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American Forces Press Service

Marja Operations Move Toward 'Holding' Phase

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 25, 2010 – Operations in Marja, Afghanistan, are transitioning from the clearing to the holding phase, as today’s turnover of the government center there marks a symbol of progress, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said today.

Twelve days into Operation Moshtarak, the offensive in the former Taliban stronghold is “trending in a very positive direction,” Morrell said, on both the military and governance fronts.

The new Afghan government raised its flag over Marja today, with Abdul Zahir Aryan installed as its administrator. Morrell called the transfer of the government center “symbolic of where we are in this operation.”

Much of the city is now under Afghan and coalition control, and many of its citizens are returning to their homes, Morrell reported. Bazaars have reopened, and they’re full of goods that demonstrate the freedom of movement needed to promote commerce.

Meanwhile, the Afghan government is extending its reach to ensure the clearing and subsequent holding phases of the counterinsurgency strategy successfully lead to building good governance and quality-of-life improvements.

“Yesterday, there were more shuras taking place in Marja than there were troops in contact,” Morrell said, referring to government-sponsored citizens’ meetings. “That’s the kind of progress … that we’ve been looking for and that we are heartened to see.”

Morrell took care not to sugarcoat the operation. “Although signs point to progress, it is still clearly a very dangerous situation,” he said. “We’re still losing troops,” with improvised explosive devices remaining the biggest threat.

“So we have to be very careful about how we progress into those areas that are not under Afghan and coalition control,” he said. “We’re doing so in a very thorough, methodical way so as to alleviate any potential for civilian or coalition force casualties.”

The United States has suffered more casualties than Afghan security forces in the operation only because they tend to conduct high-risk missions such as route-clearing operations, and because enemy forces see them as more prized targets, Morrell said.

Morrell conceded that the Afghan security forces will need help “for some time,” particularly in the intelligence and logistics arenas. But he dispelled reports that Afghan security forces aren’t carrying their load in the fight.

“No one has ever questioned their willingness or their ability to fight,” he said. “These guys are every bit in the midst of this operation. … They match us one for one on the ground.”

Meanwhile, across the border, the Pakistani government continues to show leadership in its own offensive on Taliban and al-Qaida leaders. Morrell said it’s too soon to tell if these activities will prove to be game-changers. But he said there’s hope among the Pakistanis that the dynamics are beginning to change in their country, as in Afghanistan, to favor the people rather than the Taliban.

“We are hopeful that our combined efforts on both sides of the border will undermine the confidence and the capability of the Afghan Taliban and of the Pakistan Taliban,” Morrell said, with more of their members laying down their weapons and reintegrating into society.

The key, he said, is to reverse the downward slide that had become apparent in both countries to put the momentum with their governments and pressure the enemy to want to rejoin society.

While not addressing specific reports of high-value targets the Pakistanis have captured or killed, Morrell praised the ongoing effort and reiterated U.S. support to help as needed.

“We are here to help them in any way they are comfortable as they continue to pursue this enemy that’s a threat not just to us and/or efforts in Afghanistan, but obviously to the Pakistani people as well,” he said.

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