For months, President Obama and his advisers labored to come up with a successful strategy for Afghanistan. That strategy is now being put to the test in Marja, a Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province, and Americans should pay attention.

For months, President Obama and his advisers labored to come up with a successful strategy for Afghanistan. That strategy is now being put to the test in Marja, a Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province, and Americans should pay attention.


The Marja offensive is the biggest operation since the battle of Fallujah, a comparison Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, resists. Marines fought their way into Fallujah in April 2004, a low point for U.S. troops in the Iraq war, then left it to the Iraqis. Seven months later, U.S. troops again had to storm Fallujah, with great destruction and loss of life, because it had become a center of the Iraqi resistance in Anbar Province.


"We don't want Fallujah," McChrystal told The New York Times as Marines entered Marja. "Fallujah is not the model."


McChrystal's new model is one where troops make every effort to minimize destruction and loss of life, particularly civilian deaths. The test is what happens after the territory has been secured, he says. With that in mind, McChrystal has what he calls a "government in a box" Afghan civil servants, foreign advisers and Afghan police ready to set up shop in Marja as soon as the Marines have cleared out the Taliban.


Success in war is all about tactical adaptation, and the Taliban are already adapting, using more human shields for protection. Even without those tactics, civilian deaths are unavoidable. While there is no moral equivalence between civilians accidentally killed by NATO troops targeting Taliban soldiers and Afghan civilians targeted by Taliban suicide bombers, a force of outsiders must meet a higher standard if it is to win the trust of the Afghan people.


If NATO troops can secure, hold and build in Marja, the model will be applied elsewhere and the Taliban's grip on Afghanistan's rural areas will slip. But the degree of difficulty is huge, and requires U.S. troops to change the way they approach their jobs.


"The population is not the enemy," Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson told the Times, "The population is the prize."


Polls indicate most Americans just want the troops to come home. All should be pulling for McChrystal's strategy to succeed.


The MetroWest Daily News