At a conference in Portugal over the weekend, NATO countries agreed to hand over responsibility for Afghanistan’s security to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. In his speech, President Obama claimed there has been significant progress in the fight against the Taliban. But reports from the ground in Afghanistan question these upbeat claims about the ongoing NATO operation. Last spring, NATO launched a major operation in the Taliban-held town of Marjah. The offensive was supposed to showcase America’s new counterinsurgency campaign and demonstrate that victory is still possible. Independent filmmaker Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films recently traveled to Marjah and discovered the counterinsurgency campaign in crisis. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: NATO countries have agreed to hand over responsibility for Afghanistan’s security to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. President Obama said for the first time he aims to end major combat operations in Afghanistan that year. He did not specify a deadline for the full withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan.
The agreement comes at a time when the United States is escalating military operations in Afghanistan to the highest level of the nine-year war. The Pentagon is deploying battle tanks in Afghanistan for the first time, according to the Washington Post. The latest deployments follow the most intense month of NATO bombardments so far, with more than a thousand bombs and missiles fired in October. Civilian deaths are at an all-time high, and the pace of special operations missions to kill or capture Taliban leaders has more than tripled in the past three months. A senior U.S. military official told the Washington Post, "We’ve taken the gloves off, and it has had a huge impact."
Speaking at the NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal Saturday, Obama cited significant progress in the fight against the Taliban.
BARACK OBAMA: I think the objective assessment is that we have made progress. You have fewer areas of Afghanistan under Taliban control. You have the Taliban on the defensive in a number of areas that were their strongholds. We have met or exceeded our targets in terms of recruitment of Afghan security forces. And our assessments are that the performance of Afghan security forces has improved significantly.
AMY GOODMAN: But reports from the ground in Afghanistan question these upbeat claims about the ongoing NATO operation in Kandahar. In the spring of this year, NATO launched a major offensive in Marjah, a Taliban-held town in Helmand province. It was supposed to showcase America’s new counterinsurgency campaign and demonstrate that victory is still possible.
But when Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films traveled to Marjah this summer with a Marine unit, he discovered a counterinsurgency campaign in crisis. He spoke with U.S. soldiers on the ground and with Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel and a Vietnam War veteran who spent 23 years in the U.S. Army.
MARINE COMMANDER: This mission is a historic mission. We are really at a tipping point in the future of the campaign, and I’m not absolutely convinced of the necessity for this mission.
ANDREW BACEVICH: When President Obama bought into the McChrystal plan, McChrystal chose Marjah as the place where he was going to demonstrate that U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine could be applied successfully in this war. It was his demonstration case, his test case. It took on enormous importance. Now McChrystal is gone. Marjah therefore is a burden for Petraeus, because Marjah hangs out there, calling into question the feasibility of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.
RICK ROWLEY: Marjah, Helmand province, Afghanistan, the point of impact for President Obama’s troop surge, the showcase of America’s new counterinsurgency campaign, the turning point in the war. The offensive here was supposed to demonstrate to Afghans and to the world that victory is still possible in Afghanistan.
LT. COL. BRIAN CHRISTMAS: The military has succeeded here. We’ve accomplished, you know, providing a secure environment — depending on your definition of security — establishing a government, rebuilding roads and schools, opening up bazaars. There’s a lot of naysaying, and that’s fine. You know, I recommend that naysayers come and see it for themselves.
RICK ROWLEY: Lieutenant Colonel Christmas commands the 3rd Battalion 6th Marines in Marjah. He remains upbeat about the offensive here. But out on patrol with Lima Company, it is difficult to see the success that he describes.
MARINE: Enemy activity has picked up considerably. A lot of ambushes coming from multiple points, called L-shaped ambushes or ambushes with small arms, if it’s coming at you from more than one direction. But the big change has just been the improvement of the enemy that we’re facing — much better fighters than we were facing in the beginning, I think.
RICK ROWLEY: It’s getting easier?
MARINE: Easier? No, it’s not getting easier.
