By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 18, 2010 - NATO and Afghan forces have made early progress in an ongoing offensive on a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan, but have encountered some stiff resistance and may need another 25 to 30 days to secure the entire area, a top military official said. Overall the multinational force has reached the "end of the beginning" of the operation in central Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, said British Maj. Gen. Nick Patrick Carter, commander of NATO forces in International Security Assistance Force's Regional Command-South, during a briefing today.
"I guess it will take us another 25 to 30 days to be entirely sure that we have secured that which needs to be secured," Carter told Pentagon reporters. "And we probably won't know for about 120 days whether or not the population is entirely convinced by the degree of commitment that their government is showing to them."
Despite dislocating the insurgency within 24 hours of landing in the region on Feb. 13, Carter said, fighting continues in Marja, which to date has claimed the lives of six allied troops, including four Americans. Some 15,000 NATO and Afghan forces are engaged in Operation Moshtarak, which in Pashto and Dari means "Operation Together," including 8,000 to 10,000 ground troops.
"In Marja itself, there remains stiff resistance from the insurgence," Carter said. "And U.S. Marines in partnership with Afghan security forces are still fighting [an] intense series of actions, in the process of clearing Marja as a whole."
Pentagon Spokesman Geoff Morrell predicted that insurgents remaining in the area were intent on seeing the fight through.
"It is not very coordinated, but there still are holdouts who have remained in Marja and elsewhere in Helmand who have stayed to fight," he told reporters today, "and they're clearly going to fight to the bitter end."
Morrell added that IEDs, the military shorthand for makeshift bombs known as "improvised explosive devices," mines and other explosives left in the wake fleeing Taliban pose a larger threat than residual enemy fighters.
In spite of the pace of operations being slowed by enemy bombs and explosives, military officials have expressed satisfaction at the rate of progress in the central Helmand operations, which represents the first test of President Barack Obama's plan to add 30,000 more troops in the fight against Afghanistan-based insurgents.
Carter said Operation Moshtarak would likely represent the first wave in a series of operations in a push against insurgents further east towards Kandahar.
"I think, as a result of Moshtarak, is a sense of momentum that will sweep eastwards towards Kandahar during the course of the next six months," he said. "And my sense is that ... you will see the insurgent pushed eastwards in a way that will roll him out during the course of the next 12 months or so."
In a rare glimpse at their playbook, U.S. and NATO military officials for months have remarked publicly on the strategic importance of the southern Afghanistan region and the goal to clear the area of Taliban fighters. The rationale for such a declaration of intent was to allow low-level Taliban fighters the chance to flee, and to warn civilians of the impending attack, officials said.
Marja, like other areas of Helmand, is a source of income for Taliban fighters, who cultivate poppy to yield opium and heroin for the lucrative drug market, according to reports. The U.S. State Department cites Afghanistan as the world's largest producer of opium, and money from the drug trade is said to help in bankrolling terrorism.