US offensive in Afghanistan targets Taliban stronghold

In Helmand Province, poppy cultivation funds insurgent activities. As the operation began, the US military announced a US soldier had been captured in another province.

David Guttenfelder/AP
US Marines temporarily occupy a house after arriving in an overnight air assault near the Taliban stronghold of Nawa in Afghanistan's Helmand province on Thursday.

The US military launched a major offensive in southern Afghanistan today, unleashing newly arrived American manpower in a bid to stabilize the country ahead of national elections slated for August.

Nearly 4,000 US Marines and 650 Afghan soldiers and police moved into riverside towns in Helmand Province overnight. The operation marks the first major strike using some of the additional 21,000 US forces sent to Afghanistan by President Barack Obama.

As the offensive got under way, the military said that an American soldier who had been missing since Tuesday was believed to have been captured in Paktika Province, in eastern Afghanistan. A spokesman for the Taliban could not confirm that the soldier was being held by militants.

Over the past several years, British forces have struggled to permanently wrest territory in Helmand away from entrenched Taliban insurgents. The fertile province leads the nation in poppy cultivation and has become a cash cow for insurgents involved in the drug trade.

However, Helmand’s rich agriculture land and large population also make it attractive as an initial target for the new US-led counterinsurgency push, say analysts.

“It provides a lot of the drugs which are sold in order to fund the insurgency, but it also provides a lot of opportunities for turning the population around,” says Christopher Langton, a retired British Army colonel and senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “It’s a relatively fertile province with the possibility of the cultivation of a lot of legal crops.”

Helmand’s governor, Gulab Mangal, also has proved “very proactive” in trying to restore stability, says Colonel Langton. “So the ingredients for success are there.”

Promoting a sense of security among the local population is the new mantra for the war in Afghanistan under incoming Gen. Stanley McChrystal. That will mean this operation will need to not just overrun Taliban positions by surprise, analysts say, but hold the territory convincingly – something the British struggled to do.

NATO dispatched the British forces in early 2006 after devoting virtually no peacekeepers to the province for more than four years, says Nick Grono, who is with the International Crisis Group in Brussels.

Taliban dug in during forces’ absence

In the absence of a military presence, Taliban insurgents dug in, finding fertile ground in the ethnic Pashtun stronghold and former home of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. The British assignment was by definition difficult, says Mr. Grono: “It’s a big province and you have a small force.”

The British didn’t have enough manpower or helicopters to hold territory, says Langton, “and that’s precisely what McChrystal is trying to address.”

So are 4,000 marines enough to hold? Langton thinks they are, because the operation is limited to two districts in Helmand. “Though it’s a big operation, territorially it’s quite limited – and I think that’s quite deliberate,” he says.

Grono welcomes the focus on the Helmand River Valley, one of the major Afghan population centers. In the past, he says, the US military has cleared rural areas and expected civilian forces to move in to hold and rebuild.

“Part of a smart strategy,” says Grono, “is focusing on those areas that, if they were cleared ... [would] be more attractive for civilian forces to go into.”

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