Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson (left) approaches Patrol Base Lakhari in southern Helmand province in this October 2009 photo.
Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson (left) approaches Patrol Base Lakhari in southern Helmand province in this October 2009 photo. David Gilkey/NPR
U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan plan to carry out a major operation next year to clear one of the largest remaining Taliban strongholds in the violent Helmand province.
Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson tells NPR's All Things Considered that the 10,000 or so additional Marines being sent as part of the Obama administration's surge plan will enable an all-out assault on Marja, where Taliban forces have been digging in.
"We have one area that we know the enemy considers a sanctuary and has sort of arrived in significant numbers and built up his defenses," Nicholson tells NPR's Robert Siegel in a telephone interview Thursday from Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province. "I think there is an inevitability, a little bit of a collision, if you will, here sometime in the new year."
Helmand has been the site of a series of fierce pitched battles in the past six months as Nicholson's Marines have ousted Taliban forces from a number of towns that had previously been effectively off-limits to NATO forces.
In an effort to demonstrate how much progress has been made, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, toured one of those towns, called Nawa, on Thursday surrounded by a significant security detail but without wearing a flak jacket.
Mullen said increasing the participation of Afghan security forces in taking and holding territory is an essential part of the U.S. strategy.
"It's critical that we continue to focus on them and they take the lead and essentially become responsible for their own security, which actually is a more exciting proposition than what's occurring right now," Mullen said.
Toward that goal, Nicholson says training programs for Afghan security forces have been accelerated and, if everything goes according to plan, there will be about the same number of Afghan soldiers and police officers as U.S. Marines participating in the upcoming Marja operation.
"What we're here to do probably for Marja is probably break open those [improvised explosive device] lanes, pour through, but at the end of the day this has got to be their victory," Nicholson says. "We're going to work very hard to make sure they are involved in every facet of it, to include the planning of it."
But he warns that the Marja assault, when it comes, is likely to be a very tough fight.
Taliban insurgents, who have been laying down fields of IEDs and mines, are expected to fight hard to defend one of the few remaining significantly populated portions of Helmand that they still control.
"We believe that there is a formidable enemy there. We believe we have an enemy that will fight and hold that ground," Nicholson says. "Where's he going to go after this? Will he try to sneak back into the areas we have cleared and are prospering? I don't think there will be a lot of appetite from the locals to welcome them back."
One factor that should help, he adds, is that about 80 percent of the Taliban fighters still operating in Helmand are "local guys who will frankly just go home." The remaining 20 percent or so are seen as committed ideologues who won't give up easily.
Beyond the immediate goal of driving the Taliban out of Marja, Nicholson says he is focused on the broader picture, including President Obama's stated intention of beginning to draw down troops in Afghanistan starting in July 2011.
"I can't tell you where we're going to be in July of 2011, but I can tell you that we understand what the commander-in-chief has said, and that's when he wants to draw down, and we are sprinting," Nicholson says. "The message to our Marines every day is that the clock is running and the world is watching."