Battle begins: Marjah fight geared for safety
02-12-2010 07:57 AM
KABUL — Helicopter-borne U.S. Marines and Afghan troops swooped down on the Taliban-held town of Marjah before dawn Saturday, launching a long-expected attack to re-establish government control and undermine support for the militants in their southern heartland.The battle for Marjah is to be a key test of the strategy of the U.S.-led coalition to hammer Taliban radicals and persuade Afghans to help keep the jihadists out, military officials say.“The difference is this operation is structured to protect civilians,” Maj. Gen. Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry, said Thursday.Marjah is a town of about 80,000 people in the Taliban’s southern stronghold of Helmand province. Under the Taliban’s control for months, Marjah is the subject of one of the largest military operations in Afghanistan since the invasion of the country in 2001.Thousands of U.S. and Afghan troops have ringed the town. A U.S.-Afghan force led by the Army’s 5th Stryker Brigade moved south from Lashkar Gah and linked up with Marines on the northern edge, closing off a possible escape route.Two U.S. attack helicopters fired Hellfire missiles at a compound near Marjah where insurgents had fired at the advancing Americans.The plan calls for the Afghan government to quickly re-establish control and bring jobs and security to the region, said Air Force Lt. Col. Todd Vician, a military spokesman in Kabul.The U.S. military sacrificed the element of surprise in announcing the attack on Marjah to protect the townspeople and not alienate those who may be thinking of abandoning the Taliban.On Thursday, Afghanistan’s interior minister, Hanif Atmar, met with a group of tribal elders to explain the goals of the operation and ask for their support.“This operation is designed to open the way for those Afghans who want to join the peace process and to use the military power against those foreign terrorists who are hiding here,” Atmar told the elders during a meeting in Lashkar Gah, the Helmand provincial capital about 20 miles northeast of Marjah.The elders told Atmar their support depended on how the operation was carried out and whether a large number of civilians were killed or injured. One elder, Mohebullah Torpatkai, said that if the operation improves civilians’ lives, “we the people of Marjah will fully support it.”Azimi said intelligence suggests the Taliban will avoid a major confrontation and attempt to slip the noose. Fighters who have joined the Taliban for money rather than jihadist ideology will be encouraged to lay down their arms and remain, he said.There are indications the message is being received.“Groups along the edge of the city are already telling Marines, ‘Hey, we’re ready for you guys to come in,’ “ said Marine Col. Paul Kennedy, who commands a regiment that will come to Helmand as part of a surge of U.S. forces ordered by President Obama. “These guys would have to be idiots to try to go toe to toe.”Marjah is crisscrossed by canals, which makes movement difficult and favors defenders. Azimi said the insurgents have probably seeded the area with roadside bombs.“This may be the largest IED threat and largest minefield that NATO has ever faced,” said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of Marines in southern Afghanistan.Marjah is important because the town, like other locales in Helmand province, is a source of income for the Taliban, according to the Pentagon.Helmand province is where much of Afghanistan’s poppy crop is grown. The plants’ opium is extracted and used to make heroin. Afghanistan is the world’s largest opium producer, and money from the drug trade helps bankroll jihadists, according to the State Department.Marines moved into the province last year and cleared Taliban fighters from most small villages and towns in Helmand.Many Taliban members retreated to Marjah, creating a dangerous mix of insurgents, criminals and drug traffickers, the Pentagon said.“Marjah has to be cracked open,” Marine Gen. James Conway said in December.Azimi said that once coalition forces are victorious, Marjah can be kept safe by Afghan soldiers.“We have enough forces in the area to maintain long-term security,” Azimi said.———The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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