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Dubbed Operation Khanjar, or "Strike of the Sword," it's the first major military operation under President Obama, and will test his strategy of shifting the US military focus away from Iraq and toward stabilizing Afghanistan. US marines aim to move in and hold a swath of territory that is a Taliban stronghold and the world's largest opium poppy producing area, according to the Associated Press.
Coalition forces hope the massive sudden assault will turn the tide of fighting in Helmand, where British troops have been locked in stalemate for three years....
The force, borne by helicopters and vehicle convoys, was expected to stage a fast and furious clearance of militant strongholds, as part of the US army's "clear hold and build" strategy.
US marines will then consolidate their hold in the region, trying to provide security in the run up to next month's Presidential elections.
The Associated Press reported that the offensive began around 1 a.m. local time. It quoted US commanders as saying that the marines will remain in the province until the Afghan government can provide security itself.
"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," Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson said in a statement....
The Pentagon is deploying 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in time for the elections and expects the total number of U.S. forces there to reach 68,000 by year's end.
Once Marine units arrive in their designated towns and villages, they have been instructed to build and live in small outposts among the local population. The brigade's commander, Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, said his Marines will focus their efforts on protecting civilians from the Taliban and on restoring Afghan government services, instead of mounting a series of hunt-and-kill missions against the insurgents.
"We're doing this very differently," Nicholson said to his senior officers a few hours before the mission began. "We're going to be with the people. We're not going to drive to work. We're going to walk to work."
Why the focus on Helmand Province? Reuters reports the province produces the lion's share of Afghanistan's opium crop, which in turn funds the Taliban insurgency.
The province is some 365 miles southwest of the capital Kabul (see a NATO map here). British and other NATO forces have for three years fought the Taliban in this province, but have lacked sufficient numbers to hold territory for long. Reuters reports:
In swiftly seizing the valley, commanders hope to accomplish within hours what overstretched NATO troops had failed to achieve over several years.
The Marines are saying their focus is "getting the government back on its feet." Okay. That's been our focus since 2002. What are they doing about that now that is any different? And can the Marines do that without a significant amount of civilian support?