Major Afghan assault on Taliban begins

MARJAH: Thousands of US-led troops backed by helicopters stormed a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan today in the first major test of President Barack Obama’s new surge policy.

US Marines led the charge on Marjah, a town of 80,000 in the central Helmand River valley controlled for years by militants and drug traffickers.

US, British and Afghan soldiers dropped into Marjah from helicopters before dawn, immediately coming under fire and claiming their first Taliban victims within hours, Afghan army and Marines officers said.

Operation Mushtarak (“together” in Dari), as the assault involving 15,000 troops is known, aims to clear the area of Taliban and re-establish Afghan sovereignty and civil services, Helmand Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal said.

At least 20 Taliban fighters were killed in the first hours of the assault, said General Sher Mohammad Zazai, commander of Afghan troops taking part in the operation. “So far, we have killed 20 armed apposition fighters. Eleven others have been detained,” he said, adding they were killed in separate engagements.

Five foreign soldiers also died in in the operation, NATO said. Major General Nick Carter, NATO commander of forces in southern Afghanistan, told the BBC combined forces suffered no battle casualties.

“It would appear we have caught the insurgents on the hop, he appears to be completely dislocated,” he said.

Defence Minister Abdul Raheem Wardak said the operation was making painstaking progress because the area had been laced with deadly improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which can be almost impossible to detect. “The area has been heavily mined, that’s why we are moving so slowly,” Wardak told reporters in Kabul.

Mushtarak is the first major assault on a Taliban stronghold since Obama announced in December that he was sending an additional 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan in 2010.

The US and NATO already have 113,000 troops in the country battling the insurgents. NATO has pledged another 10,000, bringing the total to more than 150,000 by August.

Mushtarak puts into practice the new US-led counter-insurgency strategy combining the military objective of eradicating the Taliban with the need to replace their brand of harsh control with the civilian authority of Kabul.

Chinook helicopters filled the pre-dawn skies as troops led by US Marines were dropped into Marjah town ahead of ground forces.