The Marine Corps’ next significant push in Afghanistan is well underway, and starting to get attention in the mainstream media.
Marine forces are pushing into the hills of northeastern Helmand province as part of an assault on the area surrounding the Kajaki Dam, a significant hydroelectric facility that provides power in the region. More than 2,000 coalition forces are involved, USA Today reports, making it substantially smaller than the 2010 assault on Marjah, but still a significant operation.
From USA Today:
The Kajaki Dam offensive “closes the lid on central Helmand,” [Maj. Gen. John] Toolan said. “It will be one of the last areas that we need to clear in the Helmand province.”
Insurgents have hidden explosives on either side of the Helmand River to slow the coalition advance, but the bombs have been cleared and there are indications they are using low-quality explosives, Toolan said.
“We could tell they were having problems.”
Toolan said he expects the Taliban will try to ramp up their defenses as the offensive continues, but not on the scale of prior engagements in Helmand. “We’re putting the squeeze on them,” he said. “It’s going to be relentless.”
Why launch the offensive? A piece in the Global Post last week lends some perspective. USAID and other development outfits are planning a new $266 million project to add a third turbine to the dam, increasing power production in southern Afghanistan.
The area has a heavy insurgent presence, however — including, assumedly, some of the fighters who once called nearby Sangin district home.
Global Post added the following:
Last month, USAID director Rajiv Shah traveled to Afghanistan and made the dangerous journey by helicopter into the area of the Kajaki Dam. Two officials who met with him said the visit was recognition from the top that the project is stalled and facing extraordinary challenges. It was, they said, an attempt by Shah to see first-hand a project that has come to symbolize how the U.S. has its hands tied in Afghanistan with projects that are too ambitious in areas where the military can not provide security. Some critics say there is also insufficient auditing and oversight of projects on this scale, and that they often fall prey to corruption. To anyone who lives near the dam or officials who have traveled there, it is clear the Taliban is in control of Kajaki.
So, which is it? Are the Taliban in control of Kajaki, are are they falling easily?
Watching the news out of northeast Helmand will definitely be of interest in coming weeks.