing them in the back just as they were coming within inches of winning.

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