In late September 2010, full-scale combat operations began around the large city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. Dubbed Operation DRAGON STRIKE, this military mission is being carried out by the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and aims to end insurgent violence in and around the city, which has served as a refuge for members of the Taliban for years. While military leaders are confident that the battle for Kandahar will be an important turning point in the ongoing Afghanistan War, the lasting impact of Operation DRAGON STRIKE can only be gauged with time.
Earlier this year, similar hopes were pinned on Operation MOSHTARAK, another joint ANA-NATO military venture. In this case, the focus was the community of Marja, located in the Nad Ali District of Helmand Province. Although small, Marja has long been a Taliban stronghold because of its location in Afghanistan's lucrative "poppy belt," where some 60% of citizens earn a living through illicit opium production and trafficking. In addition to destroying the Taliban's presence in the area, Afghan and NATO leaders intended the operation to serve as an important symbolic victory. They hoped that success would prove that the Afghan armed forces, which took a leading role in the operation, were capable of protecting the Afghan people and establishing and maintaining stability in the war-torn country.
Launched on February 13, 2010, Operation MOSHTARAK was the largest military operation in Afghanistan since the initial ousting of the Taliban in 2001. Although troops were able to root out many insurgents in the first weeks, within a few months it became clear that the mission had not been as successful as initially hoped. Taliban guerrillas continued to carry out devastating attacks, and poppy fields went largely spared in an effort to avoid alienating Marja's residents. Commanders on the ground were forced to reassess the situation and admitted that it might be several years before stability in the region is achieved. Initially touted as a decisive "game changer," the battle for Marja proved to be only one piece in a very complex puzzle.
As Marja demonstrates, it is difficult to judge the lasting impact of current military events. The true significance of particular battles can only be determined with the passage of time. And military victory is not the only metric for importance; battles may have far-reaching political, economic, and cultural consequences that only become apparent months, years, or even generations later.