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Feb 10th, 2010

Marines Test Taliban Defenses Before Offensive

U.S. aircraft drop leaflets warning of offensive

Image: U.S. Marines with 1/3 Marines Charlie Comp
Marines with 1/3 Marines Charlie Company seize a market and major junction on the outskirts of Marjah on Feb. 9, 2010. The Marines have stepped up preparations for a major assault on the key Taliban bastion in southern Afghanistan in a bid to clear out the militants. (Photo credit: Patrick Baz / AFP — Getty Images)

Feb. 10, 2010

NEAR MARJAH, Afghanistan — U.S. Marines fired smoke rounds and armored vehicles maneuvered close to Taliban positions Wednesday to test insurgent defenses ahead of an anticipated attack on the biggest militant-controlled town in southern Afghanistan.

A NATO spokesman in Brussels called on Taliban militants holding Marjah to surrender. But a Taliban spokesman boasted that the militants were prepared to “sacrifice their lives” to defend the town against the biggest NATO-Afghan offensive of the eight-year war.

The date for the main attack by thousands of Marines and Afghan soldiers has not been announced for security reasons. However, preparations have accelerated in recent days, and it appeared the assault would come soon.

U.S. mortar crews fired two dozen smoke rounds Wednesday at Taliban positions on the outskirts of the farming community, a center of the opium poppy trade about 380 miles southwest of Kabul in Helmand province. Marine armored vehicles also drove closer to Taliban positions. Both moves are designed to lure the militants into shooting back and thus reveal their positions. The Marines did draw small arms fire but suffered no casualties. …

Weaning residents away from Taliban

The U.S. goal is to quickly retake control of Marjah to enable the Afghan government to re-establish a presence. Plans call for civilian workers to move quickly to restore electricity, clean water and other public services in hopes of weaning the inhabitants away from the Taliban.

Civilians could be seen fleeing their mud brick farming compounds on the outskirts of Marjah as soon as the American and Afghan forces appeared, though vast numbers do not seem to be leaving. The moves did not draw much of a response from the fighters, who appeared to be waiting behind defensive lines for the Marines to come closer to the town.

To the north, a joint U.S.-Afghan force, led by the U.S. Army’s 5th Stryker Brigade, pushed into the Badula Qulp region of Helmand province to restrict Taliban movement in support the Marjah offensive.

But bombs planted along a canal road slowed progress of a convoy Wednesday, damaging two mine-clearing vehicles and delaying the Stryker infantry carriers and Afghan vehicles from advancing for hours. There were no casualties. …

Marjah is key to Taliban control

U.S. officers estimate between 400 and 1,000 Taliban and up to 150 foreign fighters are holding Marjah, which is believed to have a population of about 80,000. It’s unclear how many of them will defend the town to the end and how many will give up once the main assault begins. …

Marjah is key to Taliban control of vast areas of Helmand province, which borders Pakistan and is major center for Afghanistan’s illicit poppy cultivation, which NATO believes helps finance the insurgency. …

So far, there are few signs of a major exodus of civilians from Marjah, although U.S. aircraft have been dropping leaflets in the town for days warning of the offensive. Some residents contacted by telephone said the Taliban were preventing people from leaving, telling them it was unsafe because the roads had been mined. …


2/11/10 Update

Taliban, Marines Exchange Fire as Battle Looms

Feb. 11, 2010

NEAR MARJAH, Afghanistan – U.S. and Afghan soldiers linked up with Marines on the outskirts of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah on Thursday, sealing off escape routes and setting the stage for what is being described as the biggest offensive of the nine-year war.

Taliban defenders repeatedly fired rockets and mortars at units poised in foxholes along the edge of the town, apparently trying to lure NATO forces into skirmishes before the big attack. …

In preparation for the offensive, a U.S.-Afghan force led by the U.S. Army’s 5th Stryker Brigade moved south from Lashkar Gah and linked up Thursday with Marines on the northern edge of Marjah, closing off a main Taliban escape route. Marines and Army soldiers fired colored smoke grenades to show each other that they were friendly forces.

The Army’s advance was slowed as U.S. and Afghan soldiers cleared the thicket of mines and bombs hidden in canals and along the roads and fought off harassment attacks along the way by small bands of insurgents. Two U.S. attack helicopters fired Hellfire missiles at a compound near Marjah from where insurgents had been firing at the advancing Americans. …

A far greater obstacle lies in the hundreds, if not thousands, of mines, makeshift bombs and booby traps which the Taliban are believed to have planted around Marjah.

“This may be the largest IED threat and largest minefield that NATO has ever faced,” said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of Marines in southern Afghanistan. …

To combat the mines, Marines planned to use their new 72-ton Assault Breacher Vehicles, which use metal blows to scoop up hidden bombs or fire rockets to detonate them at a safe distance.

Once the main attack begins, U.S. commanders are eager to avoid civilian casualties, hoping instead to win over support of the Pashtun townspeople, who are from the same ethnic group as the majority of the Taliban. American officers have been instructing troops to hold their fire unless they are sure they are shooting at insurgents and not innocent villagers.


2/24/10 Update

Image: An Afghan man recuperates from his injuries
Afghan wounded tell of those left in Marjah (AP, Feb. 24, 2010) — An Afghan man recuperates from his injuries at an Italian charitable hospital in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010. Most of the civilian wounded recuperating from the Marjah battlefield said their injuries were caused by “the foreign soldiers,” a claim that could hurt U.S. efforts to win Afghan hearts and minds. (Photo credit: Abdul Khaliq / AP)


Related reports on this site

Operation Moshtarak Has Begun (Feb. 13, 2010)

Major Afghan Offensive Imminent (Feb. 5, 2010)


FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — February 10, 2009


Afghan Support for U.S. Plummets

One-year retrospective: One year ago today, I reported a new poll showing plummeting support among the Afghan people for the Kabul government and U.S. and European troops trying to bolster it against the Taliban insurgency.

6 Responses to “Marines Mass for Marjah Assault”
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  5. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » Operation Moshtarak Has Begun Says:

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