By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 6 -- NATO and Afghan forces on Tuesday launched what commanders described as a major operation in a key province of southern Afghanistan, part of a bid to win back territory that has become a haven for insurgents.
The operation, the international force's largest to date in the country, was centered in the northern part of Helmand province, where Afghan government authorities have little control and insurgents move with relative impunity. The province's governor said Tuesday that 700 al-Qaeda fighters had moved into the region, and were believed to be planning more of the suicide bombings and other attacks that have besieged Afghanistan for the past year and a half.
Both sides have said this is likely to be a bloody spring, and Tuesday's operation seemed to mark a significant escalation. NATO forces said that they began the operation at 5 a.m. and that it would ultimately involve 4,500 NATO troops from several nations, including the United States, Britain, Canada and the Netherlands, plus 1,000 Afghan soldiers.
More than 1,000 U.S. troops from the 82nd Airborne Division were part of the offensive, which was dubbed Operation Achilles. The United States has 27,000 troops in Afghanistan, 15,000 of whom are under NATO command.
The U.S. airborne unit had only recently moved into southern Afghanistan and was able to slip into position in Helmand beginning Monday evening and continuing overnight, according to Col. Tom Collins, a spokesman for NATO forces. "We think we have achieved some tactical surprise by moving into the area in the way that we did," Collins said.
Despite the scale of the operation, NATO forces had not publicly reported any heavy fighting by late Tuesday night, and Afghan officials in Helmand said they had not heard of any major combat. Officials did say that a British soldier had been killed during fighting in Helmand; four suspected insurgents were also reported killed in the south.
It was unclear how the Taliban and other insurgent groups would respond to an offensive. In the past, insurgents have conducted strategic retreats in the face of major operations and waited until the threat died down.
The start of Operation Achilles follows by nine months another operation in the same part of the country that involved 11,000 U.S.-led troops. Since then, insurgents have intensified their hold in northern Helmand. Last month they even took control of one district, Musa Qala, in defiance of a peace deal signed with local elders. Poppy production has also soared in the province, which is Afghanistan's largest producer of opium.
Lt. Col. Angela Billings, a spokeswoman for NATO forces, said the time is right to try to break the insurgents' grip on the area.
"Afghanistan is a different place than it was nine months ago. The local population is tired of the unrest," Billings said. "They're definitely behind [NATO forces] and the Afghan national security forces. They believe in the government, and they want to be supportive."
The immediate goal of the operation was to secure a highway that leads to a dam where international aid organizations are supposed to be working on a hydroelectric project. Instability has kept them out, however, and NATO military officials said the hope is that the operation will allow them to come back. The operation could take weeks, or more.
The governor of Helmand, Asadullah Wafa, indicated at a news conference in Kabul on Tuesday that he welcomed the NATO offensive. Wafa said that over the past year insurgents had driven away Afghan security forces in four districts of his province and that more foreign troops were needed to regain control.
Wafa said that recently a key insurgent leader had massed 700 fighters in the province. He identified the leader as a Pakistani al-Qaeda member named Abdullah Massoud and said that Massoud's fighters include al-Qaeda members from Pakistan, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and the Persian Gulf.
"Afghanistan's neighbor, Pakistan, and al-Qaeda want to turn Helmand into a terrorist center," Wafa said.
Afghan authorities have long said Pakistan is enabling the Taliban movement to thrive by giving insurgents a sanctuary in the relatively lawless tribal areas near the two countries' border. Pakistani officials counter that they are doing their best to crack down on Taliban and al-Qaeda activity and are supportive of NATO's mission in Afghanistan.
Also in Afghanistan on Tuesday, members of the Taliban told the Reuters news agency that they had abducted an Italian newspaper reporter in Helmand and accused him of being a spy for British troops. At the same time, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica said that it had not been able to contact one of its reporters since Sunday and that he had been in the volatile southern province of Kandahar when the paper last heard from him.
Special correspondent Javed Hamdard in Kabul contributed to this report.