The biggest offensive in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 has been launched, and Nato-led forces say they are making good progress. (photo, from aljazeera.net)
More than 15,000 US, UK and Afghan troops swept into the Helmand districts of Marjah and Nad Ali among clashes, in a bid to secure government control.
According to the Afghan Army, 70% of Marjah has been cleared. A UK commander said 11 insurgent bases had been captured.
4,000 US Marines are leading Operation Moshtarak, which means “together” in the local Dari language. They are supported by 4,000 British troops, with Canadians, Danes and Estonians.
The BBC’s Frank Gardner, with Nato forces at Kandahar airbase, says the test of the operation’s success will not be on the battlefield.
The biggest question is can the coalition hold the ground and bring lasting security and good governance to the population of central Helmand.
An improvised explosive device killed three US soldiers hours after the attack was launched, said Nato, though it is not yet clear whether they were part of Operation Moshtarak.
Mohammad Zazai, commander of Afghan troops in the operation, said: “So far, we have killed 20 armed opposition fighters. Eleven others have been detained.” The casualties and captures were in separate incidents.
Troops have been advancing carefully, picking their way through poppy fields, trying not to set off Taliban bombs.
A canal bridge into Marjah was so rigged with explosives that US Marines had to erect temporary crossings to reach the town, reports the Associated Press.
During a news conference, Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal said that the Taliban had “heavily booby-trapped the area”, reports Reuters.
Marjah resident Abdul Wahaab told the Agence France-Presse news agency by telephone as he and his family left the town: “We were sleeping when all of a sudden we heard this horrible noise – it was helicopters bringing in soldiers.
“As we were crossing the village we saw US and Afghan soldiers on the junctions. There were lots of them.”
Operation Moshtarak was approved by Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, who warned troops to avoid civilian casualties, and called on Taliban fighters to lay down their weapons.
According to Nato, Marjah is home to the biggest community under insurgent control in the south.
Before Operation Moshtarak was launched, estimations put between 400 and 1,000 militants in the region.
For a long time, Marjah has also been regarded as a linchpin of the lucrative network for smuggling opium – the raw ingredient used to make heroin – harvested from Helmand’s poppy fields.
11 objectives had already been taken and the offensive had been “so far extremely successful”, Nato Commander Maj Gen Nick Carter told the BBC.
“Indeed it would appear that we’ve caught the insurgents on the hop – he appears to be completely dislocated,” he said.
In the early hours of Saturday, waves of helicopters ferrying US Marines into Marjah started the offensive.
British troops then flew into Nad Ali district, to the north, followed by tanks and combat units.
Jets and helicopters fired missiles at Taliban positions.
There have been firefights and sporadic insurgent rocket fire.
Avoid civilian casualties
In order to avoid getting caught in crossfire between the Taliban and Nato troops, the vast majority of villagers seem to have left the area, said the BBC’s Ian Pannell in Nad Ali.
Mullah Mohammed, a Taliban commander in Marjah, told ABC News that his men were pulling back to spare any civilian casualties.
“We found civilians in massive danger so we decided to go backward just to save villagers’ lives,” he said. His claim cannot be verified.
Trying to limit civilian casualties, Nato had distributed leaflets in the Marjah area warning of the planned offensive.
Earlier this week British forces began a “softening up” process, taking part in a Nato ground and air offensive on insurgent positions.
It is the first time that Afghan forces have been at the forefront of planning and will share the burden of the fighting.
It is the first major offensive since December, when US President Barack Obama ordered a “surge” of 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan.
After the initial military operations end, more than 1,900 Afghan police will provide support and a large team of Afghan administrators has been assembled.
The operation is part of an effort to secure a 320-km (200-mile) horseshoe-shaped string of towns that runs along the Helmand River, through Kandahar and on to the Pakistani border.
85% of the population of Kandahar and Helmand live in this area.
(map, from bbc.co.uk)