What this demonstrates said Major Gen. Nick Carter, head of regional command south, is that the troop increase that President Obama announced before Christmas is being used in a way that McChrystal wants to see it used, combined with the Afghans and with Afghan governance at the tip of the spear.
Carter said that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had been fully briefed on the operation and had three principles he requested: that proper discussions with influential people from Marja occur ahead of the operation, that plans are in place to minimize civilian casualties and offer humanitarian aid, and that the rationale for the attack is fully understood by everyone involved.
The attack on the city faces challenges unlike any before. Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, who commands the assault, says insurgents have one of three choices: fight, reconcile, or flee. But getting at those insurgents may prove difficult.
Marja and the surrounding area are ringed with canals, giving insurgents an advantage. The canal system, built in large part by the U.S. government in the 1950s and 1960s, presents a web of obstacles, defensive spaces and potential minefields throughout the vast 15-mile by 18-mile (25km by 30km) area upon which the operation will focus.
There are nine major canals running north to south, and six more run east to west. There are even more intricate canal systems in the Nad-e Ali district.
Because of the canals, Marines will not be able to rely as much on mine resistant armored vehicles and will have to move largely on foot. The canals will also need to be bridged and vast areas de-mined as international forces move toward the city.
In towns previously taken from the Taliban, like Now Zad, insurgents planted thousands of homemade bombs, or improvised explosive devices, to keep Marines at a distance and guard against attack. The IED threat at Marja is expected to be even more severe. At a pre-operation exercise, Nicholson told field commanders their troops face the largest IED and minefield threat that NATO forces have ever seen.
Marines expect to quickly take control of large swaths of the area and have a 60-day plan for rooting out insurgents, working with the population, developing associations with other communities and supporting the Afghan government in its bid to establish permanent control.
Afghan forces will play a major role in the operation, but they won't be leading the attack. Three battalions of Afghanistan's National Army, most of whom will be brought in from outside Helmand, will be engaged in the fight. When combined with police, Afghan forces are likely to make up the largest contingent of ground forces. Their immediate job will be to secure areas once Marines, U.S. Army and British forces have swept through.
It is a sign of how far the Afghan military has come in a short period of time. During last year's Operation Kanjar, the ratio of Afghan army troops to Marines was about 10 to 1. For this operation it will be about 2 to 1.
In his brief to field commanders, Nicholson proclaimed this operation will bring Marja back into the Afghan union.