KABUL, Afghanistan — Thousands of U.S., British and Afghan troops are poised to launch the biggest offensive of the war in Afghanistan in a test of the Obama administration's new counterinsurgency strategy.
Military operations usually are intended to catch the enemy off guard, but for weeks U.S. and allied officials have been telling reporters about their forthcoming assault on Marjah, a Taliban-held town of 80,000 and drug-trafficking hub in southern poppy-growing Helmand province.
Senior NATO commanders and top Afghan officials have openly discussed the approximate time of Operation Moshtarak — the Dari language word for "together" — the size of the force and their objectives in news conferences, interviews and press releases that have been disseminated around the world and posted on government Web sites. Leaflets have been airdropped on the town.
Though the exact time of the kickoff hasn't been disclosed, a "news article" posted Thursday on the British Ministry of Defense's site announced that operations involving "elements of the Royal Welsh, Grenadier Guards and Scots Guards" and Afghan forces "in preparation" for the Marjah attack had been underway for 36 hours.
The unusual approach, according to U.S. and British commanders, is intended to persuade Marjah's civilian population to leave or turn against the Taliban, while pressuring the estimated 2,000 insurgents to flee the town or switch sides.
"We're trying to signal to the Afghan people that we are expanding security where they live. We are trying also to signal to the insurgents, the Taliban primarily in this area and the narco-traffickers, that it's about to change," Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the U.S.-led international forces in Afghanistan, said Thursday in Istanbul, Turkey.
"We're not interested in how many Taliban we kill. We'd much rather have them see the inevitability that things are changing," he said. "And that's why it is a little unconventional to do it this way. But I think it gives everybody a chance to think through what they're going to do before suddenly in the dark of night, they're hit with an offensive."
At the same time, the U.S.-led force is ready to fight if the Taliban decline to flee.
"We have to be prepared to take on what has been in small pockets a very challenging enemy and all the evidence at the moment is that the enemy intend to fight us in certain areas," British Army Lt. Gen. Nick Parker, the deputy commander of the International Security Assistance Force, told reporters Thursday.
The operation's success, however, may depend not on winning the battle, but on whether U.S.-led international troops stay in Marjah long enough to allow the establishment of a local administration, police and aid programs that win over the population, several experts said.
"Stabilization does take a long time to happen. There's no silver bullet," said a Provincial Reconstruction Team official in Helmand who asked not to be named because of the issue's sensitivity. "The Afghan government needs to gain the trust of the people, and we can then help put in place a more enduring system of governance and development than in the past."
Even more critically, some experts said, success in Marjah will depend on whether U.S. commanders and Afghan officials can win the support of local power barons, many of whom have been sharing drug-trafficking profits with the Taliban and who could be killed for switching sides.
"There is going to be a political struggle between the Taliban and the Afghan government and NATO over the key power brokers," said a Pentagon adviser, who asked to not be named to speak candidly. "Anyone who cooperates will be targeted for assassination. There are going to have to be benefits that will have to be provided, financial or development-wise, to anybody who supports Afghan and NATO forces."
Marjah is the last major town still under Taliban control in the Helmand River Valley, the province's main population area, since U.S. Marines began a push last summer that's achieved considerable success so far.
The town is surrounded by open ground crisscrossed by irrigation ditches and canals that make good hiding places for snipers and the improvised explosive devices that have claimed the bulk of the 1,624 international troops, including 984 Americans, killed since the U.S. invasion in 2001.
U.S. officials acknowledge that the operation could be long and costly, marking the start of what's expected to be a bloody year as the U.S.-led forces seek to reverse the Taliban-led insurgency's expanding influence, drive a wedge between the guerrillas and al Qaida and push for peace talks.
Some experts think the Taliban may dig in and fight, seeing an opportunity to deal a new blow to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's legitimacy and further erode support in the U.S. and Europe for the war.
"It will be very bloody. They (the insurgents) will leave a rearguard to fight," said Ali Jalali of the National Defense University in Washington, who was Afghanistan's first post-Taliban interior minister. "This will give them an opportunity to raise casualties on the other side, and this will weaken the will in Western capitals."
Other experts think the insurgents will filter out of Marjah or ditch their weapons and return to being the farmers they are in civilian life, content to wait for the departure of U.S. troops, set by President Barack Obama to begin in July 2011.
The Taliban "will take an awful lot of casualties" if they fight, said a former senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan who requested anonymity to speak candidly. "But I would lean towards them backing away from the punch. Their long term strategy is to run out the clock."
(Landay reported from Washington. Shah, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Kabul.)
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