WASHINGTON – Senior military and defense officials said Monday the ongoing offensive in southern Afghanistan,while successful so far,is likely the first step in a long and difficult campaign.
In a briefing before the Senate Armed Services Committee,witnesses from the Marine Corps and the Department of Defense said the offensive,Operation Moshtarak,has succeeded in driving the Taliban from several key areas. The real challenge will be holding territory and passing control to Afghan security forces,said Defense Undersecretary for Policy Michele Flournoy.
“I don't want to suggest that achieving success will be easy. Far from it,” Flournoy said. “We need to prepare for the possibility that things may get harder before they get better.”
The offensive,which began Feb. 13,is aimed at wresting control of Helmand province from Taliban insurgents. More than 15,000 U.S.,British and Afghan troops are taking part in the offensive,which is the largest operation in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
The operation is part of the larger coalition plan to reclaim Afghanistan's rural south.
Witnesses said coalition forces are still clearing insurgents from Helmand. Although the Marines have faced pockets of stiff resistance in the town of Marjah,a Taliban stronghold,insurgents put up little fight in other areas,said Lt. Gen. John Paxton Jr.,director of operations for the Marine Corps.
“The insurgents appeared to be in disarray,” Paxton said,adding that many Taliban fighters fled the coalition advance.
The committee and witnesses met in a closed session after the public briefing to discuss classified aspects of the offensive.
Paxton and Flournoy said the operation was needed to change the momentum of the war. Helmand must be under coalition control before troops can move on the Taliban-dominated province of Kandahar.
“Marjah … was the place to start,” Paxton said. “We needed to crack the insurgent stronghold there to open the freedom of movement.”
Paxton said he does not know when the campaign will be over. The U.S. cannot “outrun” its capacity to rebuild and revitalize Helmand before moving on,he said,adding that U.S. and NATO troops are numerous enough to finish the job.
Paxton said U.S. commanders are unsure of how long coalition troops may have to remain in Marjah.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman,I-Conn.,said the early news of the operation is encouraging,but it is too soon to tell what its long-term effects might be.
“It's early,but we've begun a turnaround,” Lieberman said.
Twelve NATO soldiers,including eight Americans,have died in the offensive.