The news from Marjah is pretty positive. The best overview I’ve seen was provided in this transcript of a briefing given a few days ago by Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the Marine commander in the Helmand province. He noted:
On day three we had 36 TICs, or troops in contact. Seemingly, everywhere in Marja, we had Marines in direct- fire contact. We have now not had direct fire in Marja in the last eight days. So I think we’re — while we still continue to find IEDs, I think we’re very pleased with how things have settled down…. I can tell you, though, that I went to a school this morning in Marja. There hadn’t been schools open in Marja in many years, so the fact that we now had 107 kids at the class I attended in — near city center, was pretty significant.
As for the Afghan army’s performance, he said they are “grading out here pretty well,” even if they are hardly “in the lead” as some overeager spinners in Kabul have claimed:
Some units are veteran units that we brought in from outside the AO and have done exceptionally well. We have an Afghan battalion that for all intensive purposes has operated independently since the very beginning of the op.
We have some newer Afghan units that we have to partner with very closely. Really they’re just out of recruit training. So I think there’s a wide variety of the Afghan army experience here in Marja, but I can tell you that I am exceptionally proud of their great service. These guys run to the sound of gunfire….You know, Marines don’t search any of the homes. In an area this large, when you decide you’ve got to search a home, the guys going in are going to be Afghan soldiers. And they’ve done that very well; they’ve earned the trust and confidence of the Marines.
The best news of all, though, is that Hamid Karzai has now visited Marjah to meet with local residents — something that had not happened after previous combat operations. Granted, he was accompanied by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who no doubt had to drag Karzai onto the helicopter, kicking and screaming, but still, this is a vast improvement. It shows some progress in McChrystal’s campaign to turn Karzai into a wartime leader who takes responsibility for security operations, even those conducted primarily by NATO forces, such as the Marjah offensive was.
None of this is to deny the obvious — that major challenges remain. Those include figuring out whether the district governor of Marjah can be effective despite reports of his having a criminal record in Germany. But overall Marjah has not proved to be nearly as tough as Fallujah. There is more hard fighting to come, especially in the summer, but it appears as though NATO forces are finally gaining all-critical momentum on the ground.