Four days into the Helmand operation, military officials in Afghanistan say the offensive to break the Taliban's grip on the region has exceeded their own optimistic expectations — in particular, the speed with which the Marines were able to move into the vast Helmand River valley region and clear areas of Taliban and other Islamist insurgents without widespread civilian casualties.
But there have been pockets of fighting and stubborn resistance as the Marines and Afghan security forces move farther south in the fertile valley region. This is the prime opium growing region; the money from that industry has been a cash cow for the Taliban, and it's not likely an area the Islamist group will easily give up without a fight.
Marine commanders at Camp Leatherneck, the sprawling Marine base in Helmand province, say it appears that the insurgents went into hiding in the first couple of days of the offensive, trying to gauge what U.S. forces were doing. They say it's likely the Taliban expected the Marines to leave shortly after the initial onslaught and that they foresee an increase in fighting once insurgents realize the Marines aren't leaving.
Marines are instead setting up small outposts throughout the southern Helmand province and are staying to help secure the region. That involves the longer, much harder to define process of winning the hearts and minds of the local population. Every Marine company has been ordered to organize a shura, or town meeting, within 24 hours of moving into a small village, and sit down with the local leaders to start building relationships.
So far, that's had mixed results. In some areas, there has been an overflow of people under the shura tent. In other towns, none of the villagers have shown up. This is not a great surprise; military officials recognize wariness among the local people, who either don't know or don't trust that the U.S. Marines are going to stay for a protracted period, so they aren't automatically switching sides and pledging allegiance to the American fighters or Afghan security forces.
Still, military commanders say this is the way to go to slowly build a trust with the people and help build the local economy and government, while at the same time hunting down Taliban and other insurgents who could undermine progress. Military commanders say there's no question that this requires intensive manpower — and that the Marines will be in southern Helmand province for a long time.