The U.S. military is openly telegraphing a plan to clear out an insurgent haven in what may be the first major battle since President Barack Obama's expansion of the Afghanistan war, hoping that all but the most hardcore Taliban will sit out the fight.
U.S. military leaders have spoken bluntly in recent weeks about a looming assault on Marjah, a town in the southwest Afghan province of Helmand described as Taliban-owned and operated.
"It's been increasingly clear for weeks now about the need to clear out Marjah, so that's going to happen," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen told reporters traveling with him in Afghanistan in December. "It's going to happen ... at a time and place of our choosing, but it's going to happen."
The battle would be a keystone in an offensive planned for early this year against a resurgent Taliban-led insurgency. The Obama administration approved the offensive, and an infusion of 30,000 additional U.S. forces, as a way to put the brakes on the Taliban's expansion across southern Afghanistan.
Narrow path to victory
U.S. officials say there is only a narrow path to victory, but that a forceful stand in Helmand and Kandahar provinces will establish U.S. resolve to stick it out.
The U.S. military does not normally comment on the timing or other details of future operations. But remarks from senior military leaders in Afghanistan and Washington suggest they see no point in hiding plans to confront what they said is the last trouble spot in a district where U.S. forces have already cleared several other towns of active Taliban presence.
Marjah, a small town in a farming district some 380 miles southwest of Kabul, is a strategic target because it is a key supply hub for the opium poppy crop and shelters Taliban units thought to have fled the Marines elsewhere in Helmand.
Helmand is the world's largest producer of opium, the main ingredient in the production of heroin, and Afghanistan accounts for more than 90 percent of the world's opium supply. Some of the proceeds from this multibillion dollar trade go to fund the insurgency. Profits also line the pockets of corrupt government officials.
"We're going to go in big," Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, told reporters traveling with Mullen in Helmand. "I'm not looking for a fair fight."
"Marjah is next," Nicholson said, because if U.S. forces are going to protect Afghans from the Taliban — a key component of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's new Afghan war strategy — they need to ensure free passage throughout Afghanistan.
Claims about defaced Qurans
Tensions have intensified in southern Afghanistan as local protesters claiming that international troops destroyed copies of the Quran clashed with Afghan and foreign security forces in Helmand on Tuesday. The tumult left six people dead, Afghan officials said.
Also in the south, 13 insurgents were killed Tuesday by a missile fired from an unmanned drone. The pilotless drones have mostly been used for surveillance, but the airstrike commenced after coalition troops scanned insurgents preparing ammunition and mortar teams moving equipment in the Naw Zad area of Helmand, NATO said.
On Monday, another missile fired from a drone killed three insurgents farther south in the Nad Ali district of Helmand, according to NATO.
During a trip to the region late last year, Mullen chose to fly around the Marjah district rather than directly over it, a sign of how potent the insurgent threat has become there. The area's strategic importance near the provincial capital and a major roadway makes it a propaganda prize as well as valuable real estate.
Military officials said the battle would be designed to minimize Afghan civilian casualties, but the fight, whenever it comes, may involve house-to-house combat and other tactics that put civilians at risk. It is unclear how many true civilians remain in the town itself, although many live in the surrounding 40 miles or so of lush river- and canal-fed farmland.
An attempt to mislead Taliban?
Although the U.S. military clearly wants to eliminate the Taliban threat around Marjah, some of the big talk may be a deliberate attempt to mislead the insurgents about when and how the assault will come.
By openly discussing their plans for Marjah, military officials risk the possibility that the Taliban will act contrary to their plans and mount a stiff defense that could swell American casualties.
But defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the future military operation, said commanders are banking on the assumption that Taliban foot soldiers may choose to quietly slip back to their civilian lives rather than face vastly superior U.S. forces.
"We are going to put the enemy on the horns of a dilemma," Nicholson said. "He has to decide what to do."
Nicholson said it's impossible to hide the arrival of 10,000 Marines that began last month. Their mission is clear to everyone including the Taliban, the general said.
"There is a certain inevitability to this," Nicholson told reporters as he and Mullen walked through a nearby town, Narwa, without flak jackets or helmets to underline the improved security since Marines confronted militants there last summer and fall.
A small market has reopened in Narwa, whose civilian population scattered more than a year ago and has barely begun to return.
If U.S. forces can flush militants from Marjah, farmers and legitimate merchants will have freer passage on the province's main roadway and the Taliban middlemen will have more difficulty moving the opium crop from farmers' fields, military officials said.
Afghanistan's Interior Ministry claimed its troops confiscated 1.3 tons of opium in one raid in Marjah in 2008.
Marines have moved into strategic Helmand towns one by one since Obama's first infusion of forces last summer. The strategy places the protection of ordinary Afghans from Taliban threats, violence and shakedowns above the killing of militants.
Nicholson said what he called "small-T Taliban," the hired help who go home to their families at night, may walk away while other more committed militants fight or try to flee to yet another haven.