KABUL: U.S. Marines and Afghan troops faced rocket and heavy machine-gun fire from insurgents entrenched inside a Taliban-held town Saturday, as a long-expected offensive began to re-establish government control.
The assault on Marjah is the biggest offensive since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and will serve as 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.
Detecting multiple layers of insurgent defenses encircling the city, Cobra helicopters fired Hellfire missiles at tunnels, bunkers, and other defensive positions. Militants also flooded the main canal at the town’s entrance, making it more difficult for U.S.-led forces to enter on foot.
Marine commanders had said they expected between 400 to 1,000 insurgents — including more than 100 foreign fighters — to be holed up in Marjah, a town of 80,000 people in Helmand province. Marjah, located 360 miles (610 kilometers) southwest of Kabul, is the biggest southern town under Taliban control and the linchpin of the militants’ logistical and opium-smuggling network.
Sporadic rocket fire from insurgents and the rattle of gunfire echoed in the air. A U.S. missile detonated a massive 55-gallon (208-liter) fuel-drum bomb that sent a mushroom of black smoke dozens of yards (meters) into the sky.
Helicopters carrying hundreds of U.S. Marines and Afghan troops swooped into town under the cover of darkness early Saturday with a ground assault of thousands of additional forces expected to follow.
“The first wave of choppers has landed inside Marjah. The operation has begun,” said Capt. Joshua Winfrey, commander of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, which was at the forefront of the attack.
The operation, codenamed “Moshtarak,” or Together, was described as the biggest joint operation of the Afghan war. Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, said 15,000 troops were involved, including some 7,500 troops fighting in Marjah.
To the north, British, American and Canadian forces struck in the Nad Ali district in a push to break Taliban power in Helmand, one of the major battlefields of the war.
In a village north of Marjah, residents said they heard gunfire before dawn but then it went quiet. Abdul Manan, a farmer in the village of Saipo, said he finally decided to risk going out of his house and saw American troops walking by. They told him to go back inside.
Once the town 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 Marjah 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.
Tribal elders have pleaded for NATO to finish the operation quickly and spare civilians — an appeal that offers some hope the townspeople will cooperate with Afghan and international forces once the Taliban are gone.
An official said the number of Afghan security forces in the district have roughly doubled since Obama’s first infusion of some 10,000 Marines in southern Afghanistan last year.
The Marjah offensive involves close combat in extremely difficult terrain, that official said. A close grid of wide canals dug by the United States as an aid project decades ago make the territory a particularly rich agricultural prize but complicate the advance of U.S. forces.
On the eve of the attack, cars and trucks jammed the main road out of Marjah on Friday as hundreds of civilians defied militant orders and fled the area. For weeks, U.S. commanders had signaled their intention to attack Marjah in hopes that civilians would seek shelter.
Residents told that Taliban fighters were preventing them from leaving, warning the roads were planted with bombs to slow the NATO advance.
Still, many people fled anyway for the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, 20 miles (30 kilometers) to the northeast. They told journalists they had to leave quickly and secretly, slipping out of town when Taliban commanders weren’t watching.