‘Government in a box’ in Marja


What you see depends on where you sit. My seat at present is in Marfa, a small town in rural West Texas. Yet Marfa turns out to be an oddly instructive vantage point from which to contemplate the latest developments in far-off Afghanistan.

On Saturday, U.S. Marines and other coalition troops launched the largest allied offensive since Operation Enduring Freedom began nearly nine years ago. The target of that assault is Marja, a mostly Pashtun city in the heart of Helmand province. The senior Marine commander on the ground promised “to go in big, strong and fast.”

In fact, the operation is proceeding with notable deliberation. Yet what matters in Marja is not the fight itself -- in that regard, the coalition’s superior forces mean the outcome is foreordained -- but what comes next.

The purpose of Operation Moshtarak (Dari for “together”) is to clear the Taliban from the city and then to fix the place, winning the hearts and minds of the local population. Toward that end, said Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in.” As government arrives on the coattails of the Marines, it will ensure law and order, set up schools and clinics, repair roads, revitalize the irrigation system and cajole farmers into cultivating something other than opium poppies. The successful transformation of Marja will demonstrate the viability of McChrystal’s plan to transform Afghanistan as a whole. At least that’s the idea.

The United States tried once before to transform Marja and its environs. An ambitious agricultural reform program sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development in the 1950s proved a total flop in terms of lasting changes.

What presumably promises to produce a different outcome this time around -- the factor that will make change stick -- is the direct involvement of the United States military. The unstated assumption: The sustained presence of U.S. troops implies real and lasting results. What worked in Germany and Japan after 1945 ought to work in Afghanistan today.

Yet the very rich military history of Marfa, Texas, suggests another possibility. American soldiers arrived here on the arid, high plains of the Big Bend region in 1911 to help secure the Mexican border, then the site of considerable violence. They remained for decades, first at Ft. D.A. Russell, a cavalry post erected on the outskirts of town, and then at Marfa Army Airfield, a training complex built during World War II.

While it lasted, that military presence loomed large in the town’s daily life. The cavalry troopers of the prewar army and the hordes of draftees passing through during the war underwrote the local economy. Their paychecks kept afloat movie theaters, restaurants, saloons and other establishments catering to the needs of young men.

With the end of World War II, however, the army abruptly pulled up stakes and left. The military’s impact proved strikingly ephemeral. Today the prairie has long since reclaimed the old runways. The site of Ft. D.A. Russell is now part residential neighborhood, part arts complex, and mostly an archaeological ruin. People here still cultivate the memory of James Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, who spent a few weeks in Marfa filming “Giant” in the 1950s. By comparison, the legacy of the soldiers who served here for more than 30 years is scarcely perceptible.

Marfa remains incorrigibly Marfa, its identity deriving (not unlike Marja’s) from a mix of cultural, ethnic and religious values, reinforced by habit and inertia. To parachute some prefab government, identity or reality “out of a box” into Marfa (population 2,200) with expectations of remaking the place would be a fool’s errand. You might as well volunteer to have your pocket picked.

Yet that is precisely what the United States expects to accomplish in Marja (population 85,000) before moving on to the rest of Afghanistan (population about 28 million).

Melodramatic news reports frequently refer to Afghanistan as “the graveyard of empires.” But you don’t need a graduate degree in Central Asian history to know how Operation Moshtarak is likely to end. It’s enough to know the history of small American towns where soldiers came, stayed awhile and then moved on, leaving hardly a trace.

No doubt the Marines will succeed in securing Marja. Their commanders promise to stay on to see the mission through, and they may even believe what they say. Yet when the last American climbs aboard a departing helicopter -- probably within a few years at most -- Marja will remain incorrigibly Marja. A couple of decades from now, no one will remember why the Marines came or what they did.

Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, is completing a Lannan Writing Residency Fellowship in Marfa, Texas.