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U.S.-led offensive under way in southern Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — A U.S.-led force unleashed a major offensive in southern Afghanistan early Saturday, with thousands of Marines, together with Afghan and British soldiers, going into battle against a Taliban stronghold, according to reports.

The operation will be a key test of the Obama administration's new strategy for Afghanistan, which is based on deploying a "surge" of military and civilian personnel to take and hold population centers, driving the insurgents to the countryside.

The focus of the offensive is the town of Marjah, the last area in central Helmand still under Taliban control. NATO intelligence estimates that as many as 2,000 militants are dug in and have mined the approaches to town.

Complicating the fight is the fact that, despite a last-minute exodus, most of the population of Marjah and the surrounding villages of 80,000 people, are still in their homes, raising the risk of civilian casualties that would seriously undermine the mission in Afghanistan.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent)

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