U.S. Announces Helmand Offensive


In Unusual Tactic, Allies in Afghanistan Issue Press Release Describing Next Attack, in Bid to Intimidate the Taliban

[0203marjah]Getty Images

Marines take cover after hearing shots during a patrol in the outskirts of Marjah in Afghanistan's Helmand province on Jan. 19.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan—In a rare break from traditional military secrecy, the U.S. and its allies are announcing the precise target of their first big offensive of the Afghanistan surge in an apparent bid to intimidate the Taliban.

Coalition officers have been hinting aloud for months that they plan to send an overwhelming Afghan, British and U.S. force to clear insurgents from the town of Marjah and surrounding areas in Helmand province, and this week the allies took the unusual step of issuing a press release saying the attack was "due to commence."

Senior Afghan officials went so far as to hold a news conference Tuesday to discuss the offensive, although the allies have been careful not to publicize the specific date or details of the attack.

"If we went in there one night and all the insurgents were gone and we didn't have to fire a shot, that would be a success," a coalition spokesman, Col. Wayne Shanks, said before the announcement. "I don't think there has been a mistake in letting people know we're planning on coming in."

The risks could be substantial, however. By surrendering the element of surprise, the coalition has given its enemy time to dig entrenched fighting positions and tunnel networks. Perhaps worse for the attacking infantrymen, the insurgents have had time to booby-trap buildings and bury bombs along paths, roads and irrigated fields. Such hidden devices inflict the majority of U.S. and allied casualties.

Over the past few months, the new allied commander in southern Afghanistan, British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, has revamped NATO's coalition strategy in a region that is home to the Pashtun tribes and opium poppy fields that form the ethnic and financial foundations of the Taliban insurgency.

With the first of 30,000 new U.S. troops already on the ground in Afghanistan, Gen. Carter's plan is to focus on two population centers—Kandahar city, in Kandahar province, and central Helmand province to the west. Combined, they are home to about two million of the estimated three million residents of southern Afghanistan.

Still, the military has taken an unusual step by broadcasting its imminent intention to assault a particular town, Marjah, and its environs. During World War II, civilians and servicemen were frequently reminded that "Loose lips sink ships" and "Enemy ears are listening." For months leading up to the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944, the Allies went to great lengths to disguise their target.

Similarly, the coalition in Afghanistan normally forbids—at the threat of expulsion—embedded reporters from writing about events before they take place. In this case, though, officials even released the name of the offensive, Operation Moshtarak, and said it would be a joint Afghan-coalition attack. Moshtarak means "together" in Dari, although the bulk of the population in southern Afghanistan speaks Pashto.

"This combined force will strike a victory for the future of Afghanistan," the coalition release said. It ended with the Arabic phrase "En shallah," or "God willing," a traditional refrain among Muslims.

At times, the U.S. took a similar tack in Iraq, signaling in advance that the 2007 troop surge there would focus on Baghdad. Likewise, Pakistan's military telegraphed its intention last year to attack insurgents in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan.

"It is a fascinating tactical decision to advertise an assault openly before it commences," said Michael O'Hanlon, director of foreign policy research at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The foreshadowing has potential benefits, Mr. O'Hanlon says. If a substantial number of insurgent fighters choose flight over fight, the coalition and Afghan government score a relatively easy win—and the opportunity to brag about it to a public skeptical of its achievements.

Regional Violence

Follow events in Pakistan and Afghanistan, day by day.

"We're saying it out loud because of the strength of the inevitability of it," said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marine task force that will form the backbone of the U.S. contingent.

Gen. Nicholson said the drumbeat of public comments about the impending attack has already persuaded community leaders in Marjah to meet with Afghan government and coalition officials. "People of influence don't want to be on the wrong side of this," he said.

Commanders would have liked to take control of central Helmand earlier, but they say they lacked sufficient forces to hold the terrain they might have won. Coalition officials say they aren't sure how many insurgents are in the Marjah area; they believe there are enough, however, that they have treated it as a no-go zone. As such, both sides know it is an obvious target for the new troops, Gen. Nicholson said.

With the surge forces in place, officials believe the coalition is strong enough to seize and hold the ground in central Helmand and help the Afghan government establish a toehold of legitimacy.

Limiting civilian casualties is a key objective of Afghanistan's top U.S. military man, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. Even if the Taliban choose to fight, the public warnings could give civilians a chance to evacuate the area, leaving a clearer field of fire for the Americans, British and Afghans.

That is what happened in 2008 in Garmsir, a Taliban-held town further south in Helmand province. The locals fled to the desert during a month of fighting between a Marine battalion and dug-in insurgents. With little reason to worry about civilian casualties, the Marines were able to use their superior firepower, including helicopter gunships and mortars, to oust the insurgents.

The battle left some buildings in ruins but gave rise to few claims of civilian deaths. As soon as the fighting stopped, the Marines set up an office to compensate civilians whose homes had been damaged, a practice likely to be repeated in Marjah.

Said Mr. O'Hanlon: "One advantage is that local populations will have been alerted to what we're doing, perhaps making them more understanding of the subsequent fighting—and more prone to share intelligence, if they believe we are planning to stay awhile after the assault."