Attrition: Marjah Mysteries Revealed


February 28, 2010: Two weeks of fighting in Marjah (southern Afghanistan) have left over a hundred Taliban dead, and more than sixty captured. NATO forces have suffered 15 dead, partly because the ROE (Rules of Engagement) limit the use of smart bombs and missiles to deal with Taliban gunmen in buildings that might contain civilians. Troops often have to work their way into the buildings, to make sure they get the Taliban shooting at them, and not the civilians being used as human shields.

This is all part of the Taliban plan to shift public anger from themselves, to the foreign troops. The Taliban cause most of the civilian deaths in Afghanistan, but that is expected by Afghans. The Taliban have always been quick to kill civilians that opposed them. But getting killed by a foreign soldier is something that is particularly unpopular among Afghans. Especially Pushtun Afghans, and it�s the Pushtun tribes in the south, around Kandahar and in Helmand province (where Marjah is) that supply most of the Taliban leadership and gunmen. The Taliban haven't got  much popular support in Afghanistan as a whole. The majority (60 percent) of the population are not Pushtun, and are very hostile to the Taliban. Most Pushtuns are also anti-Taliban, but the Pushtuns around Kandahar and Helmand are more hospitable. Some of these Pushtuns have tribal connections to the Taliban, and others are getting wealthy from the drug business, which is centered in Helmand.

NATO commanders realize that they only way this Taliban strategy can be countered is to minimize civilian casualties, even if they get more of their own troops killed or wounded. Marjah is to be the centerpiece of this gambit, but the Taliban have another angle. Via bribes and threats, the Taliban have gained a degree of control over local media, and use this to make sure anytime civilians are killed (or even if not), the local media gets out a story featuring civilians "murdered by foreign troops." NATO forces have bulked up their own media forces, attempting to get the true story out first, or at least discredit the Taliban propaganda.

The 15,000 NATO troops in Marjah (including 5,000 American marines) are facing less than a thousand Taliban fighters trapped in the city. Many of the troops are tasked with locating and immobilizing the Taliban gunmen. Thousands of Afghan troops are used to deal with civilians who are not human shields, while the better trained NATO troops do most of the fighting. Afghan troops are more inclined to shoot first, and worry about civilian casualties later, if ever.



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