Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Operation Moshtarak: What’s the Real Objective?

Operation Moshtarak has been underway since Saturday, 13 February. Persian or Dari for ‘Together’, Moshtarak involves more than 15,000 Afghan and coalition soldiers and is meant to clear out insurgents from the Taliban stronghold of Marjah. The first major offensive against the Taliban after the recent surge of 30,000 US troops, Moshtarak has the Afghan National Army outnumber coalition troops and play a pivotal role for the first time in such a large-scale operation. However, Moshtarak raises a number of questions.

For one, this operation has been given an enormous amount of advance publicity. For the last six odd weeks, the coalition leadership has talked of little else. Though there has been some speculation over whether the 1700 odd Taliban fighters in would stay and fight or flee, considering the fact that US soldiers are meant to leave Afghanistan by August 2011, the question seems to me to be a no-brainer. As expected, the Taliban have scattered mines and other IEDs all over the place and fled, leaving a small number behind to delay coalition advance. Progress has been slow so far on account of snipers and IEDs, but it doesn’t appear as if the Taliban are desperately trying to hold Marjah.

The US marines now have with them a new weapon, the Assault Breacher Vehicle, in their arsenal to deal with the threat of IEDs.

Why was the name Moshtarak chosen I wonder? Moshtarak is a Dari or Persian word. In Afghanistan, the Tajiks speak Dari (which is an archiac form of Persian). The Harazas too speak a Persian dialect. Tajiks and Hazaras form 45% or so of Afghanistan’s population. The Pashtuns speak Pushtu. Around 40% of Afghans are Pashtuns.

The Taliban are mostly Pashtuns whilst the Northern Alliance, which has been a western ally ever since the Taliban appeared on the scene, is composed of Tajiks, Hazaras and the Uzbeks (who speak Turkic and form 9% of the population). The Afghan National Army is dominated by the Tajiks. The challenge faced by the Coalition is to win over th Pashtun populace who are not very happy that the Afghan army is dominated by the Tajiks, their traditional rivals. Giving a Dari or Persian name for an operation does not seem to me to be a sensible idea given the circumstances. If it is meant to impress the Tajiks, it is a sad case of preaching to the converted.

Coalition leaders say that their priority is to clear Marjah of the Taliban and institute reconstruction and social welfare activities. To me, it appears as if the idea is to be shown as doing something in a way that keeps casualties low, until it is time to leave Afghanistan as per the dealine set by Obama when he anounced the recent troop surge. I don’t think this is a bad objective, considering how things have shaped out so far. In any event, this is the best any civilised democracy can do in a place like Afghanistan.

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