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.