By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 12, 2010 - U.S. forces in the Marja region of Afghanistan are engaged in a series of missions to prime the Taliban stronghold before a massive assault that's expected soon, defense officials said today. Firefights have erupted with Taliban militants as American troops continue positioning equipment and forces in the central Helmand province area for what is likely to be the scene of significant fighting.
"They are expecting a fight. I don't know that they're expecting Fallujah," said a defense official speaking on background, referring to a heavy U.S. assault against Iraq-based insurgents in 2004. "Insurgents have been there a long time. This is a Taliban stronghold."
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.
"Marja has to be cracked open," Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway told Pentagon reporters in December. "The people there, I think, will welcome us when that happens, because the reports that we get is that there is a murder-intimidation campaign at work there -- that people are being kept in, in many ways, against their will."
Some 12,000 U.S. and NATO troops and 3,000 Afghan forces are expected to be involved once the larger-scale operation begins in earnest. Officials declined to reveal when the assault would start, saying only that it is expected to commence soon.
In the meantime, troops are conducting "shaping operations" to mold the battlefield in their favor before the offensive, said the defense official, who characterized the mission as a preparatory phase aimed at answering key tactical questions.
"When the operation begins, where do you want people stationed? Do you want Afghans here setting up roadblocks? Do you want Afghans on that hill with the proper overwatch authority on that particular valley? Do you have enough water set up? Food? Ammunition?" the official said.
Troops engaged in shaping the battlefield have encountered firefights as they prepare the area for more intense fighting, the official said.
"Some of it is tactical, some of it is logistical – it's getting everything ready for the actual operation itself," the official said, describing the ongoing operations. "That does sometimes entail small fire, firefights and even small battles, depending on where and how you're doing it, and they've run into some firefights."