U.S. Marines and the Afghan army plan a substantial assault on Taliban fighters in Marja, the last major community under Taliban control in what had been a largely lawless area of the Helmand River valley, a top Marine said Wednesday.

“We are going to gain control,” Col. George “Slam” Amland told reporters. “We are going to alter the ecosystem considerably.”

Amland, deputy commander of Marine forces in southern Afghanistan, would not discuss the timing of the assault or how many thousands of troops would be involved. But the attack, he said, would involve Marine units that were part of the troop buildup authorized by President Obama in December. The operation also will show how the Afghan army was growing in numbers and competency, he predicted.

“This is a big leap for the government of Afghanistan,” he said.

Marine and NATO leaders want sprawling Helmand province to be a showpiece of the “clear, hold, build and transition” counterinsurgency strategy, in which Taliban fighters are forced out of a region and then a “civilian surge” begins to rebuild war-ravaged communities and bolster confidence among Afghan villagers in their provincial and national governments.

Whereas the Taliban once controlled nearly all communities of the Helmand River valley area, Amland predicted that by summer there would be no place for the Taliban to hide except in mountainous regions with sparse populations.

Although the Marines enjoy overwhelming superiority in weaponry and numbers, the Taliban do have some tactical advantages in rural Helmand. They have been dug in for months in and around Marja, lacing all points of approach with IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, which are the No. 1 killer of Western troops in Afghanistan.

Read more of Tony Perry’s article at The Los Angeles Times.

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U.S. Marines and the Afghan army plan a substantial assault on Taliban fighters in…