In Marjah offensive, Afghan forces take the lead
In a dramatic turnaround from this past summer, Afghan forces in the new Marjah offensive outnumber international forces 3 to 2. Efforts to 'Afghanize' the face of the war against the Taliban are seen as key.
Just this past summer, when 4,000 US Marines swept into towns south of Marjah along the Helmand River, they did so with only 650 Afghan national security forces. The 6-to-1 ratio frustrated US commanders and became emblematic of the lack of readiness of Afghan forces after eight years of international military assistance and training.
President Obama has made training Afghans a top priority so that US forces can begin drawing down later this year. The Afghan force numbers for Marjah – some 10 times larger than in the summer offensive – do not in themselves prove rapid advancements in recruitment and training. But it is a positive indicator that Afghan authorities could mobilize that large a force for a dangerous assault on one of the Taliban's main strongholds.
"It's a large number and that in itself says something about having a force that can engage in military combat," says Ayesha Khan, associate fellow at London-based Chatham House. But, she adds, it does not mean Afghan forces are anywhere close to taking over the fight. "I don't think Afghan forces ... are ready to clear, hold, build."
Gun battles rage
Gun battles continued Monday in Marjah, as Taliban snipers shot at marines and Afghan troops. One American and one Briton have died so far in the fighting, while Afghan officials claimed Sunday that as many as 35 militants had been killed in the first two days of the offensive.
Communications from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have been inconsistent in the opening days of the offensive regarding force levels, and their numbers still differ somewhat from the information from Afghan ministries. Part of the confusion has to do with distinctions between combat troops and support troops, as well as the desire to remain vague for operational security.
The ISAF says that approximately 10,000 Afghan and international forces are fighting side-by-side in Operation Moshtarak, which means "Together." Of that force, roughly 60 percent are Afghan, 40 percent are international, according to the ISAF. Some 5,000 additional troops are supporting the assault.
The Ministry of Defense says that 5,000 Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers are taking part. The Ministry of Interior spokesman Zmarai Bashari says that 1,800 police "will join after the military operation to do the law enforcement and security."
High desertion rates and an ethnic imbalance have hobbled Afghan security forces. Non-Pashtun minorities from safer parts of Afghanistan will often go through the training and promptly quit when assigned to more dangerous postings in the volatile Pashtun regions of southern and eastern Afghanistan.