13 February 2010

Operation Mushtarak, Day One

A U.S. Marine from Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, takes aim as he tries to protect an Afghan man and his child after Taliban fighters opened fire in the town of Marjah, in Nad Ali district, Helmand province, February 13, 2010. Photo: Reuters.

The first full day of Operation Mushtarak in and around Marjah. Commanders expect to push through the area in a few days, followed by weeks of clearing bombs, booby-traps, and pockets of resistance. Troops will then remain there for months to secure the population and set conditions for the Afghan government to establish public services and develop the economy.

More than 30 transport helicopters ferried troops into the heart of Marjah before dawn Saturday, while British, Afghan and U.S. troops fanned out across the Nad Ali district to the north of the mudbrick town, long a stronghold of the Taliban.

Maj. Gen. Gordon Messenger told reporters in London that British forces "have successfully secured the area militarily" with only sporadic resistance from Taliban forces. A Taliban spokesman insisted their forces still controlled the town.

In Marjah, Marines and Afghan troops faced little armed resistance. But their advance through the town was impeded by countless land mines, homemade bombs and booby-traps littering the area.

Throughout the day, Marine ordnance teams blew up bombs where they were found, setting off huge explosions that reverberated through the dusty streets.

The bridge over the canal into Marjah from the north was rigged with so many explosives that Marines erected temporary bridges to cross into the town.

"It's just got to be a very slow and deliberate process," said Capt. Joshua Winfrey of Stillwater, Okla., a Marine company commander.

Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, said U.S. troops fought gunbattles in at least four areas of the town, including the western suburb of Sistani where India Company faced "some intense fighting."

To the east, the battalion's Kilo Company was inserted into the town by helicopter without meeting resistance but was then "significantly engaged" as the Marines fanned out from the landing zone, Christmas said.

Marine commanders had said they expected between 400 and 1,000 insurgents — including more than 100 foreign fighters — to be holed up in Marjah, a town of 80,000 people which is the linchpin of the militants' logistical and opium-smuggling network in the south.

Shopkeeper Abdul Kader, 44, said seven or eight Taliban fighters, who had been holding the position where the Marines crossed over, had fled in the middle of the night. He said he was angry at the insurgents for having planted bombs and mines all around his neighborhood.

"They left with their motorcycles and their guns. They went deeper into town," he said as Marines and Afghan troops searched a poppy field next to his house. "We can't even walk out of our own houses."

Saturday's ground assault followed several hours after the first wave of helicopters flew troops over the mine fields into the center of town before dawn. Helicopter gunships fired missiles at Taliban tunnels and bunkers while flares illuminated the night sky so pilots could see their landing zones.

The offensive, code-named "Moshtarak," or "Together," was described as the biggest joint operation of the Afghan war, with 15,000 troops involved, including some 7,500 in Marjah itself. The government says Afghan soldiers make up at least half of the offensive's force.

Once Marjah is secured, NATO hopes to quickly deliver aid and provide public services in a bid to win support among the estimated 125,000 people who live in the town and surrounding villages. The Afghans' ability to restore those services is crucial to the success of the operation and in preventing the Taliban from returning.

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