MARJAH, Afghanistan – Marines and Afghan troops cleared the last major pocket of resistance in the former Taliban-ruled town of Marjah on Saturday – part of an offensive that is the run-up to a larger showdown this year in the most strategic part of Afghanistan’s dangerous south.
Although Marines say their work in Marjah isn’t done, Afghans are bracing for a bigger, more comprehensive assault in neighboring Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban where officials are talking to aid organizations about how to handle up to 10,000 people who could be displaced by fighting.
“I was in Kabul, and we were talking that Kandahar will be next, but we don’t know when,” said Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar. He’s begun working with international aid groups to make sure the next group of displaced Afghans has tents, water containers, medicine, food, blankets, lamps and stoves.
“Hopefully things will go smoothly, that people have learned lessons from the Marjah operation,” he said.
Shortages of food and medicine have been reported during the 2-week-old Marjah operation. The international Red Cross evacuated dozens of sick and injured civilians to clinics outside the area. The U.N. says more than 3,700 families, or an estimated 22,000 people, from Marjah and surrounding areas have registered in Helmand’s capital of Lashkar Gah 20 miles away.
The Marjah offensive has been the war’s biggest combined operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban’s hard-line regime. It’s the first major test of NATO’s counterinsurgency strategy since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 new American troops to try to reverse Taliban gains.
The operation in Marjah is the tactical prelude to the bigger operation being planned for later in Kandahar, the largest city in the south and the former Taliban headquarters, according to senior officials with the Obama administration. It was from in and around Kandahar that Taliban overlord Mullah Omar ruled Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.
On Saturday, after a four-day march, Marines and Afghan troops who fought through the center of Marjah linked up with a U.S. Army Stryker battalion on the northern outskirts of the former Taliban stronghold.
“Basically, you can say that Marjah has been cleared,” said Capt. Joshua Winfrey, commander of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines Regiment.
Lima Company’s more than 100 heavily armed Marines, along with nearly as many Afghan army soldiers, spent days advancing north, searching every compound for possible Taliban holdouts.
There were no Taliban in sight, and the Marines didn’t fire a shot during the final advance – except at a couple of guard dogs who threatened the unit.
The Marines’ hookup with the Army battalion means the operation is somewhere between the clear and hold phases, although suspected Taliban fighters remain on the western outskirts of town.
Marine spokesman Capt. Abe Sipe said that while armed resistance has “fallen off pretty dramatically” in the past four to five days, the combined forces expect to face intermittent attacks for at least two more weeks.
“We are not calling anything completely secure yet,” Sipe said.