The city of Marja will be the biggest test yet for President Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan. Thousands of U.S. Marines, soldiers, Afghan security forces and international forces are planning to oust hard-core insurgents from their last big refuge in Helmand Province.
There are about 15,000 Marines in Helmand, about 4,000 of them arriving since Obama called for an increase in troops in December, Marine Col. George Amland, deputy commander in Afghanistan, said.
The Marines in Marja are "the leading edge of the president's surge force," he said.
Marines in Marja could face the biggest number of hard-core insurgents yet. An estimated 400 to 1,000 Marines may stay and fight.
Marja and the surrounding area, with an estimated population of 125,000, are more heavily populated, urban and dense than other places Marines have so far been able to clear and hold. Vast quantities of opium are produced in the center of the Helmand River Valley. Profits from drug sales often fund insurgent operations.
A large contingent of Marines moved into Now Zad in northern Helmand Province in December. They were able to quickly rout enemies and take full control of the village. Now Zad had been a ghost town before Marines moved in. The once-thriving market community is now beginning to return to life, with shops and schools opening for the first time in years.
Life is returning to normal in Garmsir and Nawa after Marines cleared the towns last summer. Another encouraging sign for Marines is that intelligence from locals has grown significantly since they took the towns. More residents are telling Marines whom to look out for, where bombs are being planted and, in some cases, even pointing out exact locations.
A major difference between the latest strategy in Marja and earlier operations is that there will be many more Afghan soldiers and police; about two Marines for every Afghan in the field, commander Amland said.
"It will be a joint Afghan army, police, U.S. Marines and ISAF forces [International Security Assistance Force] operation led by Afghans," Afghan defence ministry spokesman Mohammad Zahir Azimi told reporters in Kabul today.
The ratio was about 10-1 in July's offensive in Kanjar.
Amland said he is confident that Marines "are going to gain control" of Marja and then change the dynamic that exists there today. The Taliban is the closest thing Marja has to a government. The town is a no-go area for U.S. troops and Afghan security forces alike.
In the past several days, when Marine units moved close to Marja, they came under hostile fire or encountered homemade bombs. They say that while they've been able to degrade the quality of bombs or improvised explosive devices, there are still thousands of them out there, in large part targeting foot patrols.
Although Marines are expecting the fight for Marja to be "fast and furious," what comes after will define the mission, Amland said. In the weeks and months ahead, Marines will try to replicate what they have done in other towns throughout Helmand Province, he added.
Initially, Marines will move in with force but will quickly work to develop links with locals and begin providing services funnelled through Afghan security forces and government entities.
"We are going to go with the Afghan national security forces [to] clear, hold and build and deliver alternatives for all the Afghans," NATO spokesman Eric Tremblay told journalists.
If the plan is successful, Marines expect Marja, in a matter of months, to become another island of security and progress in Helmand.
Marines say they have not reached the tipping point yet for Helmand but are confident that if they deny the Taliban safe havens and re-build communities one at a time, the entire province will eventually move away from Taliban control allowing the government of Afghanistan to exert its influence.
The United States has said it will begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in July 2011.