US marines lead major crack down against Taliban in Afghanistan - TelegraphUS marines lead major crack down against Taliban in Afghanistan
Thousands of American marines taking part in President Barack Obama’s long-awaited surge against Taliban militants in Helmand province are encountering only light resistance, commanders have reported.
By Dean Nelson and Ben Farmer in Kabul
Published: 7:30AM BST 02 Jul 2009
Afghan President Hamid Karzai Photo: AFP
Insurgents were said to be withdrawing in the face of the biggest US marine helicopter landing since Vietnam. Commanders report Operation Khanjar or “sword strike” has met with sporadic small arms fire but there were no reports of casualties on either side.
Coalition forces hope the massive sudden assault will turn the tide of fighting in Helmand, where British troops have been locked in stalemate for three years.
An estimated 4,000 US marines, backed by 600 Afghan soldiers swept into the southern districts of Nowa and Garmsir in the early hours of Thursday.
The force, borne by helicopters and vehicle convoys, was expected to stage a fast and furious clearance of militant strongholds, as part of the US army’s “clear hold and build” strategy.
US marines will then consolidate their hold in the region, trying to provide security in the run up to next month’s Presidential elections.
However commanders admitted that after the apparent initial withdrawal by militants, they were likely to regroup and launch guerrilla attacks.
The operation began with units moving into the southern reaches of the Helmand River Valley in helicopters and a convoy of heavy transport vehicles, supported by fighter aircraft.
Brigadier Gen Larry Nicholson, who commands the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Helmand, said: “What makes Operation Khanjar different from those that have occurred before is the massive size of the force introduced, the speed at which it will insert, and the fact that 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.”
The launch of the operation was welcomed by Helmand governor Gulab Mangal. “The security forces will build bases to provide security for the local people so that they can carry out every activity with this favourable background, and take their lives forward in peace,” he said.
Critics had questioned how a meaningful national election could be held when Taliban militants controlled so much of southern Afghanistan.
Senior American officers have said the operation will also aim to win hearts and minds of Afghans who have been living under Taliban control by explaining why they are there and gaining their trust.
There has been a significant build up of American troops in Helmand since President Obama came into office promising an additional 21,000 troops.
Commanders said they expect to encounter hundreds of Taliban fighters.
The lower reaches of the Helmand river are notorious for opium-growing.
Brig Nicholson admitted the operation was a “big, risky plan”, but said it also offered “amazing opportunities”.
“These are days of immense change for Helmand province. We’re going down there, and we’re going to stay - that’s what is different this time.”
He said: “It involves great risks and amazing opportunities. These are days of immense change for Helmand province. We’re going down there, and we’re going to stay - that’s what is different this time.”