Marines Storm Taliban Stronghold Ahead of Election

The Marines, flown in by helicopter and aided by Harrier jets, were met with small arms, mortar and rocket propelled grenade fire upon entering the town in the southern province of Helmand, the Associated Press reported. Other Marines met heavy resistance as they fought to seize control of the mountains surrounding Dahaneh.

U.S., NATO and Afghan forces are rushing to protect voting sites across Afghanistan before the country holds its second-ever presidential election on Aug. 20. Approximately 17 million Afghans are expected to participate in the vote, despite Taliban threats to disrupt the election. Casualty figures from Wednesday’s offensive remain unavailable, but Marines said they captured several suspects during the offensive, as well as 66 pounds of opium, which militants use to finance their insurgency.

“I think this has the potential to be a watershed,” the leader of the assault, Capt. Zachary Martin, commander of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, told the AP.

The new offensive, dubbed “Eastern Resolve 2,” is only the latest push by U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan since President Barack Obama’s decision to send 21,00 additional U.S. soldiers there to combat a rising Taliban insurgency. A record 62,000 U.S. soldiers are now in Afghanistan.

The increased fighting has led to a spike in the number of U.S., NATO and civilian casualties across the country. In July, U.S. and NATO deaths from roadside and suicide bombs were six times as high as they were a year ago, according to figures released Tuesday.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan on Wednesday, two AP journalists embedded with Marines in the south of the country were wounded in a roadside bombing. Emilio Morenatti, a photographer for the news agency, was wounded in the leg and underwent an operation that resulted in the loss of his foot, according the AP. Andi Jatmiko, a videographer, suffered leg injuries and two broken ribs.