Marie Colvin in Camp Bastion, Helmand
AMERICAN and British troops poised to assault the Taliban stronghold of Marjah have begun targeting insurgent leaders for assassination.
Military sources said special forces had been infiltrating the town on “kinetic” missions — jargon for armed attacks. “Special forces guys have been going in on assassination missions with the aim of decapitating the Taliban force,” one said.
At the British base of Camp Bastion and the adjoining Camp Leatherneck, the US marine base, troops and munitions have been airlifted in by night to avoid enemy rockets. It is clear that international forces are on the brink of a big battle. All yesterday morning, the thud-thud-thud of heavy machineguns and the crump of mortars filled the air.
In a break from traditional military secrecy, American, British and Afghan commanders have announced that Marjah, the last town in Helmand under Taliban control, will be attacked.
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Operation Moshtarak (“Together”) will be by far the largest offensive since General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, instigated his counter-insurgency strategy, backed by President Barack Obama’s 30,000-troop “surge”.
About 1,000 Taliban, mostly Afghans but with some foreign fighters in their ranks, are believed to be in Marjah, an opium centre and local headquarters for bomb-making and sending out suicide bombers.
Military sources described the use of publicity as a psychological tactic to intimidate the Taliban into laying down their weapons or fleeing.
The risks are huge. By surrendering the element of surprise, the coalition has given the insurgents time to dig in and expand an already extensive tunnel network. Taliban diehards are known to have been placing bombs along alleyways, roads and in a network of irrigation canals.
“Around Marjah is a mass of canals in a neat grid, the kind of terrain that’s difficult to clear, easy to defend,” said a military source.
There was little evidence of a Taliban retreat this weekend. Reached by satellite telephone, a Taliban commander expressed defiance. Said Mawlawi Abdul Ghafar vowed he would never lay down his arms.
“We’ve got experts and brave fighters who have fought and killed the infidels,” said Ghafar, 38, who commands 120 fighters in what he called the “first battle circle”.
With overwhelming force and air power on the allies’ side, the outcome is in little doubt.
Success in Marjah, however, will not be judged on who wins the battle. Late in the day, military commanders have accepted that the solution to the eight-year war will be political, not military.
According to McCrystal’s strategy, clearing the Taliban from strongholds such as Marjah is only the first step towards “clear, hold and build”.
In the past, Nato would clear Taliban fighters from towns, but without sufficient troops to remain and secure it. The Taliban simply returned, flushed out any hapless police and seized back control. It was deeply dispiriting to troops who paid a high price in deaths and injuries, and it instilled a deep streak of scepticism in ordinary Afghans.
“For now, the local population is sitting on the fence,” said Frank Ruggiero, the senior American civilian representative in southern Afghanistan, who has hundreds of millions of dollars at his disposal. The money is to implement Washington’s plan to make Afghanistan sufficiently stable for it to begin to withdraw troops by the summer of next year.
“They’ve seen us come and make promises before, and then [we] leave,” Ruggiero said. “They’re not coming down off that fence until they are sure that they are secure, that a local policeman is going to be at his post in the morning and that the Taliban are not coming back.”
In Marjah, the plan is to move quickly to set up a local administration and to provide jobs such as clearing roads and canals. “You have to give people something they can see,” said Ruggiero.
The question being asked is whether the Taliban will choose to slink away and wait 18 months for an American withdrawal to begin. It is a high-stakes game, and the people of Marjah are expected to be at the heart of it this week.