WASHINGTON -- A battalion of Marines in southern Afghanistan now has the upper hand in a city they believed to be a Taliban stronghold, a senior Marine Corps officer in Helmand province said today.
For many months, Now Zad, the province's second-largest city, was occupied by the Taliban. The city was almost a ghost town, except for the militants who forced residents to abandon their homes.
There's been no Afghan army, police or even government represented there for months, with the exception of one Marine company -- about 100 infantrymen -- in a small corner of the city, Marine Corps Col. Randy Newman told reporters today from his Helmand base camp.
Newman, who commands Marine Regimental Combat Team 7, and his unit took operational responsibility in the region in late October. He's now overseeing a Marine offensive, which is dubbed Operation Cobra's Anger, to regain stability in Now Zad. The mission kicked off Dec. 1, shortly after President Barack Obama announced his order to send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
The timing was a coincidence, Newman said, noting that the Now Zad operation is something coalition forces were planning to do long before the president's decision.
"Taking Now Zad and giving it back to the Afghan people is something we've been looking at doing for a long time here," Newman told the Washington Post. "Now Zad was something we would've done whether more forces were coming or not. One company of Marines held a corner of the city, but in front of them was an area that was impassable, unusable and uninhabitable by everyone. So we've looked at that for a long time."
More than 900 Marines and roughly 150 Afghan troops pushed through the city, clearing every section and building of militants. Most of the militants fled or were captured or killed. As of today, the Marines have encountered "a few, but not many" enemy fighters, Newman said.
"Initially we've seen success," he said in the Washington Post interview. "We've been able to achieve our objectives, which was to get in there and assume some security positions to allow us to provide a security bubble around the city."
Newman didn't talk about the casualties on either side, but said much clearing, the initial phase, is left to be done to locate all of the enemy munitions and explosives hidden throughout the city.
"[Marines] still have a great deal of clearing to do," he said. Once the Marines are comfortable with conditions there, they'll "begin to allow Afghans back into certain portions of the city, allow them to get back into their markets and allow their government representatives to come back to that area," he added.
Early success in Cobra's Anger is an important victory for U.S. forces and the Afghan people, Newman said. Not only will Now Zad residents be able to return soon, but the operation also struck a significant blow to extremist operations in the city, province and possibly the country, he said.
Too many weapons and explosives have been found so far for Newman to believe the focus of the Taliban stronghold there was focused on just the city, he said. In one compound alone, Marines found 80 pressure plates used to set off homemade bombs, 30 gallons of homemade liquid explosives and a horde of other weapons.
Every place coalition forces operate in Afghanistan is fueled by militant strongholds and cells like Now Zad, he said.
"When you look at [the Taliban operation] in Now Zad, all of that [weapons and fighters] would've gone somewhere, and it certainly wouldn't have remained in Now Zad," Newman explained. "It was a safe haven for Taliban where they could, at will, develop [and] distribute sources of instability, both material and in the human sense.
"They could train fighters there, they could build explosives there, and they could export that throughout the rest of the province," he continued. "In addition, they were denying that city to the Afghan people. For those ... , we decided to put an end to that and change that dynamic."
It's difficult to estimate how long it will take and how many of the displaced residents will return, Newman said, while adding that he's pleased with the initial phase of the operation.
Marines there will now focus on continuing their security efforts in hopes to build upon their success by re-establishing the local government and essential services and eventually transition full responsibility to the Afghans, Newman said.
"Our belief is that [if] we provide that security bubble, we show initial progress there and the Afghan government begins to show they're going to make progress there, the people will have every reason to come back," he said. "It'll be a month or so before we can see exactly what kind of response we'll have from the displaced population."