By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
March 2, 2010 - The first phase of a Marine offensive in a former Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan's Helmand province is nearing completion, the Pentagon's No. 2 official said today. As the military operations of the roughly 15,000 NATO and Afghan forces that have been engaged in Operation Moshtarak since Feb. 13 begin to wind down, the focus in the Marja section of central Helmand is shifting from clearing out the enemy to holding the gains the operation has brought about.
"Our strategy, however, recognizes that military action is only the first step in a successful transition," Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III said today. "The Afghan government and security forces must ultimately take responsibility for security and governance."
Lynn said U.S. Marines are working alongside Afghan and U.S. civilians to help establish government services in Marja, where the raising of the Afghan government flag at a ceremony last week symbolized the end of Taliban dominion in the region.
Speaking to members of the American Legion, Lynn described continued resistance in Marja in the form of homemade bombs known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which were littered across the area ahead of the operation, according to reports.
"Our soldiers are exposed to great risks daily," he said, "from IEDs, snipers and suicide attacks."
U.S. and NATO military officials remarked publicly for months before the offensive on the strategic importance of the southern Afghanistan region and the goal to clear the area of Taliban fighters. The rationale was to allow low-level Taliban fighters the chance to flee, and to warn civilians of the impending attack, officials said.
Marja has been characterized as representing the first test of President Barack Obama's strategy to add 30,000 more troops in the fight against Afghanistan-based insurgents. As the initial phase of operations comes to a close, Lynn said, Marja has emerged as an area where hope is returning.
"Because of our new strategy, and President Obama's deployment of additional troops, Marja is one of many cities in Afghanistan that has begun to have hope," he said. "And with Pakistan's capture of key Taliban leaders, the strategy of targeting adversaries on both sides of the border is paying off."
The capture in Pakistan last month of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar -- the Taliban's second-in-command to Mohammad Omar and the top operational commander -- had been described previously by the White House as a "significant win." News of the apprehension came last month amid reports that NATO and Afghan forces had yielded early progress -- and some stiff resistance -- against Taliban fighters ostensibly under Baradar's command in Marja and elsewhere in central Helmand.
"We still have a long road ahead," Lynn said, "but we are working hard with the Afghan government and with our partners to shift the momentum in our favor."