Wire: Forces Start Major Afghan Offensive, 3 US Troops Killed in South
Off the Wire:
WASHINGTON, Feb. 13, 2010 -- Newswire services this morning reported that thousands of U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers stormed the Taliban stronghold of Marjah by air and ground Saturday, meeting only scattered resistance.
The Associated Press reported that the massive offensive was aimed at establishing Afghan government authority over the biggest southern town under militant control and breaking the Taliban grip over a wide area of their southern heartland.
Media outlets focused on conflicting news that either none or light coalition casualties had been reported more than 12 hours after the initial airborne assault, but buried the grim news that NATO said three U.S. soldiers were killed Saturday in a bombing elsewhere in southern Afghanistan.
AP noted that at least 20 insurgents were reported killed in the Helmand operation, said Gen. Sher Mohammad Zazai, the commander of Afghan forces in the region. Troops have recovered Kalashnikov rifles, heavy machine guns and grenades from 11 insurgents captured so far.
The long-awaited assault on Marjah is the biggest offensive since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and is a major test of a new NATO strategy focused on protecting civilians. The attack is also the first major combat operation since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 U.S. reinforcements here in December to try to turn the tide of the war.See links below for details.
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Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, said U.S. troops faced sustained gunbattles in four areas of the town, including the western suburb of Sistani where India Company faced "some intense fighting." To the east, Kilo Company was inserted by helicopter but was then "significantly engaged" as the Marines fanned out from the landing zone.
But the greatest threat came from the extensive network of mines, homemade bombs and booby traps that ground forces encountered as soon as they crossed a major major canal into the town's northern entrance.
Insurgents appeared to have withdrawn from their frontline positions but left boobytraps and explosives in their abandoned positions and in the network of canals built by the Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. Marines safely set off numerous bombs, as the sound of strong detonations reverberated through the dusty streets.
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Marine commanders had said they expected between 400 to 1,000 insurgents — including more than 100 foreign fighters — to be holed up in Marjah. The town of 80,000 people, about 360 miles (610 kilometers) southwest of Kabul, is the linchpin of the militants' logistical and opium-smuggling network.
The offensive, code-named "Moshtarak," or "Together," was described as the biggest joint operation of the Afghan war, with 15,000 troops involved, including some 7,500 troops fighting in Marjah. The government says Afghan soldiers make up at least half of the offensive's force.
Once Marjah is secured, NATO hopes to rush in aid and restore public services in a bid to win support among the estimated 125,000 people who live in the town and surrounding villages. The Afghans' ability to restore those services is crucial to the success of the operation and to prevent the Taliban from returning.
(Report from newswire sources.)
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