Major military operation in Afghan

KABUL: Thousands of U.S. Marines and hundreds of Afghan troops moved into Taliban-infested villages of southern Afghanistan with armor and helicopters Thursday in the first major operation under President Barack Obama's strategy to stabilize the country.

The offensive in the once-forgotten war was launched shortly after 1 a.m. Thursday local time in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold in the southern part of the country and the world's largest opium poppy producing area.

The goal is to clear insurgents from the hotly contested Helmand River Valley before the nation's Aug. 20 presidential election.

Dubbed Operation Khanjar, or "Strike of the Sword," the military push was described by officials as the largest and fastest-moving of the war's new phase, involving nearly 4,000 of the newly arrived Marines and 650 Afghan forces. British forces last week led similar, but smaller, missions to fight and clear out insurgents in Helmand and neighboring Kandahar provinces.

"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," Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson said in a statement.

Southern Afghanistan is a Taliban stronghold but also a region where Afghan President Hamid Karzai is seeking votes from fellow Pashtun tribesmen.

The Pentagon is deploying 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in time for the elections and expects the total number of U.S. forces there to reach 68,000 by year's end. That is double the number of troops in Afghanistan in 2008, but still half of much as are now in Iraq.

The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 and were ousted from power following a U.S.-led invasion, have made a violent comeback, wreaking havoc in much of the country's south and east, forcing the United States to pour in the new troops.

Capt. Bill Pelletier, a spokesman for the Marines, said the troops involved in the Thursday operation were sent in by a mixture of aircraft and ground transport under the cover of darkness.

The operation is aimed at putting pressure on insurgents, "and to show our commitment to the Afghan people that when we come in we are going to stay long enough to set up their own institutions," Pelletier said.

A roadside bomb wounded one of the Marines in the operation, but he was able to continue, while there were no reports of clashes in the operation's initial stage, he said.

Once on the ground, the troops will meet with local leaders, hear their needs, and act on them, Pelletier said.

"We do not want people of Helmand province to see us as an enemy, we want to protect them from the enemy," Pelletier said.

Reversing the insurgency's momentum has been one of the key components of the new U.S. strategy, and thousands of additional troops allow commanders to push and stay into areas where international and Afghan troops had no permanent presence before.

While Marine troops were the bulk of the force, recently arrived U.S. Army helicopters were also taking part in the operation in Helmand province.

In March, Obama unveiled his strategy for Afghanistan, seeking to defeat al-Qaida terrorists there and in Pakistan with a bigger force and a new commander. Taliban and other extremists, including those allied with al-Qaida, routinely cross the two nations' border in Afghanistan's remote south.

The governor of Helmand province predicted the operation would be "very effective."

"The security forces will build bases to provide security for the local people so that they can carry out every activity with this favorable background, and take their lives forward in peace," Gov. Gulab Mangal said in a Pentagon news release.

Obama's strategy aims to boost the size of the Afghan army from 80,000 to 134,000 troops by 2011and greatly increase training by U.S. troops accompanying them so the Afghan military can defeat Taliban insurgents and take control of the war. The White House also is pushing forces to set clear goals for a war gone awry, to provide more resources and to make a better case for international support.

There is no timetable for withdrawal, and the White House has not estimated how many billions of dollars its plan will cost.