US Marine, Afghan offensive ongoing in Helmand
U.S. Marines and Afghan troops, conducting the first offensive since the new American war plan was announced, met little resistance from insurgents Saturday as they worked to disrupt Taliban supply and communications lines in a key valley in southern Afghanistan, AP reported.
About 1,000 Marines and 150 Afghan troops are taking part in "Operation Cobra's Anger" in the Now Zad Valley of Helmand province, the scene of heavy fighting last summer.
On Friday, helicopters and MV-22 Osprey aircraft dropped hundreds of troops behind Taliban lines in the north end of the valley in the first offensive since President Barack Obama announced a troop buildup. A second, larger Marine force pushed northward from the Marines' main base.
"We're not taking for granted the low level of contact," Marine spokesman Maj. William Pelletier said Saturday. "Just because it's quiet now doesn't mean it will be in 24 hours. Part of the operation is to have a disruptive effect on the Taliban resupply activities. The Marines and Afghan forces are continuing the clearing operation, continuing to move through the valley."
No U.S. casualties have been reported.
The offensive is taking place in an area where the U.S.-led NATO force has been trying for years to break the Taliban's grip. The barren, wind-swept Now Zad valley is surrounded by steep cliffs with dozens of caves that provide cover to Taliban units.
Now Zad used to be one of the largest towns in Helmand, the center of Afghanistan's lucrative opium poppy growing industry. Three years of fighting have chased away its 30,000 inhabitants, leaving the once-thriving market and commercial area a near ghost town. Instead, the area has become a major supply and transportation hub for Taliban forces that use the valley to move drugs, weapons and fighters south toward major populations and to provinces in western Afghanistan.
David Petraeus, the top general in charge of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, told The Associated Press on Friday that the offensive was part of preparations for the arrival of 30,000 new U.S. reinforcements. Petraeus said the military has been working for months to extend what he called "the envelope of security" around key towns in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
In addition to the new U.S. troops, America's European allies will send an estimated 7,000 more troops to Afghanistan next year "with more to come," NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced Friday. Most of the new troops are expected to be sent to southern Afghanistan, including Helmand, where Taliban influence is strongest.
Back in August, U.S. forces launched "Operation Eastern Resolve II" in the Now Zad Valley to help provide security for the Afghan presidential elections and disrupt enemy activity in the valley, Pelletier said, adding that this new offensive was launched before the additional forces are to arrive because military officials thought it was the best time to try to disrupt the Taliban resupply lines and the militants' freedom of movement in the area.
"`When next?' is the question we want the Taliban to ask themselves every day throughout our entire area of operations," Pelletier said. "We have sufficient forces to clear this area, especially when you consider that our number of Afghan partners has almost quadrupled since July ... so we felt this was a mission we could do without additional troops and without stretching our forces too thin."
The Afghan government has approved a new seventh corps of the Afghan National Army - Corps 215 Maiwand - to be based in the Helmand capital of Lashkar Gah where the first fresh U.S. troops are expected to arrive. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said the Afghans have vowed to deploy 5,000 members of the new Afghan army corps to Helmand, to be partnered by British troops next year.
Pelletier said it was the first time the Osprey - an aircraft that combines features of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft - has been used in a combat assault support role at this level of operation. It also was the debut of the assault breacher, a tracked armored vehicle with a mine plow on the front that can shoot line charges used to create a safe corridor through the area, known as "IED Alley" because of the huge number of roadside bombs and land mines, Pelletier said.
Roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, and mines have become the biggest killer of American troops in Afghanistan.
Separately, three Taliban militants were killed Friday during a gunbattle with Afghan National Police at a checkpoint in Nimroz province, provincial Gov. Ghulam Dastagir Azad said Saturday. Five other militants and five policemen were wounded in the clash in the Khash Rod district. The battle started after the Taliban fighters attacked the checkpoint with mortars and machine guns, he said.