Operation Moshtarak under way in Afghanistan's Helmand province

The first major offensive in Afghanistan under Barack Obama’s command has begun this weekend as Coalition troops swarmed into the Helmand Province town of Marjah.  The Taliban had increased its strength in Helmand in part by holding Marjah, and first reports have them falling back into a smaller perimeter inside the city as air and ground forces attack.  Operation Moshtarak (“Together”) aims to cripple the Taliban in their primary position of strength:

The massive offensive was aimed at establishing Afghan government authority over the biggest southern town under militant control and breaking the Taliban grip over a wide area of their southern heartland.

Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, NATO commander of forces in southern Afghanistan, said Afghan and coalition troops, aided by 60 helicopters, made a “successful insertion” into Marjah in southern Helmand province. He said the operation was going “without a hitch.”

Thousands of British, U.S. and Canadian troops also swept into Taliban areas to the north of Marjah, seeking to clear a wide swath of villages that had been under Taliban control for several years. …

The few civilians who ventured out to talk to the Marines said teams of Taliban fighters were falling back deeper into the town, perhaps to try to regroup and mount harassment attacks to prevent the government from rushing in aid and public services _ a key step in the operation.

The long-awaited assault on Marjah is the biggest offensive since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and is a major test of a new NATO strategy focused on protecting civilians. The attack is also the first major combat operation since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 U.S. reinforcements here in December to try to turn the tide of the war.

The results of this offensive won’t really be known for months.  The Taliban have to hold onto Helmand to maintain credibility as a force in Afghanistan, but they have been remarkably flexible about how they do so for much longer than the US has been fighting there.  If we can free Marjah and deliver government services in an efficient manner, that will go a long way toward building the Kabul government’s credibility and undermining the Taliban’s threat, but only if the Marjah Afghans believe that the government will remain in business in Helmand.

To a great extent, that depends on the determination of NATO, the US, and Barack Obama.  With major coalition partner Canada due to exit its commitment at the end of next year — no great surprise, considering the snub they received from Obama last year and their own domestic politics — Obama has about 18 months to secure Helmand and build up an Afghan contingent that can replace the Canadians and other NATO partners in holding it.  Operation Moshtarak may mean “together,” but togetherness has an expiration date.  That’s one reason why Obama had to flood the zone in order to have a chance at crippling the Taliban and convincing the Pashtuns to cut ties with its extremist leadership.

We’ll see a lot of tactical success in the first days of Moshtarak, and that will be very good news.  Keep focused on the weeks and months ahead to see whether we’ve built on that success, or whether we’ve had to hunker down in Helmand instead.  And keep the troops, their commanders, and their Commander-in-Chief in your prayers, because they’ll all need them to prevail.