MARJAH, Afghanistan – Marines and Afghan troops cleared the last major pocket of resistance in the former Taliban-ruled town of Marjah on Saturday -- part of an offensive that is the run-up to a larger showdown this year in the most strategic part of Afghanistan's dangerous south.
Although Marines say their work in Marjah isn't done, Afghans are bracing for a bigger, more comprehensive assault in neighboring Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban where officials are talking to aid organizations about how to handle up to 10,000 people who could be displaced by fighting.
"I was in Kabul, and we were talking that Kandahar will be next, but we don't know when," said Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar. He's begun working with international aid groups to make sure the next group of displaced Afghans have tents, water containers, medicine, food, blankets, lamps and stoves.
"Hopefully things will go smoothly, that people have learned lessons from the Marjah operation," he said.
Shortages of food and medicine have been reported during the 2-week-old Marjah operation. The international Red Cross evacuated dozens of sick and injured civilians to clinics outside the area. The U.N. says more than 3,700 families, or an estimated 22,000 people, from Marjah and surrounding areas have registered in Helmand's capital of Lashkar Gah 20 miles away.
Walid Akbar, a spokesman for the Afghan Red Crescent Society, said government aid was mostly received by those who made it to Lashkar Gah, Akbar said. Those stuck outside the city are getting little help, he said.
The Marjah offensive has been the war's biggest combined operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban's hard-line regime. It's the first major test of NATO's counterinsurgency strategy since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 new American troops to try to reverse Taliban gains.
The operation in Marjah is the tactical prelude to the bigger operation being planned for later in Kandahar, the largest city in the south and the former Taliban headquarters, according to senior officials with the Obama administration. It was from in and around Kandahar that Taliban overlord Mullah Omar ruled Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.
Bringing security to Kandahar city is a chief goal of NATO operations this year, according to the officials, who spoke to reporters in Washington on Friday on condition of anonymity so they could discuss national security issues. If this year's goal is to reverse the Taliban's momentum and give Afghan government an opportunity to take control, then NATO-led forces have to get to Kandahar this year, one official said.
On Saturday, after a four-day march, Marines and Afghan troops who fought through the center of Marjah linked up with a U.S. Army Stryker battalion on the northern outskirts of the former Taliban stronghold.
"Basically, you can say that Marjah has been cleared," said Capt. Joshua Winfrey, commander of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines Regiment.
Lima Company's more than 100 heavily armed Marines, along with nearly as many Afghan army soldiers, spent days advancing north, searching every compound for possible Taliban holdouts.
There were no Taliban in sight, and the Marines didn't fire a shot during the final advance -- except at a couple of Afghan guard dogs who threatened the unit.
The Marines' hookup with the Army battalion means the operation is somewhere between the clear and hold phases, although suspected Taliban fighters remain on the western outskirts of town.
Marine spokesman Capt. Abe Sipe said that while armed resistance has "fallen off pretty dramatically" in the past four to five days, the combined forces expect to face intermittent attacks for at least two more weeks.
"We are not calling anything completely secure yet," Sipe said.
Capt. Abdelhai Hujum, who spent two decades with various Afghan militias before joining the nascent Afghan National Army, said he suspected most of the local Taliban buried their guns and blended with the civilian population.
"They're not stupid. I'd do the same if I saw a company of U.S. Marines coming my way," said Hujum, commander of an Afghan unit.
"I can sense them all around us," Hujum said Friday as squads of Afghan troops and some Marines stormed a mosque where a child had said eight insurgents were preparing an ambush. Villagers exhibited hostility. One threw a stone at a Marine waiting outside. Still, there wasn't a single rifle or Taliban insurgent in sight.
On Saturday, Marine sniffer dogs and metal detectors found a cache of explosives and weapons as they finished clearing out a northern Marjah neighborhood. The cache, detonated by a bomb squad, contained over 80 pounds of homemade explosives, half a dozen rocket-propelled grenades, Chinese-made rockets, artillery rounds and other bomb-making materials.
"It made a pretty big boom," said Staff Sgt. Paul Bui, 20, from El Monte, California.
Bui and other explosives experts said the cache was hidden in freshly upturned earth near a canal, appearing to confirm residents' accounts that Taliban fighters had fled just a few days earlier.
Establishing a credible local government is a key component of NATO's strategy for Marjah, a longtime Taliban logistical hub and heroin-smuggling center. Earlier in the week, the government installed a new administrator, and several hundred Afghan police have started patrolling newly cleared areas of Marjah and southern Helmand.
President Hamid Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, told The Associated Press on Saturday that success in Marjah would be measured by whether its people, who have lived for years under Taliban rule, eventually feel secure.
"The president was very clear before the operation that we have to convince the people of Marjah that we'll bring them security, we'll bring them good governance and life will be better for them than under the Taliban," Omar said.
While the insurgents laid low in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban struck Friday in the capital of Kabul, killing at least 16 people in assaults on two small hotels in Kabul. Half the dead were foreigners. The attack served as a reminder that the insurgents still have the strength to launch attacks -- even in the capital.
At least six of the victims were Indian citizens whose bodies were returned home Saturday on a military jet sent from New Delhi.
An Indian statement said Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was "outraged" at the attack. Karzai telephoned Singh on Saturday to express regret and promise his government would take extra security measures, the presidential office said.