Gates warns of Afghan ‘dark days’

…While on his visit to Afghanistan, Gates was briefed by Karzai and General Stanley McChrystal, the US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, on the Marjah operation that began in February and is billed as the biggest since the 2001 US-led invasion.

He also sought details from McChrystal about his next target: restoring control over Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual home.

McChrystal told reporters troops would mass gradually in Kandahar over the next few months to reassert full control but he said he does not plan an abrupt assault like the one on Marjah.

"Militarily it will not look much like Marjah," McChrystal said.

"There won’t be a ‘D-Day’ that is climactic. It will be a rising tide of security as it comes. Slightly ahead of that there needs to be a lot of preparatory work in terms of governance."

So how is that ‘Government-in-a-Box’ working for ya, General…?

With Taliban gone, residents lukewarm to new mayor’s visit

…“They’re not here to occupy our country,’’ Zahir said of the US Marines who now control key commercial and residential sections of Marja. “They’re just here to bring you peace.’’

But Zahir, a native of southern Afghanistan who spent the past 15 years in Germany, elicited only a tepid endorsement from the men who gathered to meet him. Their questions made clear that the Taliban still enjoys deep support here, while the Afghan government is almost universally loathed, illuminating the deep challenge facing US Marines and civilian stabilization specialists as they try to establish basic civic administration.

“The Taliban provided us with a very peaceful environment,’’ said Fakir Mohammed, 32, a tractor driver. “They did not bother us. We were very happy with them here.’’

More from Gates…

The US defence secretary has cautioned against over-optimism in Afghanistan, despite recent gains on the battlefield for international forces there, warning of more "dark days" ahead.

Robert Gates made his comments during a visit to Afghanistan on Monday, his first since Barack Obama, the US president, ordered an increase of 30,000 troops US troops to Afghanistan.

"There is still much fighting ahead, and there will assuredly be some dark days. But looking forward there are grounds for optimism," Gates said at a joint news conference with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president.

Speaking of Karzai…

Karzai pledges to rebuild Marjah

…Karzai visited the former Taliban stronghold in southern Helmand province on Sunday, in his first trip to the town since US, Nato and Afghan troops launched a major military offensive in the region inFebruary.

He met with about 300 local elders in a mosque in central Marjah, where he urged them to support his government in return for security and reconstruction projects.

"Today, I’m here to listen to you and hear your problems," Karzai, who was joined by General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, said.

"The promises that we have made for security and reconstruction, we will fulfil them. Are you against me or with me? Are you going to support me?"

The elders raised their hands and shouted, "We are with you. We are supporting you."

Reuters took a dimmer view on Karzai’s visit…

"Today I’m here to listen to you and to hear your problems," Karzai told a gathering of about 300 local elders assembled on rugs in a mosque near the town’s main bazaar.

The elders shouted at times during two hours of sharp exchanges, decrying looted shops, house searches, civilian casualties, arrests and Western forces using schools as bases.

"I have heard no good news over the last 30 years, just fighting and blasts," said Mohammad Naeem Khan, in his 30s. "We want hospitals, roads, reconstruction projects and security."

"We want an Islamic government based on sharia (Islamic law), that has been the goal of our jihad (holy war) for the last 30 years," said Abdul Aziz Khan, among a list of eight demands that also included releasing prisoners and repairing destroyed shops.

Karzai promised to provide security, open schools and build roads and clinics. When he asked the gathering, "Will you support me?", elders raised their hands and shouted, "We are with you."

Karzai later told reporters: "They had some very legitimate complaints. Very, very legitimate. They felt as though they were abandoned, which in many cases is true. And this sense of abandonment has to go away."

He was joined at the meeting by U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces which have seized most of Marjah in operation Mushtarak, which began last month and has been described as the war’s single biggest offensive.

McChrystal sat on the floor during the meeting, listening to Karzai through an interpreter, but did not speak. He later put a positive spin on the angry words, telling reporters he was "impressed at how they went hard at the issues".

"To me, that’s real democracy in action: people speaking their minds, and nobody seemed hesitant to do that," he said, adding troops would check claims of property damage or looting.

I seem to recall writing about those very same elders telling McChrystal before that…

‘No one here needs liberating’…

"The Taliban didn’t create any problems for people. Every Thursday there was a court session, and if someone had a problem, he would go in front of the Taliban mullah who was the judge," said Samad Khan, a 55-year-old poppy farmer in the village of Saipo on the outskirts of Marjah. The Islamist militant group levied a 10 percent yearly tax on his poppy crop, and let him be.

Now, Khan says, he’s worried that the assault, which began Saturday, is putting his family in danger.

"I’m afraid for my children, for my village, because the fighting is increasing," he said. He’s looking for a way to flee to the nearby provincial capital of Lashkar Gah but said he’s scared to pick his way through the explosive-laced fields to get there. The Taliban planted countless bombs in the area in preparation for the U.S.-led attack.

Btw, do you suppose that Gates cautious optimism is pushback for these scathing reviews on Operation Moshtarak…?

Down the AfPak Rabbit Hole

The village of Marjah is a meaningless strategic backwater. So why are the Pentagon and the press telling us the battle there was a huge victory?

Fiction of Marja as City Was U.S. Information War
For weeks, the U.S. public followed the biggest offensive of the Afghanistan War against what it was told was a "city of 80,000 people" as well as the logistical hub of the Taliban in that part of Helmand. That idea was a central element in the overall impression built up in February that Marja was a major strategic objective, more important than other district centres in Helmand.

Our Special Envoy, Richard Holbrooke, recently clarified our Af/Pak policy…

… Speaking at a Harvard forum, Holbrooke said there were “two different kinds of engagement: reintegration and reconciliation.”

Reconciliation meant that Taliban leaders would begin to bridge their differences with the Kabul government, the eventual goal being some kind of power-sharing. “Let me be clear, ” Holbrooke said, there is no American involvement in any reconciliation process.

The Taliban is woven into the fabric of Pashtun society on both sides of the border with Pakistan, Holbrooke said, and almost every Pashtun family has someone involved with the movement. That’s why Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun himself, was reaching out to them. But there were “no negotiations with them,” Holbrooke said firmly.

Reintegration, on the other hand, means trying to find as many Taliban as possible who could be wooed into changing sides — a bottom-up instead of a top-down approach. American policy was directed at reintegration, Holbrooke said. That’s what was discussed at the recent international conference on Afghanistan in London, and that is what U.S. policy is directed towards.

He made no mention of any potential tension between the two approaches, with Karzai, perhaps, wanting a little more top-level reconciliation effort than the Americans were comfortable with. Nor was he asked about it during question time.

Well, Dick, could ya have Foggy Bottom and the inner E Ring of the Pentagon address this little ‘shortcoming’…?

U.N. Rejects ‘Militarization’ of Afghan Aid

Senior United Nations officials in Afghanistan on Wednesday criticized NATO forces for what one referred to as “the militarization of humanitarian aid,” and said United Nations agencies would not participate in the military’s reconstruction strategy in Marja as part of its current offensive there.

“We are not part of that process, we do not want to be part of it,” said Robert Watkins, the deputy special representative of the secretary general, at a news conference attended by other officials to announce the United Nations’ Humanitarian Action Plan for 2010. “We will not be part of that military strategy.”

The American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, has made the rapid delivery of governmental services, including education, health care and job programs, a central part of his strategy in Marja, referring to plans to rapidly deploy what he has referred to as “a government in a box” once Marja is pacified.

Mr. Watkins did not specifically criticize the Marja offensive, saying, “It is not the military that will be delivering the services, they will be clearing the area so the government can deliver those services.”

God help Kandahar…!