Marjah isn't a particularly important town. Here's Anand Gopal (the excellent journalist who wrote the story about secret US prisons in Afghanistan for The Nation) describing the significance of Marjah on Democracy Now!:
Well, you know, it’s interesting, because Marjah isn’t a particularly strategic place or even a place that holds any really strategic value. It’s a very tiny town in the Helmand province. The official estimate is around 80,000, but I think a lot of Afghans and I also think that’s a huge overestimate.
The Taliban did not respond to the offensive by digging in for a face-to-face battle. Instead, they have elected a guerrilla strategy, as Juan Cole writes. Many of them skipped town, and those that remained have been pestering NATO forces with sniper attacks, mines, and IEDs. Cole believes that they could be hurt by the loss of heroin income from the area, but the poppy industry is so widespread I would imagine that drug lords could move operations elsewhere. Overall, the operation seems unlikely to put a significant dent in the Taliban's operational capacity.
In an interview on Real News Network, Gareth Porter notes the absurdity of putting 15,000 NATO troops, a big chunk of their limited forces, into an assault on an agricultural town with a population of 80,000. The population of Marjah is a tiny, tiny percentage not only of the population of Afghanistan but also just the areas under Taliban control. When you consider that, according to Petraeus counter-insurgency doctrine, NATO forces don't have sufficient troops for the size of the country, the Marjah approach cannot be scaled up to significant portions of the Pashtun areas in which the Taliban dominates. In fact, it might allow Taliban forces free reign in other regions of the country, even in Helmand Province, while limited NATO forces are so concentrated in a small area.
Then, you might ask, what's the point? Gopal and Porter conclude that this operation is oriented toward the audience back home in the US. The Obama administration is likely attempting to utilize the Marjah operation to vindicate the strategy of the escalation and gain points at home. Porter takes that hypothesis one step further, and posits that convincing the home audience that our forces are gaining the upper hand is intended to gain the political breathing room necessary to negotiate with the Taliban, probably after a couple Marjahs more than a year down the road.
Robert Naiman astutely compares this potential political-military strategy with the Iraq escalation. Bush only negotiated with Sunni militias i.e. paid them off in wake of the show of force that the 2006 surge presented. In both cases, the US escalates violence to make its population think that it is winning before negotiating the same result that could have been achieved years earlier without the massive human and economic cost. As Naiman writes, "It's a grim world in which the most powerful country kills people to look tough."
I fervently hope that Gareth Porter is right and that Obama eventually uses negotiation to end the war, both between US and Taliban forces and between the various parties in civil war, after a period of acting tough through escalation (perhaps after the 2012 election?). Absent a strong antiwar movement in the US, that would be the best case scenario. However, thus far his administration has been adamantly opposed to negotiating with Taliban leaders. At the recent Afghanistan conference in London, the US reacted negatively to Hamid Karzai's stated intention of negotiating with the highest Taliban leadership.
Recently the CIA and the Pakistani ISI captured Taliban leader Mullah Omar's right hand man, Abdul Ghani Baradar. The NYT article on his arrest quotes a US official critical of the arrest, saying that the US had been involved in incipient negotiations with Baradar. The article describes Baradar as representing the moderate faction of the Taliban.
"He was the only person intent on or willing for peace negotiations," said Hajji Agha Lalai, former head of the government-led reconciliation process in the city of Kandahar, who has dealt with members of the Taliban leadership council for several years.
Here's what the anonymous US official believes the consequences of this arrest will be:
"So it doesn't make sense why we bite the hand that is feeding us," the official added. "And now the Taliban will have no reason to negotiate with us; they will not believe anything we will offer or say."
This suggests that the arrest has dealt a serious blow to negotiations, by removing the link between Karzai and/or the US and Omar, and by discouraging growing support for negotiation and more moderate politics among the Taliban leadership. It also raises two other important questions. First, who will take Baradar's place? There's the possibility of someone more hard