So it has begun. American, British, and Afghan troops have launched their big offensive, Operation Moshtarak (“Together”), to clear out the insurgent safe haven of Marjah in Helmand Province.
Some 6,000 coalition forces, with U.S. Marines in the lead, are planning to sweep out an estimated 400 to 1,000 Taliban. This has been one of the best-advertised offensives ever launched. The U.S. military command made clear they were coming in order to signal civilians to get out of the way. Undoubtedly, many of the Taliban have also escaped by now, but enough remain that a tough fight is likely. They have certainly had lots of time to mine and booby-trap the approaches into town.
Casualties are inevitable among the attacking troops, but there is little doubt they will achieve their objectives. The real challenge will come in Phase Two, when the troops will have to garrison Marjah, keep the Taliban from infiltrating back in, and get government services up and running. That will require a sustained commitment that President Obama’s dispatch of 30,000+ additional troops makes possible. Assuming that this operation and succeeding ones go well — which, needless to say, is hardly guaranteed in the cauldron of war — the coalition should be able to substantially secure Helmand by the summer of 2011, when U.S. troop numbers are supposed to start declining. That will be a major achievement given Helmand’s role as a source of opium and a haven of insurgency.
All that those of us watching developments at home can say to the Marines and soldiers at this point is this: Godspeed and good luck. Come home safe and come home victorious.