Is the violence a predictable summer fight for an area the Taliban and those who profit from the drug economy do not want to lose; in other words, an unsurprising flare-up that can be turned around? Or will Marja remain bloody for a long time, allowing insurgents to inflict sustained losses on American units and win merely by keeping the fight alive?
According to Chivers and the Marines on the ground, it's too soon to tell.
Meanwhile, Marines are wounded by bombs or shot each week. The violence in itself does not mean that the campaign is lost. Fighting is normal to war, a concept sometimes played down in discussions about the United States’ counterinsurgency doctrine, which emphasizes developing relationships with the population and helping government agencies gain credibility and provide services.
Those directly involved caution that a few months of fighting is not necessarily a basis for grim forecasts, especially during the first summer in a former Taliban enclave. American commanders have been voicing frustration nonetheless, as was evident last month in Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s description of Marja as “a bleeding ulcer.”
The remark underscores perhaps the clearest conclusion that can be drawn thus far. Even before the last troops of the Obama administration’s surge arrive in Afghanistan, high-level American commanders appear pressed for time, no matter the complexities faced by troops on the ground.
Chivers points out that Marine tactics have changed in the past year, and the new approach means more direct contact with combatants, compared to earlier reliance on airstrikes and artillery. Less collateral damage to civilians means more wounded and dead Marines.
The pace of Marine patrols has also increased as they seek to perform the most basic of combat techniques - seek and maintain contact with the enemy.
As Chivers notes, everyone feels the pressure of time on combat operations. It's unlikely that the Obama administration will commit more troops or delay the planned 2011 pullout from Afghanistan unless there is empirical evidence of progress.