CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan Feb. 4, 2010— -- Marines have been advertising their intent to go into Marja and take it away from the Taliban for months. The beat of those drums has grown faster and stronger in recent days prompting many to ask, why tip one's hand to the enemy?
Brigadier Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, has a pretty simple answer. "Where else would we go? It's the only place left in the Marine area of operation that we're not in."
Speaking to a small group of reporters in a dusty corner of his headquarters at Camp Leatherneck situated in the middle of Helmand Province, Nicholson emphasized that there's really no reason not to let the insurgents know that Marines, U.S. Army soldiers, British, French and the largest contingent of Afghan forces ever are coming.
They have even released the name of the offensive, Operation Moshtarak, a Pashto and Dari word meaning joint operation.
Until now U.S. and Afghan military officials believed they didn't have the forces to effect the sort of change they were hoping for in the central Helmand town. Now with the addition of forces ordered up by President Obama, the confidence in their mission and ability to carry it out is palpable.
"We are coming," said Nicholson. "Deal with it. Could be easy or could be hard, but we are coming."
The muscular talk and crystal clear intention is already paying dividends says Nicholson.
"From that position of strength people have been coming out of Marja to talk to us," he said.
Marines say since they made their intention clear beginning last November they have held dozens of meetings with elders from Marja.
"Because of the inevitability of the operation, people have decided that they want to talk. There's a lot of influential people, people of import or businessmen. They don't want to be on the wrong side of this thing when it flips," Nicholson said.
The full throttle approach raises concerns about the possibility for civilian casualties. The area Marines will be operating in is home to as many as 125,000 people. It is densely populated and urban.
Major Gen. Nick Carter, commander of Regional Command South, says civilians will be fine if they just stay inside. "What we hope to see happen here is that population, metaphorically speaking, shuts their front doors, stays put until the forces of the government have control over the areas that have got to be controlled."
Marines Hope That Advertising Coming Offensive Will Lower Civilian Casualties
Nicholson underscored the point saying a heavy handed approach will reduce the chance for civilian casualties.
"Our feeling is if you go big, strong and fast, you lessen the possibility of civilian casualties as opposed to a slow methodical rolling assault. You go in and you dominate. You overwhelm the enemy," he said.
There's another good reason to advertise the coming offensive: the Marines would prefer it if the Taliban simply left.
Given the goals of counter-insurgency operations to bloody and weaken one's enemies while protecting civilian populations, Marines would rather establish control of Marja and raise the Afghan flag at it's town hall without ever firing a shot.
Since Marines now enjoy such overwhelming force in Helmand they can afford to secure a town and allow the nacsent local, district, provincial and national government structures to grow. Insurgents would be in the unenviable position of having to fight their way back into the city, a much harder task.
When the fight for this small but strategically important area of central Helmand Province kicks off is still subject to debate, but Marines here give every indication they'll take Marja sooner than later. It's a promise Marines have made before in places like Now Zad, Garmsir and Nawa. So far they've kept all their promises.