Marines Attack Taliban-Held City

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.

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