KABUL, (AP) — Marjah is an opium-growing paradise in the Helmand River valley, where a Taliban reign of fear has created one of southern Afghanistan’s most notorious insurgent dens.
Planned and built partly by the US government in the 1950s as a model farm belt irrigated by canals, Marjah is the target of the biggest military assault since the 2001 invasion which ousted the Taliban regime.
Operation Mushtarak (“Together”) launched Saturday by thousands of US-led troops is a major test of President Barack Obama’s strategy to end the eight-year war against the Taliban, defeat Al-Qaeda and hand greater control to the Western-backed Afghan government.
Marjah town and the surrounding area of Helmand province is home to an estimated 125,000 and beyond government control since the 2001 invasion.
Situated about 20 kilometres (12 miles) south of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gar, it is a collection of impoverished villages in Nad Ali district, fertile land for crops, vegetables, fruits, herbs and known for livestock farming.
But what should be the bread basket of Afghanistan is instead one of the world’s richest sources of opium and heroin, earning billions of illicit dollars each year that help fund the insurgency.
US-funded canals criss-cross fields of opium poppies, which stand tall and green in February, not yet blooming red and not yet oozing the sap that will be processed into heroin and shipped across the world.
Populated by Pashtun tribes, residents are generally poor farm labourers or jobless in an area devoid of development since the 2001 US-led invasion.
For the deeply conservative Muslim population, as in most of Afghanistan, life revolves around strict adherence to Islam and women are kept in purdah, rarely allowed outside their homes and covered in burkas in public.
The Taliban work in tandem with drug traffickers to force local people to grow poppies. The Taliban presence increased after US Marines flushed them out of other parts of Helmand more than two years ago.
Marjah is one of the last insurgent bastions in Helmand, where NATO and US troops have never penetrated, and fears of heavy losses among Western forces are high.
The area is expected to be laced with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), mostly planted by roadsides and detonated by remote-control, the biggest killer of foreign troops in Afghanistan and a major killer of civilians.
Some 15,000 US, British and Afghan soldiers backed by helicopters stormed Marjah before dawn Saturday, immediately coming under fire and claiming their first Taliban victims within hours.
US commanders have urged the Taliban to surrender, but the militia has vowed to stay and fight and is believed to be massing with guns and rockets.
Hundreds of families left the area ahead of the start of the offensive, packing up their homes and rushing for safety in Lashkar Gar.
NATO and Afghan officials have said the offensive aims to re-establish government and a military presence under newly appointed district governor Haji Zair, who has not yet been able to live there and who will be responsible for administration.