The top US military commander yesterday visited Marjah, the frontline of US-led operations against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan where troops are gearing up to widen the fight to Kandahar in June.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in the battle zone a day after US President Barack Obama left Afghanistan after a surprise visit, pledging to defeat the Taliban and “to get the job done.”
Operations in the farming community of Marjah, set in poppy fields and desert in Helmand Province, are the first test of the US’ counter-insurgency campaign aimed at ending an increasingly deadly war now into its ninth year.
“Admiral Mullen is in Marjah,” said Lieutenant Colonel Todd Breasseale, a spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.
Further details of his visit were not immediately released.
The US and allies have boosted their troop numbers to 126,000, with the number set to peak at 150,000 by August as the fight expands from Helmand into Kandahar Province, the heartland of the insurgency.
Obama has said he wants to start drawing down troops from the middle of next year, putting pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to take over responsibility for security by then.
During his five-hour overnight visit, Obama defended his sweeping new push to flush out Taliban strongholds in the south where the insurgency is concentrated.
“Our strategy includes a military effort that takes the fight to the Taliban while creating the conditions for greater security and a transition to the Afghans,” he told US and NATO troops at Bagram Airfield outside Kabul.
Military and political efforts against the Taliban around Kandahar, Afghanistan’s third-biggest city and the Islamist militia’s spiritual capital, are the next step in the US-led strategy.
In Washington, a US military official said NATO forces would begin the offensive on Kandahar in June with preparatory operations already under way.
The offensive in the region “has already begun” and in Kandahar “operations will begin [in June],” the official said on condition of anonymity.
The US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, told Obama by video conference earlier this month that he would take on Taliban militants in Kandahar when enough reinforcements were in place.
The commander said the military was on course to pour thousands of extra troops into the region in coming months.
He has also said that the build-up to a full operation on Kandahar had begun with initial military and political efforts, including operations to secure roads and districts.
Speaking to reporters in Washington earlier this month, McChrystal said the effort would “ramp up in the weeks and months ahead,” lasting “a significant time.”
The campaign follows the launch of Operation Mushtarak in Marjah on Feb. 13, which six weeks later appears to have largely pushed back the Taliban and given the Afghan government a chance to take control.
Upon his return to Washington, Obama stressed the immediate need for progress in Afghanistan.
“I think he is listening,” Obama said of Karzai in an interview with NBC TV. “But I think that the progress is too slow and what we’ve been trying to emphasize is the fierce urgency of now.”