Marines with the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, which is part of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, clean their weapons Monday, while they prepare for operations in Helmand province, in southern Afghanistan.
Marines with the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, which is part of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, clean their weapons Monday, while they prepare for operations in Helmand province, in southern Afghanistan. David Gilkey/NPR
Thousands of helicopter-borne Marines launched a massive assault early Thursday morning in southern Afghanistan's Helmand River valley, a Taliban stronghold and the main source of its cash crop, the poppies that produce heroin.
About 4,000 troops of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade swept in during the pre-dawn hours to capture strategic points along the valley in an offensive dubbed Operation Khanjar (Strike of the Sword).
The mission, designed to counter the growing Taliban insurgency, is the first major test of the Obama administration, which dispatched more U.S. forces to Afghanistan this summer in its effort to turn the tide there.
Eventually the Marines will set up combat outposts and remain to hold the territory. The strategy is a departure from the past, when U.S. forces did not have enough troops to hold ground.
Officers say it's the biggest Marine combat operation since the battle of Fallujah in Iraq five years ago. Hundreds of British and Afghan troops also are taking part in the operation.
Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson told his Marines several weeks ago that they would "ride" the Taliban forces.
"There is no pullback. We will stay on him and we will ride him until he's either dead or surrenders," Nicholson said to the troops in the address at their base, Camp Leatherneck.
Nicholson also told his Marines to be careful not to create civilian casualties, which have grown dramatically in Afghanistan during the past year, partly owing to increased use of American airstrikes. The general told his Marines that rather than "dropping a house" with a bomb, they should surround it and wait out the Taliban.
Similar operations in Helmand and neighboring Kandahar province have been under way during the past few days as part of a concerted effort by coalition forces to combat the ongoing insurgency, including Operation Panchai Palang (Panther Claw) initiated last week by Task Force Helmand, the British-led force that operates adjacent to the Marine brigade.
"The operation ... is going to be very effective," said Helmand Gov. Gulab Mangal. "The security forces will build bases to provide security for the local people so that they can carry out every activity with this favorable background, and take their lives forward in peace."
The combined U.S. and Afghan mission is to provide security for population centers along the Helmand River valley. Eventually the Marines will set up combat outposts throughout the valley, then move on helping rebuild the country and its security forces.
"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," Nicholson said in a release.