U.S. Marines, together with British and Afghan forces, are priming the pump for a long-awaited offensive against a Taliban’s major redoubt in the south of the country.
Coalition aircraft on Sunday dropped leaflets over Helmand Province’s Marjah District, advising its estimated 80,000 residents of the impending operation and warning Taliban gunmen to either flee, surrender or be killed, according to news reports.
Illumination rounds were also fired into Marjah after sundown from surrounding areas to rattle insurgents and punctuate International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) resolve break the Taliban’s grip on the district.
"What we’re doing is we’re trying to signal to the Afghan people that we are expanding security where they live,” U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of international forces in Afghanistan, said at a news briefing last week in Turkey. “We are trying also to signal to the insurgents, the Taliban primarily in this area and the narcotraffickers, that it’s (the security situation) about to change.
“If they want to fight, then obviously that will have to be an outcome. But if they don’t want to fight, that’s fine too.”
Marjah is an agricultural area about 15 miles south of the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. It’s the major Taliban supply and assembly point for the central and southern reaches of the province as well as a major opium producing and drug refining area.
When U.S. Marine forces last year swept through the neighboring Nawa and Garmser districts, many Taliban gunmen fled to Marjah. It’s from Marjah that insurgents continue to re-infliltrate neighboring areas to intimidate the local population and set up cells for planting improvised explosive devices.
Improved security in the two districts and increasing Afghan government control, brought about by U.S. troops and Afghan forces, not only interferes with the Taliban’s supply routes it interferes with access to a major source of income — drugs.
U.S. and United Nations officials say the Taliban — if not directly involved in the growing of opium, from which heroin is derived — levies taxes on every step of its production and transport.
No date for the offensive by U.S. and Afghan forces against the Taliban in Marjah has been disclosed, but troops are reportedly moving to jump-off points. Gen. McChrystal would only say “soon,” but it has been expected for months.
Troops from the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines in Garmser, say they expect to play a supporting role in the operation, which will occur to the north of them.
The attack on Marjah — when it does come, and it will sooner rather than later — underlines McChrystal’s aggressive strategy in the Afghan war and concerns in its implementation.
“… The fight is not an annual cyclical campaign of kinetics driven by an insurgent “fighting season,” he said in an assessment given to President Barak Obama last year.
In the past, winter saw a drop in kinetic activity since snow and ice closed mountain passes the Taliban used for transiting fighters and supplies from sanctuaries in Pakistan into northeast Afghanistan; rains elsewhere bogged down both sides.
In early December, however, a thousand U.S. Marines and Afghan troops unexpectedly stormed the town of Now Zad in northern Helmand Province in an air and ground assault.
The operation, which saw little fighting, closed down an important Taliban hub in the northern provincial sector. Troops said the Taliban, who had dug in positions and huge stores of supplies, fled when outflanked by coalition forces.
Since the town of Now Zad was only occupied by Taliban — it had forced residents to move out to nearby villages years before — the chance of civilian casualties was diminished.
The leafleting and illumination rounds, together with a very public moving of forces to jump off points near Marjah, can be viewed as a prompt to civilians to flee the area or take shelter before the operation, thus decreasing the odds of collateral damage.
Civilian deaths and injuries, no matter how unavoidable, would feed bitterness and hinder the hearts-and-minds outreach which is sure to quickly follow the kinetics.
In Now Zad, for example, mobile medical clinics and a school was started within days of the town’s liberation from the Taliban and hundreds of villagers joined the ranks of paid volunteers to clean up damage to the area. Talk among Marines then was that the operation to liberate Now Zad was a test run for strategy and tactics to be employed in the liberation of Marjah.
In Garmser last month Marines pushed north and south from their bases to extend coalition presence through outposts and patrols and clear more sections of a major roadway of improvised explosive devices. But the push was not a new operation per se. It was simply a continuation of earlier security and governance battalion initiatives.
Coalition outposts, which form a security cordon around population centers, are vital to the war. It is from outposts that Marines and others conduct the daily hearts-and-minds interaction and programs that undermine Taliban influence, which is turn helps build ties between villagers and the Afghan government.
“We are depleting their resources, we operate at a faster tempo than they can operate, we have a district support team that is making stability projects, schools and refurbishment of canals happen,” Lt. Col. John McDonough, commander of 2-2 in Garmser District, a former Taliban stronghold, explained.
Capt. Scott Cuomo, commander of 2-2’s Fox Company, said a sign that the strategy is working in his area is the number of IEDs being found and how they are found.
“We found 67 IEDs from the beginning of November to mid-January and locals told us about 51 of them,” he said.”
Whether or not Marjah is taken with or without major gun battles is toss up. But liberating it from the Taliban will go a long way to improving security in other areas of one of Afghanistan’s most volatile provinces.