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Since it's an opening salvo in what promises to be a long, hard-fought year, McChrystal knew Operation Moshtarak would influence perceptions, among allies and enemies alike, about how the war would be fought and how the peace would be waged. Managing those perceptions would be key to victory. "This is not a physical war, in terms of how many people we kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up," he told reporters in Istanbul on Feb. 4. "This is all in the minds of the participants. The Afghan people are the most important, but the insurgents are [too]. And of course, part of what we've had to do is convince ourselves and our Afghan partners that we can do this."
The offensive was months in the planning, and little effort was made to keep it secret. If the Taliban chose to melt away rather than resist, McChrystal reasoned, it would give him more time to set up a robust administration a good advertisement for those in other towns where NATO troops would soon have to fight. U.S. commanders even ordered an opinion poll of Marjah residents: they wanted to know how they felt about the U.S. and the Taliban and to gauge what they might want from his government in a box.
When the operation got under way, it quickly became clear that only about 400 Taliban had dug in to fight. As in other such encounters between an overwhelming Western military and a local insurgency in Iraq's Diyala province, for instance the greatest threat to the troops came from roadside bombs and sniper fire. By Feb. 23, 13 NATO troops had been killed, as the U.S. total in the Afghan war pushed past 1,000. Estimates of Taliban casualties were around 120. Civilian casualties were low for such an intense offensive: 28 were killed in the fighting, though as the operation progressed, there was some bad news when a pair of air strikes, one near Marjah, killed 39 civilians.
As pockets of resistance continued, commanders downplayed expectations of a speedy campaign. "I guess it will take us another 25 to 30 days to be entirely sure that we have secured that which needs to be secured," British Major General Nick Carter, the top NATO commander in southern Afghanistan, told reporters on Feb. 18. "And we probably won't know for about 120 days whether or not the population is entirely convinced by the degree of commitment that their government is showing to them." If McChrystal's forces prevail, Operation Moshtarak will serve as the template for the far more challenging battle this summer, the battle for Kandahar. With nearly 500,000 people, it is the Taliban's spiritual capital. The city is nominally under NATO control, but there are reportedly thousands of Taliban in and around it and every expectation that many will make a bloody stand.
The Pakistani Play
Under normal circumstances, in planning his offensive McChrystal would have had to keep a close watch on Afghanistan's difficult neighbor. Pakistan's support for the Taliban and the Haqqani network has frequently bedeviled U.S. military plans, as Afghan fighters have too easily slipped across the border and found sanctuary. But a year's worth of diplomatic pressure on Islamabad began to pay off before Operation Moshtarak: Pakistan launched a major military offensive of its own in South Waziristan, not against the Afghan Taliban but against its Pakistani cousins known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan or TTP.
The Pakistani change of heart had been a long time coming. It was influenced by the TTP's bloody campaign of suicide attacks in Pakistani cities, often targeting military and ISI compounds. "I can remember anecdotally where we had questions for our team in Pakistan at one point and they couldn't get a hold of their ISI counterparts because they were too busy attending funerals of their key leadership," says a U.S. counterterrorism official. This, along with the militants' brazen capture of a town some 40 miles (65 km) from the Pakistani capital last spring, did more than any American finger-wagging to convince Islamabad that the TTP needed to be taken down. The U.S. helped by mounting drone strikes on TTP leaders, killing its founder, Baitullah Mehsud, last summer and possibly his successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, in January.