Nearly 4,000 US Marines poured into Afghanistan's Taliban heartlands on Thursday, quickly capturing a district in the first major assault of the new US war strategy. The Taliban's Haqqani network claims it has seized a US soldier.
AFP - US Marines are in a "hell of a fight" as they storm into Taliban strongholds in a major assault in Afghanistan, their commanding officer said Friday.
Nearly 4,000 Marines launched the operation Thursday in parts of the southern province of Helmand, suffering their first fatality in a pivotal test of President Barack Obama's aggressive new strategy against the Taliban.
The 1/5 Infantry Battalion met only light resistance in their push south and had already been able to meet locals at shuras (councils), Brigadier General Larry Nicholson said, speaking to a convoy with which AFP was travelling.
But "for 2/8 there is a hell of a fight going on in the southern quarter of the sector," the top Marine said on arrival at Garmsir, a town along the Helmand River that was a key objective for the offensive.
"2/8 are going to face some challenges," he said. The Marines were in an area called Toshtay about 25 kilometres (16 miles) south of Garmsir.
Commanders said they would persuade locals that the Afghan security forces -- backed by Western troops -- offered them a better long-term future than the fundamentalist Taliban militia as Afghanistan braces for elections next month.
On Thursday Marines were inserted into Garmsir and Nawa with little resistance, and quickly overran Khanishin further south where the Taliban had set up a proxy government and justice system.
But they also recorded their first death in an air and land assault that is the Marines' biggest operation since in Fallujah in Iraq in November 2004.
"We lost a man yesterday," Nicholson confirmed. "Any Marine casualty is a terrible thing."
Troops had on Thursday destroyed a militant position in Garmsir, the commander said after a nearly two-hour drive through the desert from Camp Dwyer.
"An enemy-controlled baseline just south of Garmsir was crushed yesterday but that doesn't mean all the enemy have gone," he said.
"In the next few days the enemy will observe us to see what we are doing. Then they will come back with a vengeance," he said.
Nicholson later told AFP separately: "Garmsir is three-quarters quiet but there is fighting in Toshtay. We intend to clear that up today. This doesn't mean it is over. The enemy may be reassessing the situation."
On the launch of Operation Khanjar before dawn on Thursday, Nicholson told his group that 4,000 Marines had been inserted in nearly eight hours, about half of them by helicopter.
Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal was "giggling with excitement" at the progress, Nicholson said. "I know the governor and I have never seen him like this."
Mangal was planning to visit the recaptured town of Khanishin, he said, adding no Afghan official had visited the place in five years.
On Nawa, another key objective, Nicholson said: "Nawa is quiet, too quiet. Something is eerie. The enemy has gone to ground, shuras are being set up."
The Marines, teamed up with nearly 600 Afghan forces, are spearheading Obama's new war plan against the Taliban's bloody insurgency with an emphasis on protecting the population ahead of elections on August 20.
They pushed deeper into Taliban strongholds in opium-producing areas along the Helmand River on Friday.
"Today Marines are continuing to move towards those objectives that are still out there and they are going to work to stabilise security in these areas," Marine spokesman First Lieutenant Kurt Stahl said.
"When Marines go out into towns, they are always looking for opportunities to talk to village elders and explain why they are here," Stahl said.
"The intention is to understand each other, elders can express their concerns and an open flow of communication is secured."
The forces are operating in areas where foreign troops have failed to establish a presence despite ousting the Taliban from power nearly eight years ago.
A key objective is to secure the area to allow Afghan to vote in the second-ever presidential election on August 20, a major test of US-led efforts to install democracy in a country wracked by war and conflict.
Date created : 2009-07-03