Assault on Taliban stronghold of Marja begins


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

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • al says:

    Too much pre-start publicity.
    How many times before have we heard the area was “sealed-off”, only to learn that the mojority of HVTs and fighters had “escaped”.
    Are allies incapable of sealing off an area?
    I do not expect much in terms of Taliban or AQ killed or captured.

  • ArneFufkin says:

    I trust General Nicholson and the USMC superpros al. They know what they are doing. It was never a secret, from the first deployment of Marines, that the Taliban in Marja were going down. A lot of these Marines are battle hardened Fallujah/Anbar vets.

  • Bruce says:

    Simply killing the insurgents does not work. To understand the strategy, consider this Great Article from the Army War College Magazine:
    It looks like McCrystal is luring them into ‘holding ground’. Read page the article page 59 about strategy at Fallujah and compare to what he’s doing at Marja, Afghanisan this week. Very interesting.
    Its all about creating the climate of inevitability. I think its the right strategy.

  • ArneFufkin says:

    The objective of COIN is not to kill insurgents it is to secure and protect the native population and enable economy and governance necessary to disempower the insurgency. In that light, routing the enemy is as effective as killing them.

  • edgee says:

    Seems to me like there is some “shaping” going on in Afghanistan on a much larger scale, they must realise that the Taliban are going to run somewhere, makes a lot of sense to let them go somewhere else. If we repeat this process enough over Afghanistan then there will only be so many places left for them to run to. Round em up in to one place then one big final assault.

  • Neo says:

    I would not be surprised if the majority have already made their escape. What is left are there to set off bombs and kill as many civilians as possible.

  • Tyler says:

    A Brit officer involved in the assault summed my thoughts up pretty nicely. By advertising our assault (minus the exact time) in advance it meant we’d be spared a harsh fight to take it over as most of the Taliban and narcotraffickers would bug out. Those seeking to switch sides would be prepared to lay down their weapons. And those that fought would in all likelihood be people worth shooting back at (suicide bombers, foreign fighters, irreconcilable local muscle.)
    Fallujah was pretty well advertised in advance as well, arguably far moreso. The difference here is that we’re taking a genuine COIN approach from the get-go. Tal Afar would be a better comparison.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    I agree, Tyler, Tal Afar is a far better comparison.

  • My best wishes to our soldiers and their commanders in Marja.

  • DANNY says:

    This blows away all the defeatist propaganda that compares America to Russia and how we will fail in Afghanistan too. We are not an EVIL empire! We should be very proud. but yes it will be one long war… going on all over the world.

  • Alex says:

    It sounds like Helmand is running out of safe zones for the Taliban, and that they’ll either have to starve or run into Pakistan.

  • KaneKaizer says:

    Too many are lamenting over the fact that a lot of Taliban probably escaped. First off, Marjah is only the main target of Operation Moshtarak but the surrounding areas are also being secured. Strategically, we’re cutting off a large portion of the Taliban’s funding.
    Second, this is only the beginning of the new strategy for Afghanistan. Remember how everyone who thought they knew a little something about military and COIN strategy mocked Operation Imposing Law not just because of the acronym but because they thought the military didn’t even consider that the insurgents in Iraq would just go underground and retreat from Baghdad? Then, bam! Operation Phantom Thunder, Phantom Strike, Phantom Phoenix among others.
    Don’t get hung up on how much damage is done to the Taliban in Marjah alone, folks.

  • al says:

    I have 100% confidence in Marines, US Army, Special Ops, Brits, and best ANA units. I hear some ANA folks are pretty tough and dedicated.
    But, seal them off before throwing plans out to the public.
    Allies should not allow any to escape again, only to kill our men and women again.

  • D.Burlingame says:

    Thoughts and prayers with our brave troops and their coalition partners.

  • Civy says:

    And so clear, hold, build begins. With each piece of turf taken they fall back, but continue to take pot-shots at the perimeter, until one day they wake up and realize they control nothing.
    That’s the value of taking and holding ground. In the end, the enemy controls nothing and so no one cares who they are or what they want. They have nothing to offer. They are completely marginalized.

  • Al says:

    Civy, Even if Allies “take and hold”…..terrorists and their associated killers can and will be executing anyone they please. There will still be no areas secure against this threat.
    They need to be killed. They will not just go away.
    Even if Allies win completely, what bothers me is the very strong influence of Sharia Law or hard-line Islam in areas and countries we “liberate”. Christians and Jews are still the target of Govt. laws, intimidation, perseutiuon and unpunished civilian crimes. Even in “friendly” countries.

  • JimNJ says:

    I just saw on the news that very limited use of airpower will be used to limit civilian deaths. So in turn that will mean loss of Allied lives in clearing this area. I personally don’t think even the life of a sniffer dog is worth everyone in the town. They had prior notice of this and should have cleared out. When are we ever, ever going to learn about warfare? No hearts & minds, no nation building, etc. It doesn’t matter what we do, after we leave its going to be back to the way its ALWAYS been. The war on terror has so so many other places to fight yet. I really don’t think the American people or leadership wants to fight a war to win, as the horror of what it will take to win is something we don’t have the heart for since WW2.

