Afghan War Coalition Completes Battle in Marjah as U.S. Assesses Strategy

A U.S. military commander in Afghanistan said a 10-month fight to turn back the Taliban is “over” in an area that formed the crux of a February offensive, in what may signal a move toward progress in the war.

Marjah, a town in central Helmand Province that was controlled by the Taliban and helped fuel the insurgency with poppy production, is being patrolled mainly by Afghan police and soldiers, while NATO forces focus on Sangin to the northwest, Marine Corps Major General Richard P. Mills said. Even if militants seek to return after winter, they’ll be too weak to have much impact, he said.

“The battle for Marjah is essentially over,” Mills told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday via video link from Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan, sitting alongside the province’s governor, Gulab Mangal. “The battle for Sangin, however, continues. It’s the final piece of key terrain that the insurgent can contest, and he’s fought hard to stand his ground.”

U.S. officials may draw on examples such as Marjah to show their strategy is working as the White House assesses strategy a year after President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 more troops into the war. The U.S. and its partners have fielded a combined force of almost 150,000 to turn back Taliban advances and train enough Afghan soldiers and police to take over starting in July.

Supporters of the military effort, led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, got a reprieve from deadlines last month. Coalition heads of state meeting in Lisbon, Portugal, last month agreed to aim for turning over full control to the Afghan government nationwide by 2014.

Continue the Fight

That goal essentially gives the U.S. and its partners years more to continue leading combat operations as needed and possibly continue the fight with Afghan forces in the lead beyond that date.

NATO troops probably will begin turning over key areas to Afghan forces in the first six months of 2011, according to a report released yesterday by the Center for a New American Security, a defense policy group in Washington co-founded by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy.

Most likely candidates for handover are areas in the north and west of the country, said the two authors of the report, which include a retired general from the Afghan war.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Afghanistan yesterday. He met with soldiers at two forward operating bases in the eastern part of the country near the Pakistani border, and with commanders and President Hamid Karzai in the capital Kabul.

‘Tough Fight’

“This is tough terrain and this is a tough fight,” Gates told troops at Forward Operating Base Joyce in Kunar Province, according to a transcript. “We will reverse that momentum in partnering with the Afghans, and will make this a better place for them, so they can take over and we can all go home.”

Army General David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, expressed optimism that his forces are making progress. More than 1,000 U.S. troops have been killed in the nine-year conflict in Afghanistan, which harbored al-Qaeda before the U.S. ousted the Taliban from power after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

“We believe we have arrested the momentum of the Taliban in many parts of Afghanistan, but not in all,” Petraeus told reporters in Kabul yesterday in a briefing broadcast on the Pentagon Channel. The coalition has reversed the tide in “some important areas,” though the insurgents still hold the upper hand in other parts of the country, he said.

Taliban Adapts

The coalition has been hampered by the Taliban’s ability to adapt and by neighboring Pakistan’s failure to shut down more havens for militants, the Pentagon reported in a semi-annual update to Congress last month for the period that ended Sept. 30.

While the Afghan security forces may be able to handle conventional operations by 2014, the U.S. and its partners should keep 25,000 to 35,000 special operations forces on the ground, according to the Washington policy group’s report.

“This enduring U.S. military presence will be sized to both support and enable sustained” combat against the Taliban by the Afghan forces and keep “relentless” American pressure on al-Qaeda, wrote retired Army Lieutenant General David Barno and Andrew Exum, who led a platoon of Army Rangers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Operation ‘Together’

The February offensive on Marjah, called Operation Moshtarak for “Together,” was the largest of the war at the time and the first test for the additional forces Obama began adding to the fight after taking office in January 2009.

The operation also helped lay groundwork for a more gradual offensive that began mid-year in neighboring Kandahar Province, considered the heartland of the Taliban and perhaps the most difficult challenge to coalition forces.

Marjah, an area centered about 28 kilometers (18 miles) southwest of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, is one of the country’s biggest opium-production areas.

Poppy cultivation had soared by 2008 to cover 103,000 hectares, compared with 29,000 hectares four years earlier, said Mangal, the provincial governor. Cultivation has dropped 40.7 percent since 2008, Mangal said.

“Particularly in the past year, we have had massive security achievements,” Mangal said.

The central Afghan government dominates in 10 districts of Helmand Province now, compared with six of the 13 districts in 2008, the governor said. Corruption has been reduced, and the number of students attending school has more than doubled to 135,000 from 56,000 two years ago, he said.

Mills said NATO forces are keeping up the pressure on the Taliban through the winter, not letting them have their usual seasonal respite and continuing to cut off their supply lines.

Taliban efforts to return with campaigns of intimidation such as assassinations and attacks with roadside bombs have been met with resistance from local “neighborhood watch” groups that have driven back militants or turned them in to local or NATO forces, Mills said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Viola Gienger in Washington at vgienger@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at Msilva34@bloomberg.net.

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