By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
March 8, 2010 - The Taliban flag no longer flies over Marja, and the operations in the central region of Helmand province have lessons for the rest of Afghanistan, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in the country said today. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and Ambassador Mark Sedwill NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan spoke with reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at International Security Assistance Force headquarters here.
The Marja operation is a tactical and operational effort to liberate 75,000 Afghans from Taliban tyranny, the general said. "There was a Taliban flag flying over the place," McChrystal said. "There was also extensive narco-trafficking and production in the area."
The military part of the operation in the region is not over, but the high-profile part of security operations is, the general said. Following the strategy of "clear, hold, build and transfer," the clear portion of the operation will continue for months, he said. "But we have essentially gotten control of the area now, and we have begun moving into the next phase the hold and build," McChrystal said.
Establishing effective government control in the region is key to success as the operation continues, he said. The governmental part of the operation concentrates on the people and allows the national government to show its leadership in a critical area. It also telegraphs where the military and government will move next.
"Many people talk about Kandahar," McChrystal said. "We are absolutely going to secure Kandahar. We are already doing a lot of operations in Kandahar, but it is our intent under [Afghan] President [Hamid] Karzai's direction to make an even greater effort there."
Operations in Kandahar will be different from those in Marja, McChrystal said. Some 30,000 coalition troops already are in and around the city, he said, but more are needed. The general said Kandahar operations will be more like a rising tide than a D-Day invasion, and that he anticipates it will reach its zenith in the summer.
"Kandahar has not been under Taliban control; it's been under a menacing Taliban presence, particularly in the districts around it," McChrystal said. "We have put additional forces in the districts, and we will reinforce that over time." The general added that he anticipates a lot of "political shaping" of Kandahar in advance of any offensive in the city.
The operation in Marja has a strategic importance as well, McChrystal told reporters. "As it becomes a steppingstone to further ops," he said. "It's also a demonstration to the Afghan people, the international community, to the Pakistanis, and -- importantly -- to the Taliban as well, that things have changed."
Narcotics bankrolled the Taliban in Helmand. "Security is the way we attack the problem long-term," McChrystal said. "In my view, you can never reduce the [narcotics] problem until you get governance and rule of law there."
As the region becomes more secure, McChrystal said, officials are finding that drug lords are moving their operations elsewhere in the country. "As we expand security," he added, "it makes it more difficult to find places to relocate."
The operations in Helmand have proven the strategy works, McChrystal said. ISAF and its Afghan allies are not trying to bring the insurgents into a toe-to-toe battle, McChrystal said.
"We were trying to take Marja with no fight or as little fight as possible," he explained. "We want the Afghan people to see the approach of security does not necessarily mean there will be a set-piece battle in their neighborhood." The coalition wants the insurgents out of the area so the people can make the decision to reintegrate without pressure from the Taliban, he said.
Cultural aspects in the country really define the strategy, the general noted. "What I think we've learned ... is if you try to push against the culture, you have huge problems," he said. "So when we have military operations here, I don't think of pushing them somewhere. I think of pulling somewhere.
"In Marja, we were pulled in." he continued. "We launched the final operation as a result of a signed resolution by the [community council], asking us to do the operation. They pulled us in."