Pentagon says winning battle for Afghan town Marjah

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The battle to secure the Afghan town of Marjah is “essentially over,” a top U.S. commander said on Tuesday, almost a year after NATO forces promised a quick victory in the former Taliban stronghold.

U.S. Marines from 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines leave a V-22 Osprey transport helicopter as they arrive at Sherwali camp in Marjah district, Helmand province May 22, 2010. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

Marjah was once meant to showcase a revised U.S. counter-insurgency strategy, with NATO and Afghan forces sweeping into the city in February, followed by the much-touted rollout of a so-called “government in a box” meant to provide services that would win over the local population.

Instead, critics say delays caused by a stiff Taliban resistance and inadequate Afghan government support turned the Marjah campaign into a cautionary tale.

U.S. General Richard Mills, who has commanded NATO forces in southwest Afghanistan since June, was resoundingly upbeat at a briefing to Pentagon reporters. He said the real fight was nearly behind coalition forces.

“The battle for Marjah is essentially over,” Mills said, speaking via video-conference from Afghanistan. “The enemy has been pushed to the very outskirts of the district and the city center itself, the district center, if you will, has been cleared of insurgent activity for some weeks.”

He acknowledged widely-reported “murder and intimidation” tactics by the Taliban in the past, but said Marjah residents organized themselves into neighborhood watch groups that had helped repel them.

NATO forces were now most active on the city’s outskirts, “along the perimeter, near the deserts where the insurgent remains.”

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“(A Taliban fighter) still comes out of his hole every once in a while from the desert, comes into town, and takes the odd shot at us,” Mills said. “But, in effect, he has lost the ability to impact much on the people of Marjah.”

In February, the commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan predicted it would take troops just until late March to secure Marjah and then until June to determine whether the campaign had been successful.

Similarly, critics have faulted U.S. President Barack Obama for laying out a timeline in his revamped strategy that could embolden the Taliban and potentially set up failure.

Obama aims to start withdrawing U.S. forces next July, part of a plan to gradually hand over lead security control to Afghan forces through the end of 2014. The Pentagon has cautioned that the 2014 date is only “aspirational.”

U.S. officials say southern Afghan towns like Marjah, where fighting has been hardest, could be among the last slated for transition to Afghan control.

Mills did not venture a guess as to when foreign troops in southern Helmand province might start to withdraw.

“I don’t want to discuss specific troop deployments or redeployments at this time,” he said. “But I can say that I think that the situation on the ground will allow me to make some readjustments within my force.”

Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Vicki Allen