About four thousand U.S. Marines including one thousand Marine shooters and more than six hundred Afghan forces launched a major offensive into Taliban-controlled villages in southern Afghanistan on Thursday in the first major operation under President Barack Obama's strategy to stabilize the country.
One battalion consisting of about 1,000 Marines was airlifted into the Nawa district shortly after midnight by helicopter. Another battalion was inserted at about sunrise, airlifted and sent by road into the Garmsir district.
The operation is being described as "a mixed force insertion at dawn" by Captain Bill Pelletier, the Marine spokesman from Regional Command-South in Helmand province.
One Marine was killed in fighting after troops hiking through searing heat took fire from small pockets of militants. This is the first casualty from this operation.
"Our thoughts are with the family and friends of this brave ISAF soldier," said Brigadier-General Éric Tremblay, International Security Assistance Force Spokesman. "His tragic loss while fighting to bring a better future to the people of Afghanistan will not be forgotten
US forces have launched a major military operation in southern Afghanistan in the first big push to drive the Taliban out of a stronghold since Barack Obama became US president.
Up to 4,000 marines, backed by Nato aircraft and a 650-strong Afghan force, are moving into towns in Helmand province, where the Taliban has been intensifying its challenge to the Kabul government and allied forces.
Pentagon officials say the plan - said to be the largest US marine offensive since Vietnam - is not just to inflict casualties against the enemy, but to dig in and hold on to territory.
"We're gonna go there and go to the far reaches where the Taliban is not looking for us, where they're not expecting a fight, where they're not sitting in prepared defensive positions and that's gonna keep them off-balance," spokesman Captain Zachary Martin said.
Helmand province is one of the Taliban's main heartlands in southern Afghanistan and produces the largest share of the country's opium crop, which supplies about 90 per cent of the world's heroin.
Thousands of U.S. Marines poured from helicopters and armored vehicles into Taliban-controlled villages of southern Afghanistan Thursday in the first major operation under President Barack Obama's strategy to stabilize the country.
The offensive was launched shortly after 1 a.m. Thursday local time (4:30 p.m. EDT Wednesday, 2030 GMT Wednesday) in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold and the world's largest opium poppy producing area. The goal is to clear insurgents from the hotly contested region before the nation's Aug. 20 presidential election.
Officials described the operation, dubbed Khanjar, or "Strike of the Sword," as the largest and fastest-moving of the war's new phase and the biggest Marine offensive since the one in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. It involves nearly 4,000 newly arrived Marines plus 650 Afghan forces. British forces last week led similar, but smaller, missions to clear out insurgents in Helmand and neighboring Kandahar province.
"Where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces," Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson said in a statement.
Transport helicopters carried hundreds of Marines into the village of Nawa, some 20 miles (30 kilometers) south of the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, in a region where no U.S. or other NATO troops have operated in large numbers.
The troops took many insurgents by surprise, dropping behind Taliban lines, said Capt. Drew Schoenmaker, from Greene, New York.
"We are kind of forging new ground here. We are going to a place nobody has been before," said Schoenmaker, 31, who commands Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.
Daybreak brought the sporadic crackle of gunfire. Medical helicopters circled overhead and landed, indicating possible early casualties among the Marines.
A marine unit in Nawa traded gunfire with a group of some 20 insurgents, while Afghan troops exchanged small arms fire with militants after they were attacked with rocket propelled grenades fired from several houses. A Cobra helicopter circling overhead for most of the day fired rockets at a tree-line nearby. Other troops walked through fields of corn and past mud-wall homes. Only a handful of villagers dared to venture outside.