By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Saturday, February 13, 2010; A01
CAMP LEATHERNECK, AFGHANISTAN -- Thousands of U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers traveling in helicopters and mine-resistant vehicles began punching into a key Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan early Saturday, as the largest military operation since 2001 to assert government control over this country got underway.
The first wave of Marines and Afghan soldiers swooped into the farming community of Marja about 2 a.m. Saturday local time (4:30 p.m. Eastern), their CH-53 Super Stallion transport helicopters landing amid clouds of dust on fallow fields. As the troops, weighed down with ammunition and supplies, lumbered out and set up defensive positions, AV-8B Harrier fighter jets and AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters circled overhead in the moonless sky.
Two more waves of troops touched down over the following 90 minutes near other strategic locations in Marja. Insurgents mounted scattered attacks on the coalition forces in the initial hours of the operation, causing no significant casualties.
At sunrise, hundreds more Marines and Afghan soldiers entered the area by land, using mobile bridges to ford irrigation canals -- built by U.S. engineers more than 50 years ago -- that have served as defensive moats for the Taliban. Heavily armored mine-sweeping trucks and specially outfitted tanks worked to carve a path through a belt of makeshift bombs buried around the town.
The Marines entering Marja are with some of the first new military units to arrive in Afghanistan as a result of President Obama's decision in December to authorize the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to combat a growing insurgency. The operation is intended to deprive the Taliban of a haven in Helmand province, which military intelligence officials say is home to numerous bombmaking facilities and drug-processing labs.
"We're going to take Marja away from the Taliban," said Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. Doing so, he said, could result in "a fundamental change in Helmand and, by extension, the entire nation of Afghanistan."'We're a go'
Although there have been other large U.S. military campaigns to flush out the Taliban in the eight-year-long war, this mission is different, involving more extensive cooperation with the Afghan army than any previous effort. Each U.S. Marine company is partnered with an Afghan one -- American and Afghan troops sat side by side on the helicopters -- and a top U.S. commander is working next to an Afghan general in a command center.
When other Marine battalions swept into communities along the Helmand River last summer, there was only one Afghan soldier for every 10 U.S. troops. This time, there is one Afghan for every two Americans. "This is a ratio that the Afghan people want to see, and the American people need to see," said John Kael Weston, the State Department representative to the Marine brigade.
U.S. officials said Afghan President Hamid Karzai authorized the incursion Friday evening after discussions with U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. It is the first major military operation of the war that Karzai has endorsed, the officials said.
According to the officials, Karzai had been ambivalent about a military push into Marja, hoping instead to persuade some of the insurgents to participate in a reintegration program. But Eikenberry and McChrystal, as well as some senior members of Karzai's cabinet, urged him to approve the operation, noting that fighters in the area have had months to switch their allegiance. They also emphasized that more than 400 tribal elders from Marja and surrounding areas had voiced support for an incursion at meetings organized by Helmand's governor Thursday and Friday.
Marine officers were not certain the mission would proceed until five hours before the first helicopters were slated to take off, when Nicholson announced to his senior staff: "President Karzai agreed to the operation. We're a go."
The complex airborne insertion of Marines and Afghan soldiers involved 36 transport helicopter flights and more than two dozen other support aircraft.
It is not certain how insurgents in the area will react as the operation proceeds, but Marine commanders expect many of them to stand and fight. U.S. military intelligence reports have indicated that senior Taliban leaders may have crossed into Afghanistan from their redoubts in Pakistan in recent days to direct defensive operations in Marja.
In the face of past operations, however, many insurgents have simply fled to nearby areas where there are fewer security forces. Marine and Army units have sought to encircle the Marja area to prevent fighters from fleeing, but there are still vast stretches of desert through which they could slip.
Even if the insurgents do not fight in large numbers, Marja will remain treacherous ground, littered with buried homemade explosive devices. Marine officers say it is the most heavily mined part of the country.
In the hours before the Marines landed, unmanned Predator aircraft and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters targeted men who were spotted laying roadside bombs and setting up antiaircraft guns. Eleven of them were killed in the strikes.
Civilians sought to leave the area ahead of the operation. Some made it out, in cars and on tractors piled with their belongings, but the insurgents forced others to remain in their homes, military officers said. In some cases, they said, Taliban members told residents that roads out of Marja had been mined.
About 3,500 U.S. Marines, sailors and soldiers, accompanied by about 1,500 Afghan army infantrymen, are directly involved in the mission, supported by thousands more troops at nearby bases. More than 500 paramilitary police will join the effort Sunday or Monday.Reasserting control
The push to retake Marja is part of a larger NATO effort, dubbed Operation Moshtarak, which means "together" in the Dari language, to reassert control over parts of Helmand that have become Taliban sanctuaries. About 5,000 British, Danish and Afghan forces, also traveling in helicopters and armored vehicles, moved into the northern part of Nad Ali district shortly after the first Marines arrived in Marja.
Marja, a 155-square-mile farming community of 80,000 people, is crisscrossed with irrigation canals. They were built by U.S. contractors in the 1950s in an effort to transform the desert into cropland so Afghanistan could provide enough food to feed its people.
The Taliban moved into the area three years ago after striking deals with opium-producing poppy growers and drug traffickers to protect their operations in exchange for the freedom to set up bomb factories among the canals, which are too deep for combat vehicles to drive across.
"The United States built Marja," Nicholson said. "We're going to come back and fix it."
Nicholson and other commanders say that pacifying Marja is essential to implementing counterinsurgency operations in more populous areas of Helmand, which in turn are regarded as central to improving security in Kandahar, the country's second-largest city.
The canals pose a significant challenge for the Marines. The two principal units in the area -- the 1st and 3rd battalions of the 6th Marine Regiment -- will operate largely on foot, carting food, water and other supplies on their backs. Engineering units will seek to set up temporary bridges to allow combat vehicles to cross.
Once the central part of Marja is cleared of fighters, a team of U.S. and British diplomats and reconstruction personnel will set up a stabilization office. A top priority will be to assist the newly appointed district governor, Haji Zahir, who recently returned to Afghanistan after spending 15 years in Germany. The Marines have identified dozens of potential quick-impact projects to help the local population -- from fixing health clinics to drilling wells -- and have received permission to spend more than $800,000 on such activities.
But U.S. officials also want the Karzai administration to send personnel and deliver services to the area, describing the mission as a gauge of Kabul's willingness to take advantage of opportunities created by the new troops.
Weston, the State Department representative, said, "Marja is a test of the central government's ability to reach down to a still-volatile part of the country and deliver sustainable governance."