Even as the Marines' battle for Marja grabs headlines, it's diverting attention from a bigger story. Though the Taliban is entrenched in Helmand province, where Marja is situated, its grip is slipping in the rest of Afghanistan as President Barack Obama's 30,000-troop surge unfolds.
These developments undercut the common belief that America is doomed to fail in a land of fiercely tribal, pro-Taliban Pashtuns who hate infidel invaders. In fact, Afghanistan's demography, sociology, military situation, and politics all favor Obama's counterinsurgency strategy. That's why it's working.
The strategy, devised by U.S. and NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, aims to win over Afghans by protecting them from the Taliban, restraining firepower to limit civilian casualties, and speeding up development, along with seizing Taliban sanctuaries like Marja. It has six things going for it.
Most Afghans aren't Pashtuns —and most Pashtuns oppose the Taliban. Three fifths of Afghans are Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara, and other ethnicities who suffered under Taliban rule and dread its return. What's more, while most Taliban fighters are Pashtun, 70 percent of Pashtuns dislike the Taliban. Only one Pashtun in four favors the insurgents. Most Pashtuns desire closer ties with the West. Why? Polls say they, like other Afghans, mainly want jobs, electricity, and reconstruction—none of which the Taliban offers.
Civilian casualties are down. Despite tragedies like last week's errant airstrike that killed 27 noncombatants, McChrystal's strategy cut civilian deaths from U.S. and NATO action by 30 percent, to 596 last year. The Taliban killed many more civilians in 2009: 1,630, a 60 percent jump from 2008. Afghans noticed. Over the course of 2009, polls show, they started blaming Afghanistan's violence on the Taliban instead of the Americans.
Afghans feel more secure when U.S. troops are around. As U.S. forces have surged in Afghanistan, so has their popularity. Support for the U.S. military presence climbed 5 points in 2009 to 68 percent, reversing three years of decline. Polls show that Afghans have confidence in U.S. forces when they think the American presence is strong in their area. Civilian casualties worry them, but Afghans' chief gripe about our forces is their absence, not their presence.
Afghan forces are gaining on-the-ground presence and popularity. Afghanistan's Army and police are surging, too, doubling in size since 2008. As they've fanned out, the proportion of Afghans reporting a weak government presence where they live has fallen by half, to just 19 percent. Greater presence has raised the forces' standing with their people. Despite often-justified criticism of both forces for ineptitude and corruption, December's ABC News poll found 70 percent of Afghans are positive about the Army and 62 percent about the police, significantly up from a year before. Though government forces have failings, most Afghans prefer them to the Taliban for security.
The Taliban is stuck in thinly populated rural areas. ABC's poll showed that the Taliban gained little ground in 2009, even as it killed more. Only 14 percent of Afghans said it was strong in their areas, the same as the year before. The Taliban had infiltrated most Pashtun areas by 2008, leaving few other easy targets—and those big swaths of the map under Taliban influence have few people. So McChrystal's focus on protecting towns and other populated areas from Taliban attack makes sense.
The antigovernment alliance is showing cracks. Osama bin Laden is disliked by over half of Afghans, especially influential male elders in the Pashtun south. Polls also show Taliban supporters detest the Hezb-i-Islami movement of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Taliban ally, while Hekmatyar supporters return the disfavor. Moreover, one third to one half of Afghans mention poor local security or compulsion as the reason people in their areas support the insurgents, just as many as cite religion. Many Taliban supporters aren't religious fanatics; offer what they want or play on their divisions and they can be peeled away.
The fight for Marja is the climax of the struggle for Helmand, home of the majority of the Taliban's full-time fighters and lucrative opium revenues. It's the Anbar province of Afghanistan: like its Iraqi equivalent, it must be taken to remove an insurgent heartland.
But Afghanistan's main battle is elsewhere. If the Taliban can't gain popular support or silence, it can't win. Obama's gamble recognizes this—and it's started to pay off.