U.S. Military Launches 'Strike Of The Sword'

The U.S. military launched a major operation centered in the volatile Helmand River Valley in southern Afghanistan. That's the center of the country's opium-growing region and one of the main strongholds of the Taliban.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The U.S. Marines this morning launched a major operation in Afghanistan, traveling by helicopter and armored vehicles into some of the most dangerous parts of the country. The operation is centered in the volatile Helmand River Valley in southern Afghanistan; that's the heart of the country's opium-growing region. It's also one of the main strongholds of the Taliban. For more on the ground, we reached NPR's Graham Smith, who is traveling with Marines in the valley.

And for starters, we're talking about thousands of Marines here.

GRAHAM SMITH: Yeah, that's right, Renee. This was basically D-day for them. They rolled in on the ground and also on waves of helicopters. I came in on a copter with Fox Company of the 2-8 Marines out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. If it had been a fight they'd be ready to go but instead it's been pretty quiet today. The biggest fight has been negotiating for a place to create a new compound, a place to work out of for the next few months.

MONTAGNE: Now, they went into Helmand Province because, as I said, it's a stronghold of the Taliban. What are they expecting to do there?

SMITH: Well, I'll tell you the truth. I think they are expecting somewhat of a fight. There are known to be Taliban just north of this village where I am, which is called Sorhudez(ph). British rolled through here last week. They were fired on and they regularly get fired on any time they come through this stretch of territory, but they've never tried to actually stay in one place and create a real presence, and that's what the Marines are determined to do.

MONTAGNE: Well, that is the new strategy there, of course - that is, stay and hold is what they call it, but that would involve what - that would involve -as in Iraq being part of the life of civilians?

SMITH: Yeah, yeah, they've got a compound here, big mud walled house. They are right on the outside of a small village and their intention is to stay here, to live here, to try and create enough security that people can have a school here and try to create some more connection with the government, particularly in anticipation of the elections that are coming up next month.

MONTAGNE: And will they be having small outposts? That is, we're protecting you now, villagers.

SMITH: Well, right now this is a pretty small outpost, 120 Marines, and they are going to be patrolling, using this as a patrol base, essentially, to go out from here. There's more Marines to the north and others to the south and there's some other coalition forces to the east and west. The idea is, Helmand here has been essentially - not a no-go zone but it's been a place where there hasn't been any real coalition presence, no lasting presence. So what they're trying to do is basically go in all at once and create a big presence and wrest control from the Taliban over this entire area.

MONTAGNE: And how long is this expected to last, since it's not just a fight but actually a commitment, it sounds like, to that area?

SMITH: Well, they say that's going to last for their whole deployment, which is to say until about the end of the year, these Marines hope to be home for Christmas. There may be different phases to it, but they are basically going to be here this whole time and they'll turn it over to other Marines at the other end of things and be working with Afghan forces the whole time. We haven't seen any Afghan forces here so far, and in fact the local people say that the Afghan police who they have occasion to deal with are pretty corrupt. They in fact told me, people I talk to, that the police are a bigger problem here than the Taliban are for them.

MONTAGNE: What are the Marines expecting long-term from the Taliban in terms of trying to fight the American efforts there?

SMITH: Well, you know, shortly after we arrived, the Marines that were supposed to come up and join us, having come up the road - but they came across an IED, it was homemade explosives with some wires coming out of it and we heard a big boom at one point. It was them doing controlled detonation. And I think that that's probably how it's going to go for a while. I think they are expecting to have some furtive action as the Taliban sort of feel them out. And with such a huge Marine presence, I don't think they really expect the Taliban to stand out and fight in any traditional sense. I think they expect that to be fighting a guerrilla war dealing with insurgents who are blending in with the population.

MONTAGNE: Graham, thanks very much. Take care of yourself.

SMITH: Thanks very much, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Graham Smith speaking from the village of Sorhudez in southern Afghanistan, where U.S. Marines have begun a major operation this morning.

One more note from Afghanistan. A U.S. military spokeswoman says insurgents in eastern Afghanistan have captured an American soldier. The soldier has been missing since Tuesday. He was not taking part in the military operation in the southern part of the country.

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First U.S. Casualties Reported In Afghanistan Push

As thousands of U.S. Marines poured from helicopters and armored vehicles into villages in southern Afghanistan on Thursday, the Marines reported their first casualties from the massive effort to reclaim the Helmand River valley from Taliban control.

