U.S. Marines launch offensive on Taliban in Afghan province

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 1, 2009 

KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. Marines early Thursday launched an operation in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province with the goal of driving the Taliban out of the country's major opium-producing area.

The offensive, called Operation Khanjar, or "Strike of the Sword," includes roughly 4,000 Marines and 650 Afghan security forces.

Besides securing one of Afghanistan's most dangerous provinces, the operation also is intended to signal a renewed effort here by U.S. forces under its new commander, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who arrived last month. The military's hope is that the operation will enable it begin building local governance.

The strategy is modeled in part after the "surge" in Iraq, where U.S. forces flooded a community with troops, cleared an area of insurgents, held it and stayed while local authorities built up governance and infrastructure.

McChrystal has said his plan is to change the focus from chasing after and killing Taliban to protecting the Afghan people so they won't have to live under intimidation. In an interview with Radio Free Europe on June 30, McChrystal said that during a 10-day listening tour around the country, he found the Taliban weren't popular and that residents often bended to their rule because they feared retribution.

Afghanistan, however, typically hasn't had enough troops to conduct operations such as Khanjar. The Marines are part of the additional 21,000 troops and trainers the Obama administration ordered to Afghanistan. Once all the additional forces arrive, there will be 68,000 U.S. troops and another 32,000 from NATO countries.

The Marines began the offensive in the Helmand River valley, in the southern part of the province.

"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," said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the commanding general of the Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan, said in a statement announcing the offensive.

The deteriorating security in Helmand province has been particularly frustrating to Afghans who regularly complain that the 8,000 British troops who've been stationed there since 2002 haven't been able to root out the Taliban. Violence in the province is at its highest levels since 2001.

In the past 18 months, Marines have increased their presence in the region, and those forces generally cleared parts of it. Without enough U.S. troops, however, Taliban forces often worked around the areas the Marines were based.

Taliban forces now control several districts in Helmand province and regularly threaten local poppy farmers there to hand over their crops. Local poppy production provides at least $150 million in funds to the Taliban, according to United Nations estimates.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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