Thousands of U.S., British and Afghan troops moved to seize the Taliban stronghold of Marja early Saturday in what the Marine general leading the assault called a “big, strong and fast” offensive aimed at challenging the insurgency’s grip on a key southern Afghan province.
Rounds of tracer fire lighted up a starry, predawn sky as waves of troops, ferried in by helicopters, descended on the farming districts that surround the town. Transport and Cobra attack helicopters also dropped rounds to illuminate the ground.
Troops initially met only modest return fire from inside of Marja.
Sporadic firefights had broken out throughout the day Friday on the periphery of Marja as Marine units probed Taliban defenses.
The commander, Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, had for weeks telegraphed the military’s plans for the offensive, one of the largest since the war began in 2001.
The United States and its allies hope the assault, the biggest joint operation by Western and Afghan troops to date, will prove a turning point in the conflict with the Taliban and other militants that have carved out swaths of territory in Afghanistan.
Military leaders expected about 7,500 coalition troops to occupy Marja by nightfall, with 7,500 more supporting the mission from elsewhere in the Nad Ali district of Helmand province.
The allied command had been prepping the battlefield for months, clearing the Taliban from villages in Helmand and then staying behind to make sure they don’t come back, thus giving the local residents the security they need to start cooperating with our side. Previously, the brave, brave jihadis of the Taliban would come back after we left, and the punishment meted out to those who collaborated with us would be horrific. In this way, Operation Moshtarek (Operation “Together”) resembles the plan used at the outset of the “surge” offensive in Afghanistan in 2007, when US and Iraqi forces began clear-and-hold operations against al Qaeda. In this case, Marja substitutes for Iraq’s Baquba as a key target: a town that had become a central base and depot for the enemy and, our side hopes, a trap where they can be caught and brought to battle.
The Taliban may not be as stupid as al Qaeda in Iraq, however. The offensive had been announced weeks in advance and publicized widely to give civilians a chance to leave. With them, of course, may have gone the Taliban; it’s unclear how many have stayed behind in Marja. What is clear, however, is that they had plenty of time to prepare traps of their own: extensive IED-laden minefields and booby-trapped buildings. Hence the big debut of the Assault Breacher Vehicles.
But it may not necessary to kill thousands of Taliban, much as they need it. The purpose of this counterinsurgency strategy is to deny the enemy access to the population whom he can then hide among and dominate. It was very effective in Vietnam under General Abrams (History later showed that, when we walked away, we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.), it worked better than expected in Iraq under General Petraeus, and now one hopes for similar success under General McChrystal. Less committed elements of the Taliban and their allies may be encouraged to quit, once they realize they’re cut off from the people they preyed on. As the article points out, it’s also a chance for the ill-regarded Afghan Army to show its people that it can protect them, even after we eventually leave.
I’m usually highly critical of President Obama, and I do wish he had made up his mind about an Afghan strategy earlier and sent more troops than he authorized, but I’m grateful he is at least taking the fight to the enemy. It’s been nearly a decade, but let’s not forget that these are the same salafis who abetted and protected al Qaeda before and after 9-11, and still do.
Good hunting, gentlemen.