In Afghanistan, Marines ready attack on Taliban redoubt

U.S. Marines and the Afghan army plan a major assault on Taliban fighters in Marja, the last main community under the militants’ control in what had been a largely lawless area of the Helmand River Valley, a top Marine said Wednesday.

“We are going to gain control,” Col. George “Slam” Amland told reporters. “We are going to alter the ecosystem considerably.”

Amland, deputy commander of Marine forces in southern Afghanistan, would not discuss the timing of the assault or how many thousands of troops would be involved. But the attack, he said, would involve Marine units that were part of the troop buildup authorized by President Obama in December. The operation also will show how the Afghan army is growing in numbers and competency, he predicted.

“This is a big leap for the government of Afghanistan,” he said.

Marine and NATO leaders want sprawling Helmand province to be a showpiece of the “clear, hold, build and transition” counterinsurgency strategy, in which Taliban fighters are forced out of a region and then a “civilian surge” begins to rebuild war-ravaged communities and bolster villagers’ confidence in their provincial and national governments.

The Taliban once controlled nearly all the communities of the Helmand River Valley region, but Amland predicted that by summer there would be no place for the insurgents to hide except in sparsely populated mountainous areas.

Although the Marines have overwhelming superiority in weaponry and numbers, the Taliban have some tactical advantages in rural Helmand.

They have been dug in for months in and around Marja, lacing all points of approach with roadside bombs, which are the No. 1 killer of Western troops in Afghanistan.

Taliban fighters are also intimately familiar with the terrain and are often aided by locals, who help them either out of fear or of loyalty arising from clan and tribal ties with the insurgents.

Some commanders from other nations within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization harbor doubts as to whether even a decisive Marine victory at Marja would turn the tide of the insurgency in the south. The area’s urban hub, Kandahar, has been increasingly threatened by the Taliban, which regards the city, the nation’s second-largest, as its spiritual home.

Though the military part of the Marja operation is the most dramatic, the role of U.S. civilian employees, including those from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Agriculture Department, will be even more significant, Amland said. The Afghan government is ready to install local officials to begin reopening schools and clinics and polling residents about what they want their government to do.

The goal, he said, is to spread to Marja the “kinds of success” seen in other communities once the Taliban has been ousted.

In the Nawa district of the province, for example, the marketplace reopened, projects to clear irrigation canals were started, and a community council was established once the Taliban fled.

Starting in May, battalions of Marines swept into Helmand, pushing Taliban fighters away from other communities. Hundreds, maybe thousands, fled to Marja, which the Marines opted not to enter. Last year, the Afghan army’s presence was limited and its effectiveness doubtful.

Marja, with a population estimated at 85,000, has been a “sore,” hampering U.S. and Afghan efforts in the province, Amland said. Operating from its Marja bulwark, the Taliban has constructed and deployed roadside bombs, plotted assassinations and controlled the illicit poppy crop, which provides the bulk of the world’s heroin, profits from which are funneled into the insurgency.

Although the assault on Marja will be large, Amland said, it is the kind of mission for which Marines continually train.

“It’s nothing we haven’t done before,” he said. “It’s nothing we won’t do again in the future.”

Times staff writer Laura King in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.