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Marjah: Not living up to the hype

Afghan and ISAF forces face little resistance, but worry about IEDs the Taliban may have left behind.

An Afghan soldier stands in front of burning gas storage set on fire by Taliban fighters in the town of Marjah in Nad Ali district of Helmand province, Feb. 14, 2010. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — Operation Moshtarak, or the Battle of Marjah, has been billed as the decisive operation of the Afghan war — think Stalingrad or the Battle of the Bulge. It will “break the back of the Taliban,” according to military strategists, and will turn the tide of a conflict that has been looking increasingly desperate of late.

It is also, significantly, the first major test of the new American strategy — troops from the U.S. surge are committed, along with five brigades of Afghan forces and approximately 4,000 British troops. This is a chance to see whether the much-vaunted plan to “Afghanize” the war in 18 months’ time will actually bear fruit.

But after three days of listless fighting, the few dusty square meters of agricultural land in the middle of Helmand province may not live up to all the hype. Military spokesmen had acknowledged that there has been less resistance than expected; Gulab Mangal, the governor of Helmand, speaking to a press conference in Helmand’s capital, Lashkar Gah, on Sunday, confirmed that fighting had been merely sporadic. “The situation here is calm,” he said. “There has been no fierce fighting.”

Certainly the Taliban are hopelessly outmatched: There are 15,000 troops facing at most 2,000 insurgents.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi told reporters that this was a sign of the moral weakness of the joint command.

“The international and Afghan forces have proved their cowardice,” he said. “They brought 15,000 troops against 2,000 Taliban.”

The Taliban made a good show early in the operation, beating off a paratrooper force in the Loy Charahi area of Marjah. But by the end of the first day, they were flagging. “Most of the Taliban are leaving Marjah,” said a member of the Marjah citizens’ council, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They know they cannot resist.”

The IED challenge

The insurgents have done what they could to even the score. The Americans have made no secret of the fact that Marjah was their next target, going so far as to scatter leaflets over the area in previous weeks, warning civilians and insurgents alike that a battle was brewing.

The Taliban used the time to seed the area with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). (For an in-depth look at these IEDs, and the U.S. effort to combat them, read GlobalPost's series on Afghanistan's Hurt Locker.)

Mullah Osmani, a local Taliban commander in Marjah, boasted that there was hardly a square inch of the area that had not been mined. “We have laid explosives on the roads and bridges, the fields and desert, every single way that people walk or ride,” he said. “We have informed all villagers not to leave their houses unless there is an emergency. If they have to go out they can contact us and we will show them which way to go, or we will defuse the mine.”

Ahmad Ahamdi, a resident of the Saipan area of Marjah, said that he had seen the Taliban laying mines close to his house. “Just 200 meters from my door the Taliban have placed 35 interconnected devices,” he said. “A lot of troops may be killed here.”

Some reports out of Marjah estimate that nearly 70,000 mines and other types of IEDs have been planted. The preponderance of explosives will certainly complicate the movement of the combined forces against the Taliban, say military officials.