Three weeks after U.S. Marines and Afghan Army soldiers launched the largest military offensive in Afghanistan since 2001, a top American commander said Thursday that most of the insurgents have been cleared from the Taliban enclave of Marja.
On February 13th, thousands of U.S. Marines and Afghan Army troops began the battle for Marja, an area of about 400 square kilometers that is considered to be a stronghold of the Taliban and a drug-trafficking hub in southern Afghanistan.
Speaking to reporters via satellite from the region, Marine Corps Brigadier General Lawrence Nicholson said 2,500 of his men who are partnered with about 1,500 Afghan Army soldiers have largely secured Marja.
"While we still continue to find IEDs [improvised explosive devices], I think we're very pleased with how things have settled down," said General Nicholson. "[This] doesn't mean it's over by any stretch [of the imagination]. And again, the IED threat is real and formidable. And we'll continue to work in terms of clearing it."
Nicholson said the people of Marja remain deeply skeptical, adding that they have been "tainted" by previous bad experiences with the Afghan government.
The general said gaining the trust of the local population is crucial to the success of the mission.
"And at the end of the day, I think all of us understand that in a counterinsurgency operation, the people are the prize and the people are going to vote," he said. "We are in competition every day for the confidence and support of the population. We're in competition with the Taliban."
With the Afghan flag now flying over Marja, officials say plans call for NATO and the Afghan government to quickly establish a civilian administration, restore public services, and pour in aid to win the loyalty of the population and prevent the Taliban from returning.
General Nicholson said security is a top priority.
"I can tell you right now that there is no short-term plan to withdraw the Marines or the Afghan battalions that are in there," said Nicholson. "We're very conscious of the fact that this is a very fragile area."
Nicholson said soldiers are working with local elected, religious and tribal leaders to stabilize the area.
He said local roads have reopened, commerce has resumed and families who fled the fighting are returning.
The general added that his men are consulting with local elders in an effort to recruit honest police officers.
"I do have real concerns, though, about the quality of the police overall. And we've been very public to say I'd rather have no police than bad police because bad police - they just kill you," he said. "I mean, they turn the population against you."
Nicholson noted that members of the Afghan Army involved in the Marjah operation range from seasoned veterans to recent recruits just out of training.
Nicholson says he is impressed by the actions of the Afghan soldiers.
"These guys run to the sound of gunfire," said General Nicholson. "And when I talk to the young Marines, they tell me how very happy they are to have them there."
Afghan and NATO troops continue to fortify their positions in Marjah.
Commanders say the capture of the town is the first step in a broader offensive that will extend to neighboring Kandahar Province, the birthplace of the Taliban.
The operation is considered a key test of U.S. President Barack Obama's strategy for reversing the rise of the militant group, while protecting the Afghan population.