ARLINGTON, Va. — The insurgent stronghold of Marjeh in southern Afghanistan needs to be “cracked open,” said Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway.

Marjeh, one of Helmand province’s most strategically valuable locales, at the moment lies outside the control of U.S. and Afghan forces.

“You win the confidence of the people, whether it be Iraq or Afghanistan by being the strongest tribe,” Conway said on Tuesday. “That means that there can be no place in our area of operations where we don’t go, and right now, Marjeh is one of those places.”

Conway declined to elaborate on what might be done to win the town, saying it is a “pending operation.”

The former NATO commander in southern Afghanistan said recently that securing Marjeh is important to improving security in Kandahar.

“I think you will see some heavy kinetic fighting there,” Dutch Maj. Gen. Mart de Kruif said, “but at the end of the day, you will see a tendency that once the insurgents realize that we are going to stay and that we are going to have success in Marjeh, they will probably blend in with the local population or move somewhere else,” he said.

Of the 16,000 extra troops expected to be in Afghanistan this spring, about 1,500 Marines are expected to deploy this month, and another 6,200 Marines with Regimental Combat Team 2 are expected to be in country in early spring.

That will bring the total number of Marines deployed to Afghanistan to about 19,500.

On Tuesday, Conway said he does not anticipate the number of Marines in Afghanistan going above 20,000, and that would allow the Corps to give Marines two months at home for every one month they are deployed by mid- to late 2010.

He also indicted that Marines would not begin drawing down in Helmand province in July 2011.

“I think that what you will see is reduction of forces — U.S. forces — where the Afghans are ready to take over,” Conway said. “Helmand does not fall into that category.

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