An Afghan soldier fires a rocket-propelled grenade at Taliban fighers firing on their position at the “Five Points” intersection in Marja in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Feb. 9, 2010. Afghan soldiers joined US Marines assigned to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, as they conducted an assault earlier that morning to seize the key intersection linking the northern area of the insurgent stronghold of Marja with the rest of Helmand province. US Marine Corps photo by Sergeant Brian A. Tuthill.
Coalition and Afghan forces have launched the long-awaited assault on the Taliban stronghold of Marja in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province.
A combined force of more than 6,000, including US Marines, Afghan soldiers, and British troops, kicked off the operation during an air and ground assault in and around the city of Marja in central Helmand province after midnight yesterday. Hundreds of troops were inserted into Marja by helicopter to seize key points within the city.
As the operation began, Coalition aircraft conducted airstrikes on suspected Taliban and al Qaeda positions on the outskirts of the town. The Afghan government and the Coalition have assembled more than 15,000 troops to take on the Taliban in Marja [see list below].
In the initial attack, five Taliban fighters were killed . One British soldier was killed while on patrol during the offensive, the British military reported. Three US soldiers were killed in an IED attack in southern Afghanistan, but it is not clear if they were participating in the operation at Marja.
Taliban resistance has been described as “light” by Major General Gordon Messenger, the top British spokesman.
“There has been some resistance but it has been relatively light and the initial objective of surprising the Taliban with the time and place of the operation appears to have been achieved,” Messenger said.
US intelligence believes that Marja and the outlying areas have been heavily mined with improvised explosive devices. Coalition forces have deployed specialized mine-clearing vehicles and mine-resistance armored vehicles to move forces into the city. Troops are moving in on foot or via helicopters to avoid the dangerous traps.
While the forces assaulted inside Marja, other troops established blocking positions to the north, south, and west in an attempt to fix and kill any Taliban fighters fleeing the fight. The Taliban may seek to take shelter in the district of Washer, to the west of Marja, and in neighboring Farah and Nimroz provinces, where Afghan and Coalition forces are thin, US military and intelligence officials told The Long War Journal.
Preparations for the Marja offensive, which is called Operation Mushtarak, or “Together,” have been underway for months. This week, US, British, and Afghan forces began to move to secure the vital crossroads outside of Marja. Troops clashed with Taliban fighters at the Five Points, a major intersection, on Feb. 9. Meanwhile, US, British, and Afghan special operations teams have been hunting the Taliban’s key leaders in and around Marja; more than 50 have been killed since the end of January, according to a report in The Sun.
The number of Taliban fighters in Marja is not known; US intelligence has estimated that between 400 to 1,000 Taliban fighters and more than 100 al Qaeda soldiers, including Chechen, Pakistani, and Uzbek fighters, are ready to repel the assault.
A Taliban spokesman claimed that more than 2,000 fighters are prepared to defend the city. Reports from civilians who recently fled the city are conflicting; some said the Taliban have dug in, while others maintained that most of the top leaders and a majority of the fighters have left.
The assault on Marja takes place after a well-publicized media campaign by Coalition and Afghan commanders. Generals announced months ago that Marja was the next phase in the effort to secure the strategic Helmand province from the Taliban. Last week, Afghan and ISAF officials held a press conference announcing the operation and warning civilians to stay in their homes. The Taliban are said to be using civilians as human shields and have prevented families from leaving the city in advance of the operation.
For years, the city of Marja has served as one of the main centers of Taliban and al Qaeda activity in Helmand province. The top Taliban leadership in Helmand province was based the city, and the city is also a major narcotics hub for opium traffickers. US forces conducted an air assault in Marja in May 2009 and killed 34 Taliban fighters while targeting a Taliban command center and narcotics labs.
“Marja is the last enemy sanctuary in the Marine area of operations,” said Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, the commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, which is operating in Helmand.
Marja is on the western side of the Helmand River, close to the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. The Taliban have staged multiple attacks into the provincial capital and throughout southern Afghanistan from Marja.
Operation Mushtarak is the latest phase in the campaign to secure Helmand province that began in the summer of 2009. Marines launched Operation Dagger in July 2009 and cleared the Taliban from much of Nawa, Garmser, and Reg in central southern Helmand province. Thousands of Taliban fighters are thought to have fled to Marja after these operations.
In December, Marines and Afghan forces launched Cobra’s Anger to take control of the city of Now Zad, in the district of the same name just north of Marja. Now Zad was reduced to rubble as Marines lacked too few forces to dislodge the Taliban fighters dug in there.
The Taliban put up only token resistance during Operations Dagger and Cobra’s Anger. Fighters melted away in the face of superior Coalition and Afghan forces.
Afghan and Coalition forces arrayed against the Taliban in Marja
The information below is from an ISAF press release:
A combined force of 15,000 is involved in Operation Moshtarak. This combined force includes:
Approximately five brigades of Afghan forces, including members of the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, Afghan Border Police and Afghan Gendarmerie (formerly Afghan National Civil Order Police).
ISAF Regional Command (South) elements, with forces drawn from the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Estonia and Canada. These elements include:
1st Battalion, 3rd Marines (US)
1st Battalion, 6th Marines (US)
3rd Battalion, 6th Marines (US)
4th Battalion, 23rd IN Stryker (US)
Combat Engineer Battalion (US)
Light Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (US)
1 Coldstream Guards Battle Group (UK)
1 Grenadier Guards Battle Group (UK)
1 Royal Welsh Battle Group (UK)
Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team (UK)
Operational Mentor and Liaison Team (UK)
Task Force Pegasus
Task Force Kandahar