Large military offensive planned on Afghan town
US push would be biggest joint effort since start of war
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan - US troops and their Afghan and NATO allies are planning their biggest joint offensive since the Afghan war’s start, targeting a town in the volatile south known as a Taliban stronghold and a hub of their lucrative opium trade, officers said yesterday.
No date for the start of the offensive has been released for security reasons. But US commanders have said they plan to capture the town of Marjah, 380 miles southwest of Kabul, this winter.
It is to be the first major offensive since President Obama ordered 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan, and many of the Marines set to participate were part of the surge.
Up to 125,000 people are believed to live in the district around Marjah, an agricultural center in Helmand Province surrounded by a maze of irrigation canals built with US aid in the 1950s and 1960s. About 80,000 people live in or around the town.
Between 600 and 1,000 Taliban and foreign fighters are thought to operate in the area, US officers say. NATO officials will not say how many NATO and Afghan troops have been earmarked for the offensive, but they are expected to vastly outnumber the Taliban and their allies.
In Kabul, NATO spokesman Brigadier General Eric Tremblay said that the operation will include at least 1,000 Afghan police and thousands of Afghan soldiers as well as thousands of NATO troops.
US officers say the offensive will involve the highest number of Afghan forces in any joint operation to date.
General Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, did not specifically mention Marjah, but said in Kabul that a large operation is coming “in the near future’’ in Helmand.
He said it will “separate the local people from the terrorists in the area.’’
Fighting escalated in Helmand in 2006, and the sprawling southern province was transformed into one of the deadliest parts of the country for NATO forces.
Last spring, thousands of Marines arrived in the province to reinforce the British military. British and US forces launched twin operations to try to stabilize the area before the August presidential election, for which turnout in Helmand was extremely low.
US officials have spoken publicly about plans to take Marjah in hopes that many civilians there will leave the town, along with Taliban fighters who are not deeply committed to the insurgency.
Commanders believe support of the local population is crucial to establishing an Afghan administration as quickly as possible and to help NATO troops detect the numerous improvised explosive devices they expect to face in Marjah.