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Helmand Province

Helmand Province

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American marines and Afghan troops poured into southern Afghanistan today in the first major test of Barack Obama's strategy to wrest the initiative from the Taliban.Daybreak brought the sporadic crackle of gunfire but no immediate heavy fighting as the offensive in Helmand province began shortly after 1am local time near the village of Nawa, about 20 miles south of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

Insurgents in Helmand â€" a Taliban stronghold â€" have for years put up stubborn resistance against British troops.Waves of helicopters landed marines in the valley, a crescent of opium poppy and wheat fields crisscrossed by canals and dotted with mud-brick homes.

The marines disembarked and fanned out into the fields as the sun rose.

Hundreds more arrived in convoys through a barren area known as the desert of death.In a simultaneous operation, Pakistan deployed troops on its border to stop militants fleeing into its territory.As the offensive began the US military said one of its soldiers had been captured in Paktita province, in eastern Afghanistan.

He was not involved in the operation.

The Ministry of Defence reported the deaths of two British soldiers in Helmand; six other Nato soldiers were injured by the same improvised explosive device (IED).Today medical helicopters circled over Helmand and landed, indicating possible early casualties among the marines.

A roadside bomb early in the mission wounded one marine, but he was able to continue.The Americans took many insurgents by surprise, dropping behind Taliban lines, Captain Drew Schoenmaker claimed, although this seemed unlikely as the insurgents usually have an idea of impending attacks."We are kind of forging new ground here.

We are going to a place nobody has been before," said Schoenmaker, 31, from the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine regiment.Pakistani troops moved to block Taliban fighters crossing the 1,615-mile (2,600km) border.

Pakistani officers said the army was preparing for a possible movement of Taliban from Helmand, a major opium producing area.

Pakistan has been conducting its own offensive against local Taliban in its north-west in recent months.The US operation comes ahead of the Afghan presidential elections on 20 August, which will provide a key test for the embattled incumbent, Hamid Karzai, who has been under fire for failing to rein in corruption within his government.

Southern Afghanistan is an area in which Karzai is seeking votes from fellow Pashtun tribesmen.The offensive â€" called Operation Khanjar, or Strike of the Sword â€" was described by officials as the largest and fastest-moving of the war's new phase, involving nearly 4,000 marines and 650 Afghan forces.

The marines will be pushing into areas where Nato and Afghan troops have lacked the strength to establish a permanent presence."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," said Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, of the Marine Corps.British forces led similar, but smaller, missions to clear insurgents from Helmand and neighbouring Kandahar province last week.The Taliban has vowed that its thousands of fighters in the area would fight back, although only minor skirmishes were reported in the early stages."Thousands of Taliban mujahideen are ready to fight against US troops in the operation in Helmand province," Mullah Hayat Khan, a senior Afghan Taliban commander, told Reuters in Pakistan.The Pentagon is deploying 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in time for the elections, and expects the total number of US forces there to reach 68,000 by the end of the year.

That is double the number of troops in Afghanistan in 2008, but still half as many as are now in Iraq.Captain Bill Pelletier, a marines spokesman, said the troops involved in the operation had been sent in by a combination of aircraft and ground transport under the cover of darkness.

Once on the ground troops will meet local leaders, hear their needs and act on them, Pelletier said."We do not want people of Helmand province to see us as an enemy â€" we want to protect them from the enemy," he said.The governor of Helmand province, Gulab Mangal, predicted a successful operation: "The security forces will build bases to provide security for the local people so that they can carry out every activity with this favourable background, and take their lives forward in peace."In March Obama unveiled his plans for Afghanistan, aiming to defeat al-Qaida terrorists there and in Pakistan with a bigger force and a new commander.

Obama sacked General David McKiernan, replacing him with General Stanley McChrystal, a former joint special operations command chief and a counter-insurgency expert.McChrystal, whose forces were credited with tracking down and killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaida in Iraq, was brought in to provide "fresh eyes" and "fresh thinking".

He has already moved to lay down tighter limits on the use of air strikes to try to reduce the civilian death toll, one of the reasons given for a swing in support for the Taliban.
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