When U.S., NATO and Afghan troops began an offensive in Marjah last week, it represented more than just an operation to clear Taliban militants from one of their key strongholds in southern Afghanistan. It was also an informal unveiling of President Obama's new strategy to turn around the increasingly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.
"I think that it's very important that the president is able to demonstrate that forward momentum is possible," says Alex Thier, the director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
He says the Marjah campaign has been framed, in part, as a way to regain the upper hand against the Taliban. "But also as the first step in a broader campaign to try and demonstrate that the Afghan government and the U.S. military can, in fact, take back control of territory and then can govern it," he adds.
Thier says there is a lot of pressure — and expectation — riding on the Marjah offensive, and that it's critical to show the strategy can turn things around. Obama has staked much of his foreign policy capital on his new strategy, and has committed roughly 30,000 more U.S. troops and hundreds of civilians to the effort.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that U.S.-led forces are making steady progress in the Marjah offensive.
"We will see success in Marjah, but we must be patient ... the long view here is the best view," he said.
Time For The Long View?
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, says the Obama administration needs to demonstrate success on the ground in Marjah in order to reverse waning public support for the war.
"I think if it can demonstrate some tangible success in a place like Marjah, it can actually build stronger support with the broader public and then deal with what is a skeptical Congress," he says.
But, Katulis says, demonstrating tangible success may not be easy — or quick. Analysts say certainly the first phase — clearing Taliban fighters from the area — is doable. The next phase — building up a local government that is able to provide security, justice and basic services — is much harder to implement.
Christine Fair, a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, says this phase has bedeviled U.S. and NATO forces so far.
"We don't lose a battle to the Taliban — the problem is that we can't hold it," she says. "And it's when we withdraw from the area that the Taliban come back."
'Government In A Box'
This time, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, is introducing the so-called government in a box. It's an effort to quickly put local authorities in place once the area has been cleared of Taliban militants.
"I do think that part of the strategy — and so much is hinging on it — is that they really do want to get to a place where they can transfer sovereignty on a district-by-district, conditions-based process," Fair says.
Thier, with the U.S. Institute of Peace, says if the experiment in Marjah is successful, it could be critical to keeping NATO allies on board in Afghanistan. There are concerns that the Dutch government's decision not to extend its mission in Afghanistan after this year could touch off a domino effect.
Thier says many of the roughly 40 countries in Afghanistan signed up for a peacekeeping mission that involved rebuilding after years of war. Thier says success in Marjah could help keep them on.
"If the operation in Marjah is successful, then there will be more room for those allies to play a peacekeeping role," he says. "In other words, doing the reconstruction piece, doing the policing piece — the things that they want to be doing, as opposed to shooting at armed combatants, which is what a lot of them don't want to be doing."
Thier says a success in Marjah could mean the new strategy could be applied elsewhere, including Kandahar, which is the political and spiritual epicenter of the insurgency.