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Marjah offensive: Q&A on why it matters to Afghanistan war

After weeks of publicizing, US troops are set to launch one of the biggest offensives of the Afghanistan war, against the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in Helmand Province. Here’s a briefing on just how important this town is and why NATO gave the Taliban so much advance warning.

By Staff Writer / February 9, 2010

US Marines gather at their tents at Belleau Wood outpost outside Marjah in Afghanistan's Helmand province on Monday.

David Guttenfelder/AP

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New Delhi

Thousands of United States Marines and Afghan security forces are poised to launch one of the largest offensives of the Afghanistan war. The imminent attack – publicized well in advance by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) – will focus on the town of Marjah in the southern province of Helmand.

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What is the goal for the mission?

By flushing the Taliban from Marjah, ISAF hopes to be able to link together a disconnected patchwork of towns currently under government control in Helmand.

Marjah remains one of the last strongholds of the Taliban in the southern Helmand River Valley, where much of the population lives. And insurgents, using Marjah as a base, still disrupt the movement of civilians, soldiers, and trade up and down the valley.

"If you are connecting the dots, you are increasing security, creating opportunities for transport, for societies to connect, to exchange supplies, and general economic development," says ISAF spokesman Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay.

How does this matter for the wider Afghan war?

Since last summer, the US military has gone on the offensive in the province in order to convince residents that they – not the Taliban – had the momentum. And clearing the insurgent stronghold of Marjah is one of many necessary steps for doing that.

Helmand "is symbolic because it's the drug center and it's the Taliban center," says regional analyst Ahmed Rashid. Taliban leader Mullah Omar, hails from the province. So does most of the world's illicit poppy crop that makes up one of the funding streams for the insurgency.

On the other hand, Helmand remains somewhat exceptional from the wider war effort, and progress from the concentrated effort there may not be easily replicated in other parts of the country. The dispatch of 10,000 Marines there, with an additional 9,000 troops still arriving as part of US President Barack Obama's surge, has allowed US commanders there to continue pursuing the ambitious counterinsurgency – some would say "nationbuilding" – vision of Gen. Stanley McChrystal. In other parts of the nation, the smaller concentrations of foreign forces have focused on Mr. Obama's scaled-back approach of protecting cities and training Afghan security forces.

Besides Marjah, a handful of other major pockets in Helmand remain, says Tremblay. And for the areas cleared, the Herculean task remains of bringing government and development to a region that has seen little of either for years.

Mr. Rashid also warns that the heavy American involvement in local governance there will require deft negotiation of complex tribal rivalries that President Hamid Karzai has inflamed by elevating members of his own tribe.

Finally, ISAF's effort to turn Helmand into a showpiece for Afghans nationwide risks evoking jealousy and perverse incentives to welcome insurgents in order to get international attention – and funds, says Rashid.

"I don't think when we focus on one province we should ignore the other provinces. We need a parallel process of development with more stable provinces," says Waliullah Rahmani, an analyst at the Kabul International Institute for Strategic Studies. "Unfortunately international forces have had a very defensive approach to the major issues of Afghanistan.... They see a trend emerging somewhere against international forces then they try to stop that trend by putting out money" and manpower.

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