MARJA, Afghanistan — Marines and Afghan troops cleared the last major pocket of resistance in the former Taliban-ruled town of Marja on Saturday — part of an offensive that is the run-up to a larger showdown this year in the most strategic part of Afghanistan's dangerous south.
Although Marines say their work in Marja isn't done, Afghans are bracing for a bigger, more comprehensive assault in neighboring Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban, where officials are talking to aid organizations about how to handle up to 10,000 people who could be displaced by fighting.
"I was in Kabul, and we were talking that Kandahar will be next, but we don't know when," said Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar.
He said he has begun working with international aid groups to ensure the next group of displaced Afghans have tents, water containers, medicine, food, blankets, lamps and stoves.
"Hopefully things will go smoothly, that people have learned lessons from the Marja operation," he said.
Shortages of food and medicine have been reported during the 2-week-old Marja operation. The international Red Cross evacuated dozens of sick and injured civilians to clinics outside the area. The United Nations says more than 3,700 families, or an estimated 22,000 people, from Marja and surrounding areas have registered in Helmand's capital of Lashkar Gah 20 miles away.
Walid Akbar, a spokesman for the Afghan Red Crescent Society, said those who made it to Lashkar Gah largely received government aid. Those stuck outside the city are getting little help, he said.
The Marja offensive has been the biggest combined war operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban's hard-line regime. It's the first major test of NATO's counterinsurgency strategy since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 new American troops to try to reverse Taliban gains.
The operation in Marja is the tactical prelude to the bigger operation being planned for later in Kandahar, the largest city in the south and the former Taliban headquarters, according to senior officials with the Obama administration.
It was from in and around Kandahar that Taliban overlord Mullah Omar ruled Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
On Saturday, after a four-day march, Marines and Afghan troops who fought through the center of Marja linked up with a U.S. Army Stryker battalion on the northern outskirts of the former Taliban stronghold.
"Basically, you can say that Marja has been cleared," said Capt. Joshua Winfrey, commander of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines Regiment.
On Saturday, Marine sniffer dogs and metal detectors found a cache of explosives and weapons as they finished clearing out a northern Marja neighborhood. The cache, detonated by a bomb squad, contained more than 80 pounds of homemade explosives, half a dozen rocket-propelled grenades, Chinese-made rockets, artillery rounds and other bomb materials.
"It made a pretty big boom," said Staff Sgt. Paul Bui, 20, from El Monte, Calif.
Bui and other explosives experts said the cache was hidden in freshly upturned earth near a canal, appearing to confirm residents' accounts that Taliban fighters had fled just a few days earlier.
Establishing a credible local government is a key component of NATO's strategy for Marja, a longtime Taliban logistical hub and heroin-smuggling center. Last week, the government installed a new administrator, and several hundred Afghan police have started patrolling newly cleared areas of Marja and southern Helmand.
President Hamid Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, told the Associated Press on Saturday that success in Marja would be measured by whether its people eventually feel secure.
"The president was very clear before the operation that we have to convince the people of Marja that we'll bring them security, we'll bring them good governance and life will be better for them than under the Taliban," he said.