Tags: Afghan | assault | offensive | marines

U.S. Marines Lead Huge Afghan War Offensive

Saturday, 13 Feb 2010 09:40 AM

MARJAH, Afghanistan - Thousands of US-led troops backed by helicopters stormed a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan on Saturday in the first major test of President Barack Obama's new surge policy.

US Marines led the charge on Marjah, a town of 80,000 in the central Helmand River valley controlled for years by militants and drug traffickers.

US, British and Afghan soldiers dropped into Marjah from helicopters before dawn, immediately coming under fire and claiming their first Taliban victims within hours, Afghan army and Marines officers said.

Operation Mushtarak ("together" in Dari), as the assault involving 15,000 troops is known, aims to clear the area of Taliban and re-establish Afghan sovereignty and civil services, Helmand Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal said.

At least 20 Taliban fighters were killed in the first hours of the assault, said General Sher Mohammad Zazai, commander of Afghan troops taking part in the operation.

"So far, we have killed 20 armed apposition fighters. Eleven others have been detained," he said, adding they were killed in separate engagements.

Major General Nick Carter, NATO commander of forces in southern Afghanistan, told the BBC combined forces suffered no battle casualties.

"It would appear we have caught the insurgents on the hop, he appears to be completely dislocated," he said.

Defence Minister Abdul Raheem Wardak said the operation was making painstaking progress because the area had been laced with deadly improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which can be almost impossible to detect.

"The area has been heavily mined, that's why we are moving so slowly," Wardak told reporters in Kabul.

Mushtarak is the first major assault on a Taliban stronghold since Obama announced in December that he was sending an additional 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan in 2010.

The US and NATO already have 113,000 troops in the country battling the insurgents. NATO has pledged another 10,000, bringing the total to more than 150,000 by August.

Mushtarak puts into practice the new US-led counter-insurgency strategy combining the military objective of eradicating the Taliban with the need to replace their brand of harsh control with the civilian authority of Kabul.

The battle for Marjah, an agricultural plain that is the source of most of the world's opium, is the first real test of the strategy devised by US General Stanley McChrystal, commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan.

Helmand governor Mangal said a government-in-waiting will sweep in behind the military to re-establish official control and civil services.

Wardak said the operation is the first of its kind against the insurgents -- and NATO officials say it is the biggest since the insurgency began following the fall of the Taliban's 1996-2001 regime.

"This is the first time that we are doing everything right," Wardak said.

"In this operation we will make sure that the security forces remain and under their protection the other elements of the struggle will be implemented."

NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said three US soldiers died after being struck by an IED in southern Afghanistan, but a spokesman said he could provide no details of whether they were part of the Marjah attack.

Chinook helicopters filled the pre-dawn skies as troops led by US Marines were dropped into Marjah town ahead of ground forces, a US Marines officer said.

"At 0230 this morning (2200 GMT), helicopters inserted combined forces into Marjah town," said Lieutenant Josh Diddams, spokesman for the US Marines at Taskforce Leatherneck in Helmand.

He confirmed troops had come under fire from Taliban fighters, believed to number 400-1,000.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai warned the troops to do everything possible to avoid harming civilians, a sensitive issue among war-weary Afghans, who often blame the foreign military presence.

Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi, who earlier claimed casualties among the attacking forces, said: "We're engaging them in hit-and-run attacks."

ISAF said the combined force includes the Afghan army and police, with US Marines and army backed by British forces. Danish, Estonian and Canadian troops are also involved.

Copyright © 2010 AFP. All rights reserved.

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MARJAH, Afghanistan - Thousands of US-led troops backed by helicopters stormed a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan on Saturday in the first major test of President Barack Obama's new surge policy.
Saturday, 13 Feb 2010 09:40 AM
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