Kandahar, Afghanistan — Thousands of American, British and Afghan troops began their long-awaited offensive Saturday against the Taliban’s last major stronghold in southern Afghanistan as the terrorist organization vowed continued guerrilla war no matter the outcome.
The operation, dubbed Mushtarak ("together" in the Dari language), follows months of preparation by both sides and days of a psyops/information campaign by coalition forces to undermine Taliban morale in the area and encourage local residents to stay in their homes to avoid injury.
Reports from Marjah tell of hit-and-run firefights with insurgents, swathes of enemy planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on the approaches to the town and booby trapped buildings within it.
That heavy use of IEDs in a built up areas fits the Taliban template U.S. Marines encountered in early December during a surprise assault on Now Zad, a northern insurgent stronghold.
The exact number of Taliban fighters in Marjah, just south of the Helmand provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, is not known but it could be as high as a thousand. The town and surrounding area has long been a Taliban hub for logistics and narcotics trafficking. Its importance to insurgents increased greatly from last summer when Marines took over the neighboring districts of Nawa and Garmser.
Given superior numbers, weaponry and logistics, coalition success in the kinetic portion of the operation isn’t in doubt. But it’s when kinetics decrease that the real battle for Marjah begins.
“We have to help them (the civilians) understand what ‘better’ is,” said a Marine who deals with intelligence matters, “because for a lot of them, it has been been fear (of Taliban reprisals) that drives everything they do.”
The Marine, from Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, was speaking of an area in the Garmser district, south of Marjah. But the observation will hold true for Marjah, just as it does other districts, towns and villages around the country where there is coalition presence.
“Better” means increased physical security for the people from re-infiltrating Taliban cells and individual operatives in hiding among the people. It means refurbishment of irrigation canals, establishment of medical clinics and schools, all done with an Afghan government face on the projects to foster ties between central and provincial authorities and the people.
It’s a slow and long process, part and parcel of hearts-and-minds counter-insurgency operations.
In post-invasion Marjah coalition outposts will be established around the town and villages to form security cordons. From these posts, squads of troops will patrol daily to continue clearing of IEDs and weapons caches, to establish working relationships with villagers and village elders and to conduct development assessments and project initiatives, all of which undermines any Taliban effort to reassert influence.
The Nawa and Garmser districts are good illustrations of the progress that can be made. When first occupied by U.S. Marines and their Afghan counter-parts last summer, IED blasts and ambushes happened almost daily, U.S. troops said. Afghans, after 30 years of war and mindful that the nail that sticks out gets hammered down, at first gave no useful information to U.S. forces.
Today, IEDs are being planted in lesser numbers and many of them are being pointed out to troops.
In some instances, villagers come to the outposts to give the information. Others leave tell-tale markers outside their homes that only coalition forces will recognize as a signal there are Taliban in the area and the villager has information to give.
During five months in Afghanistan embedded with U.S. troops, Marines and soldiers alike repeatedly stressed that fundamental to gaining cooperation from local people is convincing them that U.S. and Afghan forces will not withdraw and leave them wide open to unfettered Taliban retribution.
With President Barak Obama setting 2011 as the U.S. withdrawal date from Afghanistan, international efforts are increasing on properly training and deploying greater numbers of Afghan troops around the country to keep security promises to locals.
According to a news report by the French news agency AFP, a senior Taliban commander in Marjah has vowed no let up to its activities.
"I can say at this point that we’ll be using tactics we deployed in the Nawa and Khanishin operations," in response to coalition offensive last year, he said.
For coalition forces in Marjah, that means when the kinetic offensive morphs into hearts-and-minds operations, there will be months of monotonous security patrols and IED finds, months of village elder meetings and months of baby-step measures to show “better.”
And that raises the other challenge for U.S. soldiers and Marines, who are trained for kinetic warfare with physical objectives.
“Your biggest fight on a daily basis is the hearts and minds of your own men,” said Capt. Scott Cuomo, commander of 2-2’s Fox Company. “The biggest challenge on a daily basis is to make the Marines understand they’re being successful.”