World News

Marines gear up for push into Afghan Taliban enclave

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Thousands of U.S. Marines are preparing to take on a southern Afghanistan Taliban enclave in a massive show of force intended as a decisive start to President Barack Obama’s “surge” of 30,000 extra troops.

The assault, expected to begin within days, will trigger the start of what is expected to be a bloody 2010 fighting season. U.S. and NATO forces hope to make military gains that will turn the tide this year so they can begin withdrawing next year.

Described as a “festering sore” by U.S. Marine commanders in Afghanistan who are planning the offensive, Marjah is a Taliban-controlled town in the center of Afghanistan’s most dangerous province, Helmand, where thousands of Marines have tried to turn back the insurgency.

A heavily populated area nestled in fertile farming land, irrigated by clusters of canals, Marjah is the last major Taliban-held bastion in the southern part of the province. The Marines have made no secret that they intend to seize it.

“In terms of the last seven months, we had a lot of holes in our battle space which we’re now going to be able to fill and continue to displace the insurgency out and away,” Colonel George “Slam” Amland, the deputy commander of the Marine taskforce at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand told reporters.

“We are going to gain control of a capital investment they have had control of for some time. We are going to alter the ecosystem here considerably,” Amland said.

About 10,000 U.S. Marines arrived in Helmand last year, doubling the size of a mainly British force in the province. Some 5,000 more Marines have already poured into the province since Obama announced his new surge in December.

They will be backed up in the assault on Marjah by U.S. Army and British units.

Marjah, made up of irrigation canals carved out of the desert decades ago under a U.S.-funded development plan, is west of districts along the Helmand River that the Marines seized last July in the biggest operation of the eight-year-old war so far.

Foreign troops have carried out raids into Marjah in past years but until now lacked the numbers to seize and hold it.

Amland estimated there could be as many as 1,000 fighters in Marjah. Hundreds may be “dyed in the wool” Taliban, but Amland referred to others as the “$5-a-day lunch-bucket group,” who he said might decide not to fight.

In last year’s biggest operation, some 4,000 Marines pushed into Taliban-held towns in Helmand accompanied by just 600 Afghan troops.

Commanders complained last year they were given far too few Afghan troops to hold areas they took. Without divulging numbers ahead of the operation, they say that this time around the Afghan contingent will play a much larger role.

“The flavor of this is far more Afghan. More Afghan-led, more Afghan-developed and more Afghan-invested,” Amland said.

Last year was the deadliest for foreign forces in Afghanistan since the war began. More than twice as many Americans died in 2009 as in 2008, and violence has continued into this year despite the winter that normally sees a lull.

Editing by Sugita Katyal