To counter the tangle of bombs, the Marines have five 70-ton Assault Breacher Vehicles they intend to use to roll through roads ahead of the ground troops, which will follow the initial airborne assault. Each vehicle can fire line charges, laden with thousands of pounds of explosives, to detonate buried bombs. Marja is considered the last urban stronghold of the Taliban in the south-central province of Helmand, where the insurgency has been largely unchecked in recent years despite the efforts of British forces.
Last summer, battalions of Marines began wresting control of villages in the fertile Helmand River Valley from militants. After several weeks of fighting, many of the insurgents fled to Marja.
Marines refrained from chasing them at the time because they lacked the manpower to establish a long-term presence, a key element of the current offensive.
Helmand and adjacent Kandahar province are considered the heartland of the Taliban movement. In Helmand, Western officials say, insurgents have been able to control the illicit poppy crop, used in heroin production, which funnels an estimated $500 million a year into Taliban coffers. Moreover, the province is a major infiltration route for militants and weapons arriving from Pakistan.
One objective of the Marja assault, officials said, is to arrest members of the Taliban involved in the drug trade and destroy their laboratories. Afghan drug police have lists of suspects and are set to conduct house-to-house searches for them.
In previous offensives in Helmand, the Afghan army mustered only a few hundred soldiers, and their performance was spotty. U.S. and Afghan generals said the Marja mission would showcase Afghan troops' fighting ability.
"The whole international community is watching us now," said Afghan Brig. Gen. Sher Muhammad Zazai.
Though the Marines are in the lead, each unit is partnered with an Afghan unit. In addition, U.S. Army Special Forces are teamed up with Afghan commandos.
Within days of the troops' arrival, officials say, the basic mechanisms of government are to be in place. An Afghan administrator for the town has already been named. U.S. civilian agencies are ready to open offices. Nicholson has ordered each of his commanders to begin meeting immediately with Marja's elders to determine community needs.
Commanders anticipated that the Taliban would try to engage troops in ways that put civilians in the line of fire. The insurgents often make use of civilian casualties to inflame sentiment against foreign troops.