As Gen. David Petraeus takes command in Afghanistan, he inherits ongoing military operations in Marjah and Kandahar and a political process that might bring old enemies to the table. But signs are emerging that in some areas, at least, life is returning to normal and the government is regaining Afghans' trust.
As Gen. David Petraeus takes command in Afghanistan, he'll find key military operations unfinished and a crucial political process that may be just beginning.
The military projects include the ongoing campaign in Marjah and a slow-to-begin campaign in the key southern province of Kandahar.
The political part includes the prospect of seeking a negotiated settlement to the war, a process that might bring old enemies to the table.
McChrystal's Final Days
In the weeks before the scandal that cost him his job, Gen. Stanley McChrystal wasn't exactly enjoying the prerogatives of being the top military commander in Afghanistan.
Instead, he was scrambling to keep his counterinsurgency strategy on track.
After a trip to Kandahar with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to rally support for a growing security operation there, McChrystal stood on the ramp of a cargo plane to talk to reporters.
His first task was to express condolences, "to the families and the comrades of all the Afghans who were murdered in the last week, just in Kandahar."
The commander was drawing attention to the brutality of insurgent attacks on Afghan civilians, but he was also acknowledging that a key element of his counterinsurgency strategy -- protecting the population -- still isn't as strong as it needs to be.
Treating 'A Bleeding Ulcer'
Before McChrystal got into trouble for remarks made to a Rolling Stone magazine reporter, he raised eyebrows with a remark about a key NATO operation in the country's south -- to restore Afghan government control at Marjah. He said the effort had turned into "a bleeding ulcer."
By that, he meant that ongoing clashes with Taliban fighters and mounting coalition casualties were making the initial success of the Marjah offensive look like a longer-term failure.
Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, whose command includes Marjah, says he and fellow commanders want to be sure their bosses have a realistic idea of how long their job will take.
"I think the biggest lesson is that you have to manage expectations," Mills says.
"Managing expectations" has become a mantra for commanders in the Kandahar area, where they routinely tell reporters not to expect a bang-up offensive, but a slow concentration of coalition troops, coupled with a surge in civilian efforts to strengthen the Afghan government.
In Marjah, the Marines closest to the fight say it's tough.
One day last week, Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, attended a memorial for one of his fallen men.
"And then we've had a couple of fights today, which we've lost one Marine and one [Afghan National Army soldier], and a wounded linguist, so it's always tough when that happens," Christmas says.
The losses are part of the deadliest month of the war for coalition forces, with more than 100 killed in June, including 60 U.S. troops.
Progress Despite The Bloodshed
Despite the losses, Christmas says he is seeing progress, especially since local leaders are now willing to be seen cooperating with the Americans.
Just 15 miles northeast of Marjah, in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, life can seem almost normal.
Off-duty Afghan soldiers hang out with their friends and compare motorcycles on the edge of a football stadium.
One soldier, a wiry 24-year-old, declined to give his name because he is not authorized to talk with reporters.
But from his perspective, at the bottom of the chain of command, he says he thinks the government is slowly gaining the trust of local people.
He says it's hard to predict, but unless the Taliban lay down their arms and agree to join the government, it's going to take a long time to end the war.
Karzai has called on the Taliban repeatedly to reconcile with his government, but his spokesmen deny rumors that they are negotiating with the insurgent leadership.
Still, no matter how well his forces do in Marjah, or Kandahar, or in the northern and eastern provinces where violence is escalating, Petraeus' mission may well depend on the political will and negotiating skill of a shaky Afghan government.
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