US Marines Battle Taliban at Marjah in Afghanistan (AFP/Getty Images)
Operation Moshtarak, described as the largest operation since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 2001, is underway. The name Moshtarak, which means "together" in the Afghan Dari language, represents the fact that US and Afghan forces will be undertaking this operation together. The operation started on Friday, February 12th with initial battles taking place in the city of Marjah. Marjah is in the southern province known as Helmand and is seen as one of the last Taliban strongholds. One of the objectives of the American troop surge in Afghanistan was to protect civilian population centers in the South by removing Taliban fighters.
NATO Needs Afghan Contribution
There are an estimated 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops including US Marines in and around Marjah. The goal is to clear the Taliban fighters from the city where they have established their own quasi-government and set up a web of bombs and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) around the city. "Despite the large NATO presence, the coalition force will need to rely on Afghan troops. We'll never have enough U.S. forces to hold a place in the middle of Afghanistan. It's going to have to be the Afghan forces that are going to take the lead in holding places." says LTC Michael Silverman, an Iraq war veteran and a counterinsurgency training consultant for the US Army.
Why is Marjah so Important?
The area around Marjah is fertile grounds for growing opium. The illegal opium trade is one of the Taliban's main sources of funding. The Afghan Government is weak in Marjah and the Taliban rules the area. It is a safe haven from where the Taliban can stage attacks and prepare IEDs. The Taliban has set up checkpoints around the city and forces travelers to pay a tax. NATO forces are determined to separate the Taliban from the poppy (opium) fields and the Afghan civilian population.
One of the fears concerning this operation is civilian casualties. NATO has dropped leaflets warning local citizens and Marjah is reportedly a ghost town. Nonetheless, there will be heavy fighting in what are normally populated areas. Limiting civilian casualties is critical to gaining the support of local residents against the Taliban. Afghan and coalition leaders have met with local elders to win their support in removing the Taliban. The elders stressed minimizing civilian casualties.
The other critical factor is that NATO and the Afghan forces need to win. Marjah is considered the last major Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan. A victory at Marjah would be seen as demoralizing to the Taliban and also help restore governmental control in a key population center. Inability to wrest the Taliban from Marjah would cast doubt on the effectiveness of the troop surge strategy.
Whether Operation Moshtarak is successful or not, the battles in Afghanistan are far from over.