The offensive — dubbed Khanjar or “Strike of the Sword” — was launched shortly after 1 a.m. local time Thursday in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold and the world’s largest opium poppy-producing area, according to news services. The push marks a new step in President Barack Obama’s strategy to refocus U.S. military resources on the fight to secure the Afghan-Pakistan region.
Officials described the offensive, which involves about 4,000 Marines, as the largest and fastest-moving of the war’s new phase and the biggest Marine offensive since the one in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004.
U.S. commanders hope to seize the valley within hours and hold it — something overstretched NATO troops had failed to achieve over several years.
“The intent is to go big, go strong and go fast, and by doing so we are going to save lives on both sides,” Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marines in southern Afghanistan, told his staff before the operation, according to Reuters.
The mission also includes a contingent of about 50 Marines, mostly reservists with experience in local government, business management and law enforcement with the focus of restoring local government services, reported the Washington Post.
Violence in the Taliban-led insurgency is at its highest since the Taliban’s ouster in 2001. The operation marks the first big test of Washington’s new regional strategy to defeat the Taliban and its allies and stabilize the country for the election.
With new tactics to win over the Afghan population and new commanders in place, the U.S. military is hoping to turn the tide of a war some in Washington have admitted they are not winning.
The Taliban has vowed that its thousands of fighters in southern Helmand and Kandahar would fight back against the offensive. Only minor skirmishes were reported on the first day.
“Thousands of Taliban mujahedeen are ready to fight against U.S. troops in the operation in Helmand province,” Mullah Hayat Khan, a senior Afghan Taliban commander, told Reuters in Pakistan by telephone from an undisclosed location.
The U.S. military said it had suffered no serious casualties in the early stages of the assault. Waves of helicopters landed Marines in the early morning darkness throughout the valley, a crescent of opium poppy and wheat fields criss-crossed by canals and dotted with mud-brick homes. Entrenched fighters defied NATO forces there for years.
About 4,000 Marines surged forward and thousands more were mobilized to assist them in one of the biggest operations by foreign troops in Afghanistan since the 1989 Soviet withdrawal.
The Taliban said in a later statement one of their fighters had been killed and two wounded. Quoting spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf, it said “11 foreign troops were killed and wounded.”
In eastern Afghanistan, a U.S. solider was captured by the Taliban after he walked off post with his three Afghan counterparts, officials said Thursday.
Spokeswoman Capt. Elizabeth Mathias said the soldier disappeared Tuesday.
“We have all available resources out there looking for him and hopefully providing for his safe return,” she told the Associated Press.
Mathias did not provide details on the soldier, the location where he was captured or the circumstances.
A Taliban commander, Mullah Sangeen, told Reuters by phone from an undisclosed location the soldier was taken as a patrol walked out of its base in Paktika province and would only be released when the U.S. military freed Taliban fighters it held.