U.S. poised to seize key south­ern Afghan town as Tal­iban dig in for a fight

Cape Breton Post - - CLASSIFIED -

NEAR MAR­JAH, Afghanistan (AP) — U.S. and Afghan forces pushed Tues­day to the edge of the south­ern Afghan town of Mar­jah, poised to seize the ma­jor Tal­iban sup­ply and drug-smug­gling strong­hold in hopes of build­ing pub­lic sup­port by pro­vid­ing aid and ser­vices once the in­sur­gents are gone.

In­stead of keep­ing the of­fen­sive se­cret, Amer­i­cans have been talk­ing about it for weeks, ex­pect­ing the Tal­iban would flee. But the mil­i­tants ap­pear to be dig­ging in, ap­par­ently be­liev­ing that even a los­ing fight would rally sup­port­ers and sab­o­tage U.S. plans if the bat­tle proves de­struc­tive.

No date for the main at­tack has been an­nounced but all signs in­di­cate it will come soon. It will be the first ma­jor of­fen­sive since Pres­i­dent Barack Obama an­nounced last De­cem­ber that he was send­ing 30,000 re­in­force­ments to Afghanistan, and will serve as a sig­nif­i­cant test of the new U.S. strat­egy for turn­ing back the Tal­iban.

About 400 U.S. troops from the Army’s 5th Stryker Bri­gade and about 250 Afghan sol­diers moved into po­si­tions north­east of Mar­jah be­fore dawn Tues­day as U.S. Marines pushed to the out- skirts of the town.

Au­to­matic ri­fle fire rat­tled in the dis­tance as the Marines dug in for the night with tem­per­a­tures be­low freez­ing. The oc­ca­sional thud of mor­tar shells and the sharp blast of rocket-pro­pelled grenades fired by the Tal­iban pierced the air.

“ They’re try­ing to bait us, don’t get sucked in,” yelled a Marine sergeant, warn­ing his troops not to ven­ture closer to the town. In the dis­tance, Marines could see farm­ers and no­mads gath­er­ing their live­stock at sun­set, seem­ingly in­dif­fer­ent to the fir­ing.

The U.S. goal is to take con­trol quickly of the farm­ing com­mu­nity, lo­cated in a vast, ir­ri­gated swath of land in Hel­mand prov­ince 380 miles (610 kilo­me­tres) south­west of Kabul. That would en­able the Afghan gov­ern­ment to re-es­tab­lish a pres­ence, bring­ing se­cu­rity, elec­tric­ity, clean wa­ter and other pub­lic ser­vices to the es­ti­mated 80,000 in­hab­i­tants.

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