The largest military operation in Afghanistan since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban is under way. Two hours after the passing of holy Friday, U.S. Predator and Apache aircraft launched missiles at targets(4) while dozens of helicopters ferried a combined force into the town of Marja itself. They expect to have 7,500 troops in the town by nightfall. With Taliban fighter estimates ranging from 400-1,000 with up to 100 foreign fighters, NATO is coming in "big, strong, and fast". Five "Breacher" vehicles will be used to open up roads mined heavily by the Taliban- by Saturday morning, they could be heard destroying roadside bombs. Each Marine unit has been partnered with an Afghan one. U.S. Special Forces are working side-by-side Afghan commandos.(1, 2)
As of the posting of this diary, heavy firefights were presently underway between Marines and the Taliban.(3)
Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave the green light on Friday after the urging of hundreds of tribal elders from Marja. As has been the case elsewhere in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the greatest weapon available against the Taliban are the tribal elders.(4) Despite urging to avoid air strikes, the southern-most part of Marja was struck as foreign fighters were believed to have massed somewhere in that area.(5)
Hundreds of Taliban are believed to have fled in the lead-up to this fight, including a lot of commanders- which is take as a sign that the Taliban leadership believes Marja is a lost cause. The "shadow governor" of Helmand province was quietly captured last week as he tried to flee Marja.(5) U.S. Special Forces have recently broadened their role to include operations against mid-level Taliban, making them very busy over the last few weeks pursuing these "shadow officials".
The war in Afghanistan may be a lot larger than the battle of Marja, but the battle of Marja is an important step to turning back the Taliban in the south. This is the first infusion of the troop surge ordered on December 1st by U.S. President Barack Obama. Marja is also where the Taliban and drug-dealers meet as the area has been pretty much turned from growing wheat and fruit to strictly opium to fill the Taliban coffers. There are a number of drug-processing labs and bomb-making facilities. With weaker coffers, the Taliban will not be able to make as many bribes and pay as many young men to fight. This is also a major chance for NATO and their Afghan partners to finally halt and reverse the Taliban's momentum.