In mid-February, a thousands-strong joint U.S. and Afghan force began the assault on Marja, an Afghanistan town said to be a Taliban "stronghold." The attack was the largest U.S. operation in Afghanistan since the original 2001 invasion, serving as a test of President Obama's more aggressive Afghan strategy. The attack itself was a success, with the joint force now holding the town. But the real tests come next. Attacking Taliban outposts is one thing, but the U.S. faces subtle but crucial tests in political and social engagement in Marja. How U.S. forces proceed, and how they fare, could say much about the broader mission in Afghanistan.

  • Impoverished Civilians Greatest Front  In The New York Times, Central Asia expert Joshua Foust worries about engaging the locals. "The international coalition's strategic goal for Afghanistan is to build 'an enduring stable, secure, prosperous and democratic state.' Only by focusing on the messy medium-term stages of reconstruction -- those months, and possibly years, after the fighting dies down -- do we have any chance of achieving such a goal," he writes. "The most pressing problem is displaced civilians," of which there are up to 25,000.
  • U.S. Gains The Momentum  The New York Times' Dexter Filkins cheers the U.S. assault, which he says has restored the initiative to the U.S. side for the first time since the war began. "Any historian, or any general, would tell you the same: Lose the initiative on the battlefield, and it's awfully hard to get it back," he writes. "It's been a long time since the Americans seemed to be in the driver's seat here -- or to be on top of things at all." But the Marja assault may be the turning point.
  • Misguided Obsession With 'Assaults'  Foreign Policy's Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason furiously insist that Marja has no strategic value and the invasion was a show of vanity. "Taking this nearly worthless postage stamp of real estate has tied down about half of all the real combat power and aviation assets of the international coalition in Afghanistan for a quarter of a year. The possibility that wasting massive amounts of U.S. and British blood, treasure, and time just to establish an Afghan Potemkin village with a 'government in a box' might be exactly what the Taliban wants the coalition to do has apparently not occurred to either the press or to the generals who designed this operation."
  • Taliban Popular, Gov't Isn't  The Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran attends a meeting of Marja elders and Kabul officials. "Their questions made clear that the Taliban still enjoys deep support here, and that the Afghan government is almost universally loathed, illuminating the deep challenge facing Marines and civilian stabilization specialists as they try to establish basic civic administration," he writes. "Several residents said they were less interested in government services than being left alone. The principal cash crop in Marja is opium-producing poppy, and many farmers are wary that the establishment of local governance and a police force will put an end to what has been a lucrative way of life for them."
  • Guns and Governance  The Weekly Standard's John Noonan writes, "Marine officers carried briefcases full of currency, and they instantly paid for collateral damage to homes and businesses. It was a fascinating amalgamation of fighting styles, with the normally heavy and fast MOUT (military operations on urban terrain) operations subdued by the delicate, deliberate pace of a counter-insurgency. This is the new face of U.S. war fighting, destruction becomes construction, grunts become governors."
  • Compromising Our Safety With Theirs  National Journal's Sydney Freedberg points out that the reduction of air power makes Afghan civilians safer but American "foot soldiers think they're fighting with one hand tied behind their back." He asks, "When is it worth putting Americans at greater risk to reduce the danger to foreign civilians? Is this really the way to defeat a hardened enemy that has no such scruples? Where do we draw this line?"
  • Afghans Really Hate Afghan Police  Spencer Ackerman worries, because the Afghan National Police are arriving in truckloads. An Afghan civilian told the U.S. military, "We're with you. We want to help you build. We will support you. But if you bring in the cops, we will fight you till death." Ackerman writes, "I don't know if there's a way around bringing new cops into a place where the presence of any cops yields a we-will-fight-you-till-death warning, but it's either keep the Marines for longer than expected to hold Marja and buy some time for trust to develop between the police and the community."