Afghan, U.S. Forces Push to Oust Taliban in Helmand

U.S. Marines joined by British and Afghan soldiers began an assault on a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan early today in what may be one of the biggest offensives of the war.

A U.S. military official who asked not to be identified confirmed the operation was under way against insurgents in the town of Marjah in Helmand province. Daud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the province’s governor also confirmed that the attack began before dawn.

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“It is believed that more than 500 Taliban live among the residents of Marjah,” Ahmadi said in a telephone interview, expressing optimism that the insurgents would be defeated. More than 450 families displaced from the town fled to the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, where authorities are providing food, blankets and other supplies, he said.

Coalition forces led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have talked openly for weeks about the impending action in an effort to persuade Taliban militants to give up and warn the population so residents can flee. The town, located about 25 miles (40 kilometers) southwest of Lashkar Gah, is considered one of the country’s biggest opium-production centers.

U.S. Goal

U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said the offensive’s goal is to connect other areas of Helmand that the Marines and British, Danish and Estonian troops recaptured in the past year.

“We’re expanding that, increasing the areas that will be under government of Afghanistan control,” McChrystal told reporters on the sidelines of a NATO defense ministers meeting in Istanbul on Feb. 4.

The offensive is the first major combat test for some of the 50,000 reinforcements President Barack Obama has authorized for Afghanistan since taking office. Their aim is to reverse Taliban territorial gains, protect civilians and train Afghan forces to start taking over parts of the country in July 2011.

A Taliban commander in Afghanistan, Akhtar Mohammad, said such operations had been attempted before and failed.

“The Taliban have never been defeated,” Mohammad said.

About 15,000 troops are taking part, the NATO-led coalition said in an e-mailed statement today.

“Insurgents who do not accept the government’s offer to reintegrate and join the political process will be met with overwhelming force,” the coalition said.

Karzai Meeting

The offensive began a few hours after Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed to the attack following discussions with McChrystal and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, the Washington Post reported, citing unidentified U.S. officials.

The Associated Press reported earlier from the Marjah area on the beginning of the offensive, saying troops were ferried into the town by helicopter before dawn.

Dubbed Operation Moshtarak, which means “Together” in the Dari language, the offensive will be the largest joint operation to date between Afghan and coalition forces, according to a Feb. 11 report by Jeffrey Dressler, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.

Marjah, whose population is probably less than 50,000, became “a major command and control” hub for the Taliban and narcotics traders “after U.S. Marines drove insurgents out of their previous sanctuary” to the south in Germser in April 2008, Dressler wrote.

A three-day operation last May against one of two main bazaars that host the insurgency netted the largest drug cache in Afghanistan to date and resulted in the deaths of 47 militants, according to Dressler, who recently briefed a Marine Battalion at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, prior to deployment.

Coalition and Afghan commanders have been meeting with local leaders to plan the operation and find ways of protecting the population.

McChrystal said the planning for the offensive has been led by the governor of Helmand Province Mohammad Gulab Mangal and supported by the relevant government ministries.

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