Afghan officials appear confident a planned deployment of about 300 U.S. Marines will help local forces reverse insurgent gains in the embattled southern province of Helmand.
Backed by airpower, the Afghan National Army has intensified offensive operations in the largest Afghan poppy-growing province, after the Taliban captured the strategically important district center of Sangin in late March, although government officials continue to dispute the claim.
Afghan forces in overnight operations are reported to have killed dozens of insurgents and destroyed several narcotics-producing factories in Helmand.
Lance Cpl. Mike Carro holds security for Marines in South Central Afghanistan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jemssy Alvarez Jr.)
The provincial governor, Hayatullah Hayat, says national security forces are prepared and better placed this year to beat back the Taliban. They already have cleared areas around the provincial capital of Lashkargah and nearby districts.
"We have [also] started clearing pockets of [insurgents] in Garmsir district, in Marjah district, and also this will be done in Sangin district," Hayat told Voice of America.
Hayat sounded upbeat about a planned deployment of Marines in Helmand, saying it will boost local efforts to evict the Taliban, which is currently in control of most of the province.
"I am quite sure they will have definitely lots of positives to bring in the frontline and also changing the security situation down in Helmand," Hayat noted. He emphasized that Afghans will continue to lead the security operations, and U.S. Marines will serve in an "advise-and-assist" role.
The Pentagon announced in January it will send a task forces of about 300 Marines back to Helmand in the wake of rapid insurgent advances and heavy casualties inflicted on Afghan forces during the 2016 fighting season.
Marines will be returning to an area where they have engaged for years in intense deadly battles with the Taliban. This will be the first deployment since 2014 when the U.S.-led international forces combat forces withdrew from Afghanistan.
Peace talks offered
Governor Hayat again urged the insurgents to quit fighting and join the Afghan government-led peace process.
"I think the only solution [to the conflict] in Afghanistan is negotiations. It's the land of jirgas (tribal dispute resolution councils) and it's the land of talks. Any problems, even if they were big or small, can be resolved through negotiations and dialogue," he said.
The Taliban has extended its control of influence across Afghanistan since the withdrawal of U.S.-led international combat forces two years ago, and efforts aimed at encouraging the insurgents to come to the table for peace talks with Kabul have not yet succeeded.
Russia plans to host a multi-nation conference of Afghanistan's immediate and far neighbors on April 14 to try to jump-start peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Representatives of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, India, China, and several former Soviet Central Asian states have been invited to the talks in Moscow.
The United States also was invited to attend the meeting, but turned down the invitation, questioning Russian objectives and intentions for initiating the process.
A Taliban spokesman said late March it was not in a position to comment, and would not consider whether to attend the Moscow talks until the group received an invitation.