/ 3 July 2009

US marines push deeper in Afghan assault

United States Marines pushed deeper into Taliban strongholds on Friday after suffering the first fatality of their massive offensive against Afghanistan’s hard-line Islamist militia.

Ferried in by relays of helicopters on Thursday, marines were on the ground in southern Helmand province’s districts of Garmsir and Nawa, and also helped Afghan forces take Khanishin, towards the border with Pakistan, officers said.

“Today marines are continuing to move towards those objectives that are still out there and they are going to work to stabilise security in these areas,” spokesperson First Lieutenant Kurt Stahl said on Friday.

The nearly 4 000 marines are spearheading US President Barack Obama’s aggressive new war plan for Afghanistan’s bloody insurgency with an emphasis on protecting the population ahead of presidential elections on August 20.

“When Marines go out into towns, they are always looking for opportunities to talk to village elders and explain why they are here,” Stahl said.

“The intention is to understand each other; elders can express their concerns and an open flow of communication is secured.”

On Thursday troops quickly overran Khanishin district, where the Taliban had set up a proxy government and justice system, within hours of the launch of the marines’ biggest operation since one in Fallujah in Iraq in November 2004.

But they also recorded their first death in an air and land assault that is one of the biggest joint campaigns in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

“One marine has been killed in action, and several others have been injured or wounded throughout the day,” the Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) said.

There was no confirmation of civilian casualties or damage to property, with the military saying it was holding back from using heavy weaponry.

“MEB-Afghanistan forces have not used artillery or other indirect fire weapons, and no bombs have been dropped from aircraft,” the statement said.

Troops were operating as far south as Khanishin, it confirmed, with the forces clearing key population centres “to secure the local population from the threat of Taliban and other insurgent intimidation and violence”.

A marine officer said that militants shot and damaged two unarmed but marked medical helicopters sent to evacuate soldiers suffering from the heat while fighting about 20km south of Garmsir.

“Two red cross-marked medivac helicopters yesterday afternoon [Thursday] flew from Camp Dwyer to pick up heat victims,” Colonel Mike Killion said.

One chopper was hit in the tail and the other was forced into a bad landing and was damaged as it hit an embankment, he said.

“The Taliban know what a red cross means: that the helicopter is unarmed. They don’t fire on our attack helicopters as they know the consequences,” Killion said.

In eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban’s hard-line Haqqani faction claimed it was holding a US soldier who had been missing since June 30, before the current offensive kicked off.

“We are using all of our available resources to find him and provide for his safe return,” US military spokesperson Captain Elizabeth Mathias said, declining to go into further detail.

The new assault in Helmand is called Khanjar, which means “dagger” in Dari and Pashtu but is translated by the marines as “Strike of the Sword”.

“What makes Operation Khanjar different from those that have occurred before is the massive size of the force introduced, the speed at which it will insert,” marine commander Brigadier General Larry Nicholson said.

The forces pushed south down the Helmand River valley, deep into insurgent-held areas where foreign troops have failed to establish a presence despite ousting the Taliban from power nearly eight years ago.

Commanders said they would persuade locals that the Afghan security forces — backed by Western troops — offered them a better long-term future than the fundamentalist militia. — AFP