It is the first major operation under President Obama's strategy to boost U.S. forces in Afghanistan and stabilize the country. The goal is to clear insurgents from the volatile region before the nation's Aug. 20 presidential election and restore stability to the region.

"One Marine has been killed in action, and several others have been injured or wounded throughout the day," said Capt. Bill Pelletier, a spokesman for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. There were no more details on the extent of the injuries.

The brigade has not received any confirmed reports of civilian casualties or damage to property, says Pelletier. The Marines are now in the process of setting up combat outposts along the thin green stretch of the Helmand River valley.

The valley is a major stronghold of the resurgent Taliban, and a source of their cash crop, poppies that are turned into heroin.

The Marines involved in the offensive — about 4,000 infantry troops including units from North Carolina and California — have seen only sporadic resistance, according to NPR journalists traveling with the Marines and a military spokesman.

"The enemy has chosen to withdraw rather than engage for the most part," says Marine Lt. Abe Sipe.

The Marines are now in the process of renting houses along the valley to use as outposts. But NPR producer Graham Smith said one resident took a $100 rental fee from Marines, only to quickly return it, fearing he would be found out by the Taliban.

Throughout Helmand province, residents talk of threats from the Taliban: police who have been told to leave their job or face the possibility family members will be killed; teachers who are told to stop instructing girls or their schools will be bombed; shopkeepers who are told to leave town so their businesses can be used as safe houses.

Operation Khanjar, or "Strike of the Sword," is meant to take back this Taliban-held territory that has seen few Afghan or U.S. forces in recent years. There have been sporadic military operations involving U.S .and British troops, but there have never been enough troops to hold the ground.

"This is an enemy used to small scale attacks and having the coalition pull back," Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the brigade commander, told his Marines shortly before the operation began. "There is no pull back. We will stay on him and ride him."

The operation is a test of the Obama administration's new strategy in Afghanistan. The effort calls for "clearing" the area of Taliban, "holding" the ground and then "building" government capacity, Afghan forces and the economy.

Nicholson told his Marines they would find the enemy and either kill or capture them.

Early indications are that the Taliban have dispersed in the face of the Marine operation. That could change quickly, with insurgents mounting small scale attacks or suicide bombings.

The Taliban, who took control of Afghanistan in 1996 and were ousted from power following a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, have made a violent comeback, wreaking havoc in much of the country's south and east, and forcing the United States to pour in the new troops.

Pelletier, the Marine spokesman, said the troops in Thursday's operation were sent in by a mixture of aircraft and ground transport under the cover of darkness.

The operation aims to show "the Afghan people that when we come in, we are going to stay long enough to set up their own institutions," Pelletier said. Once on the ground, the troops will meet with local leaders, hear their needs and act on them.

"We do not want people of Helmand province to see us as an enemy. We want to protect them from the enemy," Pelletier said.

The main threat for the Marines could occur in the coming weeks and months, as the Taliban watches for the troops in these combat outposts to be re-supplied. The most dangerous place to be in Afghanistan is on the roads, which are peppered with roadside bombs. Those bombs account for more than half of all U.S. casualties.

Senior U.S. military officers say they are finding caches of materials for the manufacture of explosives throughout southern Afghanistan — a stockpiling of fertilizer and other chemical materials that can make crude but effective bombs.

Taliban officials have told Western reporters that they will target the American forces using roadside bombs. Said one: "We will kill them on the roads."

Nicholson also told his Marines several weeks ago to be careful not to create civilian casualties, which have grown dramatically in Afghanistan during the past year, partly due to increased use of U.S. air strikes. The general told his Marines that rather than calling in a warplane and "dropping a house" with a bomb, they should surround it.

So far, the Marines say they have not received any confirmed reports of civilian casualties or damage to property. And the Marines say they have not used artillery, and no bombs have been dropped from aircraft.

The Pentagon is deploying 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in time for the elections and expects the total number of U.S. forces there to reach 68,000 by year's end.

Hundreds of Afghan troops are involved in Operation Khanjar. U.S. officials see an effective Afghan security force as the only means for lasting stability in Afghanistan.

But creating more Afghan forces will take time, likely years. The U.S. wants to double the size of the Afghan army by 2011 to about 135,000 troops. And there is talk that even more are needed beyond that. The U.S. is sending in 4,000 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division this summer to focus solely on training, though most analysts say that number should at least double.

And to fight a counterinsurgency, an even more important tool is police, who are closer to the local population, the villages and neighborhoods. The police currently are few in number, lacking in basic skills and in many cases corrupt.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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