More than 1,000 British, Afghan and US troops have launched a fresh offensive in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, a stronghold of the Taliban insurgency.
AFP - More than 1,000 British, Afghan and US troops launched a fresh offensive in a key battleground of southern Afghanistan on Friday, after President Barack Obama unveiled a new strategy to end the war.
NATO said the offensive was designed to crush insurgents around a major town in Helmand in order to allow development to begin and civilians to return -- key elements of Obama's decision to deploy 30,000 new US troops to Afghanistan.
Many of the new forces are heading south, where Helmand is the heartland of Afghanistan's massive opium production and a stronghold for the eight-year Taliban insurgency seeking to overthrow the Western-backed government.
The extra US soldiers, coupled with at least 7,000 more pledged by NATO allies, will boost to over 150,000 the number of troops serving in the US-led coalition and the NATO-run International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
"More than 1,000 ISAF personnel partnered with Afghan national security forces began a long-planned operation in northern Helmand province to clear insurgent forces from a key area," the military said.
Around 900 US Marines and sailors, British troops and more than 150 Afghan soldiers and police were taking part in Operation Khareh Cobra, or "Cobra's Anger" in the valley of Now Zad, it added.
"So far, four Taliban dead bodies were left behind on the battlefield. But enemy casualties could be higher," Helmand governor spokesman Daud Ahmadi told AFP, adding that scores of mines and a cache of explosives were seized.
Yusuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, confirmed the militia was fighting back and claimed that the insurgents had inflicted losses on the soldiers.
The operation was launched as NATO nations in Brussels pledged at least 7,000 troops to back the new drive against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
Eight years after driving the Taliban out of power, more than 40 nations are launching a new effort to end the increasingly unpopular war, which has this year claimed record numbers of Western military casualties.
Around 300 US and 99 British troops have died in Afghanistan so far this year, compared to 295 foreign military deaths for all of 2008.
"This is a crucial test for NATO, which has been the greatest and most successful military alliance in history," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned NATO and its partners in Brussels.
"At least 25 countries will send more forces to the mission in 2010," said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
More pledges are expected, some after a conference on Afghanistan in London on January 28, he told reporters. Washington welcomed the "hefty" contribution.
Helmand produces about 50 percent of the world's opium. Its largely unguarded southern border with Pakistan is both a route for the illicit drug trade and for a steady supply of Taliban recruits and supplies.
"Now Zad was once Helmand's second-largest city, but is now empty due to years of fighting," ISAF said.
Insurgents have heavily mined the area. A goal of the operation is to provide enough security for the Afghan government and aid groups to begin clearing mines and improvised explosive devices, enabling citizens to return.
Friday's operation is smaller than that launched in July by 4,000 US Marines in Helmand, where British troops have struggled for years to rein in an increasingly virulent Taliban insurgency.
The Washington Post has reported that the United States will deploy up to 9,000 Marines to Helmand -- doubling the US presence in the province -- as part of a US strategy designed to start bringing troops home from 2011.
On Friday, suspected Taliban fired at least one rocket into western Afghanistan's biggest airport, disrupting flights but causing no casualties, a sign the insurgency is spreading into once peaceful parts of the country.
Date created : 2009-12-04