U.S. Marines Try to Retake Afghan Valley

Posted in Terrorism , United States , Afghanistan | 02-Jul-09 | Author: Richard A. Oppel Jr.| Source: International Herald Tribune

Marines unloaded supplies from a helicopter in Afghanistan's Helmand River valley, where a new offensive against Taliban insurgents was underway.

KABUL, Afghanistan - Almost 4,000 United States Marines, backed by helicopter gunships, pushed into the volatile Helmand River valley in southwestern Afghanistan on Thursday morning, reporting little resistance from Taliban fighters, whose control of poppy harvests and opium smuggling in the area provides major financing for the Afghan insurgency.

"The enemy has chosen to withdraw rather than engage for the most part," said Lt. Abe Sipe, a spokesman for the unit, according to The Associated Press. "We had a couple of heat casualties, but not deemed serious in nature at this time."

Pakistan, meanwhile, said it deployed troops to a stretch of its largely porous and mountainous 1,600-mile border with Afghanistan to seal off a potential escape route for insurgents fleeing the American advance, The A.P. reported. Both Pakistani and American officials had expressed worries that the American offensive could push militants into Pakistan, which is already confronting Taliban insurgents in several areas.

The Marine expeditionary brigade leading the operation in Afghanistan represents a large number of the 21,000 additional troops that President Obama ordered to Afghanistan earlier this year amid rising violence and the Taliban's increasing domination in much of the country. The operation is described as the first major push in southern Afghanistan by the newly bolstered American force.

Shortly after the offensive began, the American military said that it believed a soldier missing since Tuesday had been captured by the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan. The soldier was not part of the operation in Helmand, said Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a spokeswoman in Kabul.

"A U.S. soldier missing since June 30 from his assigned unit is now believed to have been captured by militant forces," Captain Mathias said.

An Afghan police commander, Gen. Nabi Mullahkhiel, said the soldier was stationed at an American outpost in Paktika Province. "We don't know exactly what happened, but he has been missing since Tuesday," he said.

Helmand is one of the deadliest provinces in Afghanistan, where Taliban fighters have practiced sleek, hit-and-run guerrilla warfare against the British forces based there.

British troops in Helmand say they rarely get a clear shot at Taliban attackers, who ambush them with improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles. The explosive devices - some made with fertilizer distributed to Afghan farmers in an effort to wean them from opium production - are the most feared weapon. The Taliban favor ambushes in the morning and evening and do not often strike during the blazing afternoon heat.

In London, the British Defense Ministry said Thursday that two British soldiers were killed Wednesday in a roadside bomb attack in Helmand and that six foreign soldiers had been injured in the same attack. The fatalities brought to 171 the number of British troops killed since the Taliban regime was overthrown in late 2001. Britain has some 9,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, most of them in Helmand Province.

In recent weeks, some British troops have been setting up what are known as "blocking positions" on bridges over irrigation canals and at other locations, apparently to help stop the flow of insurgents during the main military operation and to establish greater security before the presidential election scheduled for August. The British forces, whose main base in Helmand is adjacent to the main Marine base, will continue to support the new operation.

The British have had too few troops to conduct full-scale counterinsurgency operations and have often relied on heavy aerial weapons, including bombs and helicopter gunships, to attack suspected fighters and their hide-outs. The strategy has alienated much of the population because of the potential for civilian deaths.

Now, the Marines say their new mission, called Operation Khanjar, will include more troops and resources than ever before, as well as a commitment by the troops to live and patrol near population centers to ensure that residents are protected. More than 600 Afghan soldiers and police officers are also involved.

"What makes Operation Khanjar different from those that have occurred before is the massive size of the force introduced, the speed at which it will insert, and the fact that where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces," the Marine commander in Helmand Province, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, said in a statement released after the operation began.

The Marines will be pushing into areas where NATO and Afghan troops have not previously established a permanent presence. As part of the counterinsurgency strategy, the troops will meet with local leaders, help determine their needs and take a variety of actions to make towns and villages more secure, said Capt. Bill Pelletier, a spokesman for the Marines, according to The A.P.

"We do not want people of Helmand Province to see us as an enemy; we want to protect them from the enemy," Captain Pelletier told The A.P.

The goal of the operation is to put pressure on the Taliban militants "and to show our commitment to the Afghan people that when we come in we are going to stay long enough to set up their own institutions," he said.

The 21,000 additional American troops that Mr. Obama authorized after taking office in January almost precisely matches the original number of additional troops that President George W. Bush sent to Iraq two years ago. It will bring the overall American deployment in Afghanistan to more than 60,000 troops. But Mr. Obama avoided calling it a surge and resisted sending the full reinforcements initially sought by military commanders.

Instead, Mr. Obama chose to re-evaluate troop levels over the next year, officials said. The Obama administration has said that the additional American commitment has three main strategies for denying havens for the Taliban and Al Qaeda: training Afghan security forces, supporting the weak central Afghan government in Kabul and securing the population.

In late March, Mr. Obama warned Congressional leaders that he would need more than the $50 billion in his budget for military operations and development efforts.

Asked by lawmakers about the prospect of reconciliation with moderate members of the Taliban, officials said Mr. Obama replied that he wanted to sift out hard-core radicals from those who were fighting simply to earn money.

Eros Hoagland contributed reporting.