U.S. and British forces are in the process of taking control of the town of Marja in Helmand province. Marja is a key Taliban stronghold and, indeed, is considered its last bastion in the Helmand River Valley, a strategic region of the south that until this past summer was largely held by the Taliban.
Alongside the U.S. and British troops is a large contingent of Afghan forces. According to the Washington Post, in past operations in this region, there was approximately one Afghan soldier for every ten Americans. This time, there is approximately one Afghan for every two Americans.
The combined force pushing into Marja amounts to almost 10,000 troops. The Taliban force is estimated at no more than 1,000. However, the Taliban has booby-trapped the area in order to slow the coalition’s advance and inflict as many casualties as possible.
As of Saturday afternoon (Afghanistan time), the advance on Marja was said to be proceeding “without a hitch.” After breaching the land mines around the outskirts of the town, coalition forces poured into Marja and began searching for the enemy. Reportedly, they encountered only minor, hit-and-run resistance. Taliban forces are expected to retreat into more isolated areas. This will provide the Afghan government with the opportunity to solidify its authority throughout this region, which is home to more than 80 percent of southern Afghanistan’s population and its main transport and trade routes.
To help the government solidify its control, the U.S. will pour millions of dollars of aid into the area. The money will be used to rebuild damaged homes, fix infrastructure, provide cash-for-work opportunities for the locals, and police the area. This is the “hold” phase of our “clear and hold” strategy. Today’s operation was the beginning of the “clear” phase.
The U.S. hopes that the Taliban, having been chased into the hinterlands and having seen its support among the locals wane in the face of our successful efforts, will experience the defection of a large portion of its fighters in the region. But this is where President Obama’s utterances about beginning to draw down our forces by July of next year could undermine the surge’s end-game. For it may cause Taliban fighters to perceive more hope for success than they otherwise would.
In any event, the long-awaited Afghan surge is now underway. I hope that all Americans, whatever they think about the merits of the strategy, are wishing not just for the safety of our forces, but for their victory.
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