Helicopter-borne US Marines and Afghan troops swooped down on the Taliban-held town of Marjah before dawn Saturday, launching a long-expected attack to re-establish government control and undermine support for militants in their southern heartland.
The assault on Marjah is the biggest offensive since the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan and will serve as a major test of a new NATO strategy focusing on protecting civilians. The attack is also the first major combat operation since US President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 US reinforcements here in December to try to turn the tide of the war.
Marine commanders say they expect between 400 to 1,000 insurgents to be holed up inside this southern Afghan town of 80,000 people in Helmand province, including more than 100 foreign fighters. Marjah is the biggest southern town under Taliban control and the linchpin of the militants' logistical and opium-smuggling network.
"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.
Several hundred US Marines and some Afghan troops were in the first wave of troops, flying over minefields the militants are believed to have planted around the town, 360 miles (610 kilometers) southwest of Kabul.
The operation, codenamed "Moshtarak," or Together, was described as the biggest joint operation of the Afghan war. Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, says 15,000 troops were involved in the operation, including some 7,500 troops fighting in Marjah and British forces to the north in the district of Nad Ali.
The helicopter assault was preceded by illumination flares fired over the town about 2 a.m. In the pitch darkness of a moonless night, the roar of helicopters could be heard overhead, flying in assault troops from multiple locations.
The white flash of Hellfire and Tow missiles could be seen exploding over the town as flares illuminated the darkness to help assault troops spot targets in the town.
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 preventing 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.
At the Pentagon, a senior US official said Afghan president Hamid Karzai had signed off on the attack.
Another defense official said Karzai had been informed of planning for the operation well in advance. The official said it marked a first in terms of both sharing information prior to the attack and planning collaboration with the Afghan government.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because there were not authorized to speak publicly.
The second 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 US 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 ahead of the assault. For weeks, US commanders had signaled their intention to attack Marjah in hopes that civilians would seek shelter.
Residents told The Associated Press by telephone this week that Taliban fighters were preventing them from leaving, warning the roads were planted with land mines 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 to avoid recrimination from Taliban commanders.
Some said they slipped out of town when Taliban commanders weren't watching.
"We were not allowed to come here. We haven't brought any of our belongings; we just tried to get ourselves out," said Bibi Gul, an elderly woman in a black headscarf who arrived in nearby Lashkar Gah with three of her sons. She left three more sons behind in Marjah.
Police searched vehicles for any signs of militants, in one case prodding bales of cotton with a metal rod in search of hidden weapons.
"They don't allow families to leave," Marjah resident Qari Mohammad Nabi said of the Taliban. "The families can only leave the village when they are not seen leaving."
Provincial spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said about 450 families — an estimated 2,700 people — had already sought refuge in Lashkar Gah. Most moved in with relatives but more than 100 were being sheltered by the government, he said.
Ahmadi said the local government was prepared to shelter 7,000 families in nearby towns, providing them with food, blankets and dishes.
In advance of the attack, Afghan officials urged community leaders in Marjah to use their influence to persuade the Taliban to lay down their weapons and avoid a bloodbath. In return, the officials promised to improve the lives of the people there.
During a meeting Thursday, Helmand's governor, Gulab Mangal, urged tribal elders from the town to "use any avenue you have, direct or indirect, to tell the Taliban who don't want to fight, that they can join with us," according to the chief of Helmand's provincial council, Mohammad Anwar Khan.
For their part, the elders begged for limited use of airstrikes because of the risk of civilian deaths, Khan said Friday.
Another of the elders at the meeting, Mohammad Karim Khan, said he would not dare approach the Taliban and tell them to give up their guns to the government.
"We can't talk to the Taliban. We are farmers and poor people and we are not involved in these things like the politicians are," said Khan, who is not related to the provincial council chief.
Instead, a group of 34 elders sent a letter Friday to the provincial government urging NATO forces to finish the operation in Marjah quickly and to avoid harming civilians. Abdul Hai Agha, an elder from Marjah, said local people were frightened and feared they would not be cared for after the Taliban are gone.
"We said in this letter that if you are doing this operation in Marjah, do it quickly," Agha told the AP by phone from the town.
The fact the elders did not demand US and Afghan troops call off the operation offered a glimmer of hope the townspeople will cooperate with pro-government forces — if the Afghan leadership is able to fulfill its promises of a better life without the Taliban.
US officials have long complained that Afghan government corruption and inefficiency have alienated millions of Afghans and paved the way for the revival of the militant group after it was driven from power in the 2001 US-led invasion.
One of the main drafters of the letter to government officials said he and others had been reaching out to local Taliban commanders.
"We have talked to some of the Taliban over the phone and we have told
them: 'This is your country. Don't create problems for your fellow
Afghans and don't go on a suicide mission,'" said Abdul Rehman Jan, an
elder who lives in Lashkar Gah.
However, Jan said most of the Afghan Taliban have already fled the
area. Militant commanders from the Middle East or Pakistan have stayed
on "and they want to fight," he said.