  • KW64 says:

    I couldn’t agree more with most of the comments here about Marjan. As long as the enemy has money and access to a population that is at least not completely hostile to them to recruit from, they will always be able to raise soldiers. So, if we can cut their funding from opium by denying territory in Helmand, who cares if we do it by brute force destruction of a bunch of hirelings or by scaring them away. Scaring them away means we did not have to destory the town or kill a lot of civilians so we not only deprive them access to those people but we reduce the hostility to us.
    As time goes by and we deny them access to more and more people by clearing and holding and the government of Afghanistan is seen as a protector and facilitator it may create a sense of being Afghan that exceeds the idea of being Pashtun among the people. Then, they may perceive the Pakistani Pashtuns the Taliban can still recruit as foreigners that they are willing to ally with non-Pashtun Afhans to repulse. This occurred in Iraq as Shiite Iraqis began to turn on Shiite Iranian provocateurs more and more as the Iraqi government became more effective in serving the public interests.

  • Civy observes:
    “That’s the value of taking and holding ground. In the end, the enemy controls nothing and so no one cares who they are or what they want. They have nothing to offer. They are completely marginalized.”
    In Kashmir, in a small area, India has deployed about 400,000 (four hundred thousand) soldiers for almost twenty years.
    Are extremists marginalized? I bet not.
    If Indian army is pulled out, the place would be teeming with radicals and Pakistan’s irregulars.
    I would be curious to find out if Pakistan has deployed any of its military folks to aid the Taliban in parts of Afghanistan.
    It certainly did when American forces went into Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks.

  • B says:

    Yet again, we do the SAME operation over and over again, only with more hype this time. This is how it tends to go.

    1) Some initial fighting, eventually leading to press releases about how the area is now clear of the Taliban’s influence (except for isolated pockets.)

    2) Enemy casualties will be primarily low-level local fighters levied by the Taliban, who serve as cannon fodder for the full-time fighters and the majority of their leadership to escape.

    3) Fighting will quiet down, several press releases about how the locals are turning against the Taliban will be issued.

    4) The operation will be heralded as yet another great success (like the dozen or so other major operations in Helmand over the past 5 years.)

    5) Many references will be made to how it’s TOTALLY different this time, because of vague and ineffecive doctrinal COIN precepts.

    6) Spring will roll around and the Taliban will once again infiltrate, and begin to pound any remaining ISAF/Coalition Forces with IEDs. Insurgent supply lines will now skirt around the area.

    7) ISAF will declare a NEW major operation in a NEW location.

    8) Repeat.

    See also – Helmand: Sangin, Musa Qala, Garmsir, Gereshk – Kandahar: Arghendab, Panjawi, Zharie (similar operations took place over the last few years.)

    Opinion: The basic cause for this is that we CANNOT hold an area in an effective fashion wiithout the use of local militia. Until these are authorized in a more widespread manner (and their funding isn’t undercut by the embassy) let’s not kid ourselves about the long-term prospects for an acceptable level of security or stability in the Helmand.

  • KaneKaizer says:

    What you don’t seem to understand is that your “opinion” is actually taking place in the form of the ANA and police which will be greatly expanded this year with thousands of additional US/NATO trainers also coming into the country this year to help. When the Afghans have enough foot soldiers to secure the majority of their country our forces hopefully won’t be needed to do the holding anymore. It’s entirely possible that there will also be an increased number of tribal militias that may or may not be mentioned in the media.
    The wild card of course being Afghan corruption and the lack of competent men to become soldiers, but hopefully it will turn around this year. If the Afghans don’t stand up as the Iraqis did, the only hope of saving the mission would be a massive push from the Pakistani side, which most likely won’t happen without significant success on the Afghan side. A tough situation indeed.

  • Civy says:

    If you believe this why don’t you go rob Ft Knox? Because there are many many layers of security between you and billions in gold, right? Why did SAC put their Strategic Air Command in the middle of the country? The answer is, of course, it makes it harder to penetrate.
    You enemy is someone who gets up each morning and decides to fight you. When there is little hope of gain, and great threat of death, that same person wakes up one morning and decides NOT to fight you. When the Nazis surrendered they still had almost 4 million men in uniform. Do you think they were all killed? Of course not. They were psychologically defeated first, and then surrendered in the face of near certain death with no hope of changing the outcome.
    The Soviets killed ~ 3 million in Afghanistan, and in the end, controlled nothing. They were completely defeated. You don’t have to kill everyone who is your enemy today to win, just make it very unrewarding for them to be your enemy tomorrow. This is exactly how and why AnBar was won.

