Coalition Begins Major Afghan Offensive

Posted: February 13, 2010 in Uncategorized

MARJA, Afghanistan — Thousands of American, Afghan and British troops attacked the watery Taliban fortress of Marja early Saturday, moving by land and through the air to destroy the insurgency’s largest haven and begin a campaign to reassert the dominance of the Afghan government across a large arc of southern Afghanistan.href=””>

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Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson addressed Marines before they conducted a helicopter assault into Marja, a Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province. More Photos »

The force of about 6,000 Marines and soldiers — a majority of them Afghan — began moving into the city and environs before dawn.

As Marines and soldiers marched into the area, several hundred more swooped out of the sky in helicopters into Marja itself. Marines from Company K, Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, landed near an intersection of two main roads at the northern fringes of Marja, piled out of the their helicopters and scattered into the houses and compounds around them.

In the quiet dark of 2:40 a.m., Company K met no resistance. But none of the Marines believed the peace would last the night.

“Basically, we are going into a main hornets’ nest,” said Capt. Joshua P. Biggers, Company K’s commander.

Just after midnight, aircraft bombed the southernmost portion of Marja, where officials believed foreign fighters were hiding. Later, Marines and Afghan soldiers began setting up cordons to the northeast, south and west of the city, in anticipation of a ground assault that was expected to begin within hours. <a

The operation, dubbed Moshtarak, which means “together” in Dari, is the largest offensive military operation since the American-led coalition invaded the country in 2001. Its aim is to flush the Taliban out of an area — about 75 square miles — where insurgents have been staging attacks, building bombs and processing the opium that pays for their war.

Outside of Pakistan, Marja, a town of about 80,000 residents, stands as the Taliban’s largest sanctuary, until now a virtual no-go zone for American, British and Afghan troops. The Taliban have been firmly entrenched there for about three years.

Moreover, the invasion of Marja is a crucial piece of a larger campaign to secure a 200-mile arc that would bisect the major cities in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces, where the Taliban are the strongest. That campaign, which is expected to last months, is designed to reverse the Taliban’s momentum, which has accelerated over the past several years.

The best measure of that momentum: The 520 American and NATO troops killed in Afghanistan in 2009 were the most since the war began.

The American, Afghan and British troops began moving into Marja before first light, making their way through a broad, flat area crisscrossed by irrigation canals and scattered with opium factories as well as, in all likelihood, several hundred hidden bombs.

The troops that came in by air carried portable foot bridges and mine detectors. The troops moving in on armored personnel carriers were being led by enormous fortified vehicles designed to clear the roads of bombs.

American and Afghan commanders said they expected the heavy fighting to be over in a number of days. At that point, the commanders say, the overriding purpose of the campaign will take shape, when they bring in a fully formed Afghan government and security force that can hold the city so that the Taliban cannot return.

For all the speed with which they are hoping to move, American and Afghan officers say they are worried that homemade bombs — hidden on roads, on footpaths and in houses — could slow them down. Those bombs, though rudimentary, are often extraordinarily powerful, and they are now the primary killer of American and NATO service members here.

Several hundred Taliban fighters are believed to be inside the city as well, which could make for a close and bloody fight. Despite that, the NATO and Afghan attackers appear to enjoy a huge numerical advantage — possibly more than 10 to 1.

The assault came as a surprise to no one. American commanders and Afghan officials have said publicly for weeks that an invasion of Marja was imminent, in an effort to chase away as many Taliban fighters as possible and keep the fighting, and civilian casualties, to a minimum. The hope is to win the support of local residents, even at the expense of letting Taliban get away.


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