U.S. Marines, British troops and Afghanistan's national army are making preparations for assaulting the town of Marjah in Helmand province. The town is a key Taliban stronghold and logistical hub; and because it lies at the center of a provincial breadbasket, it also is populated and surrounded by open terrain. Indeed, there is probably no better ground in Helmand on which to fight a defensive battle than the Marjah area.
The U.S. Marine-led effort in Afghanistan's Helmand province is about to get more kinetic. Marines, along with British troops and units of the Afghan national army, are preparing to begin a major assault on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, which is touted as the "last holdout" of the Mullah Omar-led Quetta Shura Council in the province and is known to be a major logistical hub that the Taliban have controlled for years. With British, Canadian and Dutch forces seeing some of the toughest fighting in Afghanistan in Regional Command South, which encompasses the southwestern quadrant of the country, the United States began surging troops into the region in 2008 with the deployment of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. More Marines have poured in (the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force is now in place), and NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is now trying to hold key population centers in the Helmand River valley. Most recently, U.S. Marines assaulted the town of Now Zad as part of Operation Cobra's Anger, an ongoing attempt to disrupt Taliban logistics. Perhaps even more central to breaking the group's hold on the province is Marjah, but the impending assault is no secret — and Taliban fighters have been preparing. The town is at the center of a large irrigation project built by the United States in the 1950s, leaving large swaths of open terrain and clear fields of fire that assaulting elements will have to traverse. The irrigation canals also will be difficult to maneuver across and may channelize assaulting forces, though some breaching efforts can be expected. The town is at the center of a key breadbasket for the province, so the area is also populated, which could compound the challenges of the assault. In short, there is probably no better ground in Helmand on which to fight a defensive battle than the Marjah area. And though the Taliban have begun to shy away from large, direct-fire engagements like the one against a small outpost in Wanat in Nuristan province in 2008, their use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) has increased dramatically in recent years; and there is little doubt that the approaches to the town and the town itself are laced with mines and IEDs. Resistance is expected to be considerably heavier than it was in Now Zad, but the forces the Taliban are dedicating to the town's defense remain to be seen. Estimates have varied from 400 fighters to 1,000 or more — perhaps as much as two battalions. The U.S. Marine Corps' Assault Breacher Vehicle While Marjah offers good defensive ground, the assault is likely to include cordoning off of the area, so many of the fighters dedicated to its defense will probably be forced to fight to the death or surrender. If they choose to stay and fight in numbers, the Taliban could try and exact a heavy cost on the assaulting force, but they likely would lose those fighters in the process. And lately, the Taliban have shown a proclivity for attacks that are low-risk and likely to preserve the forces committed. The Marines already have brought in new, heavy Assault Breaching Vehicles for use in Now Zad, and they have no illusions about the Taliban's heavy preparations in Marjah. With assaults on Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq under their belts, the Marines are experienced with this sort of urban assault. The extent to which IEDs can be managed and the number of Taliban forces dedicated to the town's defense will be pivotal to the battle's outcome.