  • Civy says:

    Nicely put. I was reading Roger Trinquier in the 3rd level basement at UC Berkeley when students locked ROTC Cadets in the ROTC building after the failed attempt to rescue our Iranian hostages. (why that makes any sense still eludes me)
    It strikes me how little there has been to add to this nearly encyclopedic knowledge of insurgencies, and how to combat them, in the intervening decades. The knowledge and methods to defeat insurgencies has been been ready at hand for quite some time. The will – mostly on the part of politicians – to do what is necessary has been mostly lacking. In part this is because time and persistence are the greatest assets in the effort, and this has never been properly explained to the American voter.
    On a personal note, for anyone who fought in Vietnam, my deepest regrets that you guys paid the price in full for a victory, and got none. Unfortunately, a lot of macho, and a dearth of brains/understanding/guile/finesse robbed you guys of the victory that was so close at hand.

  • TLA says:

    Just listened to Bill on the John Batchelor show on WABC.
    Thank you Bill for giving a more realistic response to Batchelor’s question on the ‘civilian deaths’ by ‘artillery’ fire. This Anne Marlowe gave the standard media response to this, with no concept of the fact that this will happen, or that the death of these individuals are about the only thing that will ever force the Taliban to quit being difficult.
    But even you still use the term ‘civilian’ in the Western concept (of which the Middle-east has no reference). At least the show was realistic about the combattants or GITMO holidaymakers no having any rights to the Geneva Convention.

  • Mat says:

    “The Soviets killed ~ 3 million in Afghanistan, and in the end, controlled nothing. They were completely defeated. You don’t have to kill everyone who is your enemy today to win, just make it very unrewarding for them to be your enemy tomorrow. This is exactly how and why AnBar was won.”
    Actually, the Soviets lost because of massive American support to the mujahadeen. Without that help, there’s no reason as to why the Soviets couldn’t have eventually won against the outmatched Afghans (they certainly had the political will to pull it off). Also, I don’t think the bulk of the German soldiers (Waffen SS excluded) were really all that fanatical compared to some of these al qaeda fighters. In fact, if you want to play the history card, the Japanese were more akin to the fanaticism you see today than anything the Germans did.
    As far as Iraq, I don’t think anyone should be doing the victory dance until we see what happens there after we leave. If we leave and it all falls apart, I hardly think that’s much of a victory (particularly if Iran subsequently moves in and picks up the pieces).

  • Marlin says:

    I am quite heartened to read these two recent articles that some of the Afghan soldiers acquitted themselves well during the battle for Marjah. Initial newspaper accounts were not nearly so generous in their praise.

    “We’ve been working with the Afghans in Kandahar since then,” said Col. Shane Brennan, commander of the Canadian Operational Mentor and Liaison Team. “They did a marvellous job (in the Marja operation) and we’re proud of them.”
    Brennan’s praise is in sharp contrast to reports from American media, complaining that the performance of some Afghan troops in the crucial battle was disappointing, and that their ability to plan, organize and carry out fighting duties was limited.

    The Star: Canadians played key role in Marja attack

    The Afghan troops who supported the U.S. Marines in the battle to end Taliban control of this town in Helmand province showed marked improvement over last summer’s performance in a similar fight but still need much more training, Marine commanders say.
    Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the top Marine here, said that overall the Afghan battalions exceeded his expectations. Nicholson said he would give some Afghan units an A- or B+ but that others, particularly those with soldiers fresh from basic training, would get a C- or D.

    Los Angeles Times: Afghan soldiers show improvement in Marja assault

  • Marlin says:

    This is a very interesting article. I wasn’t aware the U.S. military was evolving this rapidly.

    Operation Moshtarak constituted a new style of warfare, where several innovative COIN tactics and weapon systems finally synchronized into cohesive strategy.
    Also worth mentioning: If the Global War on Terror is the first Internet war, Marja was without doubt the first Twitter battle. Tweets poured in from Royal Air Force airmen to public affairs officers stationed in Helmand, frequently in real time. Military transformation, as it is, isn’t limited to strategy and tactics.

    Weekly Standard: A New Style of War in Marja

  • Marlin says:

    The Battle of Marjah doesn’t make the news anymore even with a large contingent of embedded reporters. This interview with Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson on March 4 provides an explanation why. There is no violent action to report.

    Just by virtue of stats, on day three we had 36 TICs, or troops in contact. Seemingly, everywhere in Marja, we had Marines in direct- fire contact. We have now not had direct fire in Marja in the last eight days. So I think we’re — while we still continue to find IEDs, I think we’re very pleased with how things have settled down. Doesn’t mean it’s over by any stretch. And again, the IED threat is real and formidable, and we’ll continue to work in terms of clearing it.
    I can tell you, though, that I went to a school this morning in Marja. There hadn’t been schools open in Marja in many years, so the fact that we now had 107 kids at the class I attended in — near city center, was pretty significant.

    U.S. Dept of Defense: DOD News Briefing with Brig. Gen. Nicholson from Afghanistan


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