Nearly 8,000 U.S. and Afghan forces launched a well telegraphed offensive today to take back control of the central Helmand city of Marja, the military has confirmed.
U.S. Marines quickly moved to the outskirts of the city in the opening moments of the assault where heavy machine gun fire could be heard. Helicopters flew overhead and several missiles were seen launched towards the city, including one that targeted a group of people who were apparently planting a roadside bomb.
The immediate goal of the offensive, dubbed Operation Moshtarak is to seize Marja and the surrounding district of Nad-e Ali, home to as many as 125,000 civilians. It is suspected that anywhere from 400 to 1,000 hardcore insurgents are holed up in a town essentially run and controlled by the Taliban.
The offensive kicked off after the U.S. widely advertised that it was gearing up for an attack on the Taliban holding Marja, a tactic that allowed the Taliban to prepare for the attack, but also allowed civilians -- and possibly the Taliban to get out of the way.
"We hope the Taliban will disappear into their living rooms. We'd be okay with that," said one U.S. official involved in the planning.
Gen. Sher Mohammed Zazai, the Afghan National Army southern commander, said that Marja is a very important place for the Taliban. In addition to being their last biggest stronghold in the country, it is an area where vast quantities of poppies are grown and processed into opium, some of the profit of which funds the Taliban's shadow government and insurgent activities.
Establishing control over Marja will give Marines total control of central Helmand Province, home to some 750,000 people, and shut down Taliban supply and smuggling routes. It will also mean that for the first time, Marines or international forces will be in every major population center throughout Helmand, a key part of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy.
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In the days before the assault was launched, a shura or meeting of Marja elders was held outside the city that was attended by 450 town leaders. They asked that Afghan troops be in the forefront of the fight.
The tribal chiefs and elders also asked that the attackers limit air strikes to minimize civilian casualties and after taking over the city that forces stay in the area to provide a stable government and services.
The Afghan troops prepared for the battle alongside the 4,000 U.S. Marines who led the charge into Marja. An official in Afghanistan said in the hours before the offensive began that the latest fad among the Afghan troops is Marine-style haircuts.
"There is quite the trend for Marine haircuts with the Afghan soldiers going on now," the official said.
In addition to the 8,000 ground forces directly involved in the fight, there are another 7,000 troops supporting the mission, making it one of the largest operations since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Troops involved in the push include those from Britain, France, Canada and Estonia.
Operation Moshtarak, or Joint Operation, will also see the most Afghan soldiers and police ever fielded in battle. About 60 percent of the troops involved in the push are Afghans, officials said.
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.
Marine Offensive on Marja Hindered by Network of U.S.-Built Canals
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.
Military Attack Coupled With Effort to Eradicate Poppies
In his brief to field commanders, Nicholson proclaimed this operation will bring Marja back into the Afghan union.
A Defense Department official says that as part of that effort, Karzai has committed to holding a shura in the region after the fighting is over. The intent is to show that the Karzai government is going to remain and provide services to the population, a move that will help legitimize the government in their eyes.
This official says NATO has received firm commitments from Karzai that they will work hard to maintain a presence in the area.
The well regarded governor of Helmand, Gulab Mangal, is also expected to continue a program of offering farmers growing opium poppy to switch to growing wheat. The program was successful in the Nawa District of Helmand Province taken by Marines last July. Because of a wheat blight and drought conditions in parts of Afghanistan, the profit margins between opium and wheat are surprisingly similar.
The Defense official says that if this effort doesn't bear good results, it is likely that Mangal will pursue an eradication effort of the poppy crop sometime in March and April.
Part of what makes growing poppy attractive for local farmers is that they are paid in advance for their crop, in effect providing them with ready cash they are unable to get through legitimate financing. The government reconstruction effort following hostilities will include a micro-financing component to make up for any cash advances farmers would lose from not growing poppy.
For months, Marines have been publicly telegraphing their intent to take Marja. In the days and weeks leading up to the operation, international forces have stepped up pressure on their enemy by increasing patrols around the city, increased airstrikes against enemy targets and dropping leaflets informing the population of imminent action.
The Defense official acknowledged that part of "shaping operations" had a psychological component, targeting the local population as much as the Taliban. He said any risk posed by the Taliban, knowing an offensive was coming, was outweighed by the building of expectations among the population that NATO and the Karzai government will remain to protect the population.
Protecting the population is a cornerstone of McChrystal's strategy for turning around the security situation in Afghanistan.
The official says the Marja operation could be a game-changer because its success will be an indicator of how successful the approach will be throughout Afghanistan.