Afghan Battle Needs Backing Of Local Power Base

U.S. Marines are involved in a major offensive in and around the southern Afghan town of Marjah. The operation is significant because southern Afghanistan is a Taliban stronghold. Renee Montagne talks to Seth Jones, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation about the importance of gaining support from tribal leaders for the U.S. and Afghan operation.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And next door in Afghanistan, Taliban fighters are battling the U.S. Marines and Afghan troops in the southern part of the country. The U.S. and Afghan forces intend to drive the Taliban out of their stronghold in the town of Marja as part of a major offensive. Before the operation began, American commanders sought the support of local tribal elders, thats part of the new strategy to win over people in the region. For some perspective, we turned to Seth Jones of the Rand Corporation. He spent much of last year working with the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Good morning.

Mr. SETH JONES (Political Scientist, Rand Corporation): Good morning, good to be here.

MONTAGNE: Describe for us the state of local governance in Marja, ahead of this military offensive. What was the lay of the land?

Mr. JONES: Well Marja, like much of the Pashtun south, is broken out into a series of tribal, sub-tribe clan leaders. Power is very localized and the primary economy around Marja is the drug trade, the cultivation, the trafficking of narcotics, of poppy. So, it means that part of understanding is Marja, is understanding the power networks operating in the area.

MONTAGNE: And one of those power networks is the Taliban itself. So there was a relationship to the traditional groups and leaders and the Taliban. What was that relationship?

Mr. JONES: Well, the Taliban's relationship in the Marjah area has been primarily to co-opt or coerce and use propaganda that the government is corrupt or incompetent. Or if they can't co-opt, it'll be targeted assassination, very sophisticated bottom-up strategy to intimidate or take advantages of grievances among locals.

MONTAGNE: So before this military operation, the Afghan government and NATO officials met with tribal elders in Marjah, and they say in the range of about 400 elders bought in. How much support do you think that really implies?

Mr. JONES: Well, it's hard to know when you sit down - and I've been involved in a range of these shuras, when you sit down with key tribal leaders. Over the long run what any local shura members will be interested in is the staying presence and the competence of Afghan government and NATO forces. How long will they stay for and how competent will they be in delivering services and security?

And so, in a sense, this is sort of the first or second or third cup of tea, but there will be multiple ones over the next couple of months.

MONTAGNE: Well, in this particular offensive, NATO did something that it hasn't done before. In General Stanley McChrystal's words, it's he says we've got a government in a box ready to roll out meaning they're going to bring in a district administrator, other Afghan officials just sitting, waiting for the fighting to be over. How do you translate that?

Mr. JONES: Well, I think one has to be a little bit careful in governance in these rural Pashtun areas. 'Cause as I noted earlier, the primary power base in Marjah tends to be very localized. And when you look at Pashtun culture, there has been a historical aversion to a strong central government presence. So the concern that I would have is if the solution is a government-in-a-box that will establish order and services in Marjah, I think one has to be very, very careful that that is something in line with what most people on the ground want.

MONTAGNE: Although, if there's been enough negotiation, and if in fact what the people on the ground want are services that they haven't been able to provide for themselves, wouldn't this be a good first step?

Mr. JONES: It would be a good first step. It is important to get the central government involved, but at the same time, one has to recognize there's a delicate balance between how much of a top-down focus you have and how much of a bottom-up focus you have.

MONTAGNE: So, in the big picture of the larger strategy in the South, how in your view does Marjah fit in, and is it in fact as important as it seems from this offensive?

Mr. JONES: This is ultimately a rural insurgency in Afghanistan, and especially in a South it's really the center of gravity for the Taliban. If the NATO forces and the Afghan government can do what they are trying to do in Marjah, in a range of key areas across the south, that will potentially tip this counter-insurgency effort. But Marja's one area across a huge swath of territory.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. JONES: Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation. He spent much of last year working for the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

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