RICK ROWLEY: Marines here say that the insurgency they face is growing stronger and more sophisticated. We march over fields and wade through canals to avoid the homemade bombs that lie in the roads and footpaths. The Marines have carved small circles of relative security around their forward operating bases. But when they step outside these circles, they almost invariably come under fire.
Militarily, Marjah has not gone according to plan. But far more important than the military fight, according to the Americans, is the political struggle to build a credible government that Afghans will prefer to Taliban rule.
Lieutenant Colonel Christmas says his main mission here is to build up the local government, and he organizes many events like this one, where the district governor and officials from Kabul are flown in to preside over meetings of Marjah residents. Today’s meeting is a reintegration shura, where prisoners are released and symbolically turn in their rifles, pledging loyalty to the government.
Before the offensive began, commanders announced that a complete civil administration had been assembled to bring order, stability and development as soon as the Marines were in place. General McChrystal called it a “government in a box” and said it was the key to the entire campaign. But most of the bureaucrats and government officials refused to deploy to Marjah. One man who did come was NATO’s handpicked district governor, Haji Zahir, an Afghan expat who spent four years in a German prison for attempted murder.
ANDREW BACEVICH: I’m not sure that I really know what McChrystal meant by “government in a box.” I’m not sure that McChrystal knew what he meant by “government in a box.”
LT. COL. BRIAN CHRISTMAS: I think that was a pipe dream. It‘s a neat idea. But frankly, what happened was that Haji Zahir was brought, and he was put in the middle, and they said, "OK, go." And that’s a tough thing to do. And he’s come a long way, he’s come a long way with a lot of support.
HAJI ZAHIR: I thank when Marine has helped me every day.
RICK ROWLEY: In spite of Lieutenant Colonel Christmas’s best efforts, Haji Zahir’s administration failed to inspire confidence, and the Afghan government fired him unceremoniously.
ANDREW BACEVICH: If the best McChrystal could do was to bring an ex-con from Germany, the pool of talent from which we can draw in this nation-building enterprise is pretty darn thin.
RICK ROWLEY: Can you succeed if they fail?
LT. COL. BRIAN CHRISTMAS: Can I succeed if they fail? Like I said to you a minute ago, the success in Marjah, in Lieutenant Colonel Christmas’s opinion, is a [inaudible] government that is able to operate and do its thing and a successful police force that’s made up of the Marjah people.
RICK ROWLEY: But you’re not in control of either of those things.
LT. COL. BRIAN CHRISTMAS: I influence them, but I’m not in control of them, nor will I ever be in control of them. And that’s fine. If they want it, it’ll happen. If they don’t want it, it won’t happen. Right?
RICK ROWLEY: "If they don’t want it, it won’t happen," Lieutenant Colonel Christmas tells us. And out on patrol with Lima Company, it would be easy to conclude that Afghans don’t want the government that NATO and the U.S. are trying to build for them.
This morning, a small homemade bomb was used to lure the Marines into a trap. Residents here refuse to give any information, and it was only when a Marine spotted this kite string trigger that we managed to avoid this deadlier device — 50 pounds of explosives packed with shrapnel. As Lieutenant Quist’s men destroy the bomb, you can hear heavy machine gun and mortar fire in the distance.
MARINE: Second platoon is down there dropping mortars, and we have 3rd platoon in contact to the west.
RICK ROWLEY: So, three different elements of Lima all sustain contact of some sort?
RICK ROWLEY: It’s busy out here.
SOLDIER: It is busy. It is busy.
RICK ROWLEY: The U.S. committed thousands of troops and millions of dollars to secure this small farming area in order to demonstrate to the world that victory was still possible in Afghanistan. But Marjah has revealed a counterinsurgency campaign in crisis. The U.S. faces enemies that are more resilient than they anticipated and lacks political allies capable of building a credible state.
ANDREW BACEVICH: I have serious doubts about our capacity to transform Afghanistan into a functioning nation state where authority is effectively exercised from Kabul. It’s a monumental task. Even if nation building is possible, we don’t have enough money for that. We can’t afford to waste the money that we do have.
AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Bacevich, retired colonel, Vietnam War veteran, Boston University scholar. He spent 23 years in the U.S. Army. That report from Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films aired on Empire on Al Jazeera English.