By ALFRED de MONTESQUIOU, Associated Press Writer Alfred De Montesquiou, Associated Press Writer
KABUL – U.S. Marines swooped down behind Taliban lines in helicopters and Osprey aircraft Friday in the first offensive since President Barack Obama announced an American troop surge.
About 1,000 Marines and 150 Afghan troops were taking part in "Operation Cobra's Anger" in a bid to disrupt Taliban supply and communications lines in the Now Zad Valley of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, the scene of heavy fighting last summer, according to Marine spokesman Maj. William Pelletier.
Hundreds of troops from the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines and the Marine reconnaissance unit Task Force Raider dropped by helicopters and MV-22 Osprey aircraft in the northern end of the valley while a second, larger Marine force pushed northward from the main Marine base in the town of Now Zad, Pelletier said.
A U.S. military official in Washington said it was the first use of Ospreys, aircraft that combine features of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, in an offensive involving units larger than platoons.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to detail the operation, said that Ospreys have previously been used for intelligence and patrol operations.
Combat engineers used armored steamrollers and explosives to force a corridor through Taliban minefields — known as "IED Alley" because of the huge number of roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, and land mines, Pelletier said.
Roadside bombs and mines have become the biggest killer of American troops in Afghanistan.
There were no reports of U.S. or Afghan government casualties. The spokesman for the Afghan governor of Helmand province, Daood Ahmadi, said at least four Taliban fighters had been killed and their bodies recovered.
He said more than 300 mines and roadside bombs had been located in the first day of the operation.
Pelletier said insurgents were caught off guard by the early morning air assault.
"Right now, the enemy is confused and disorganized," Pelletier said by telephone from Camp Leatherneck, the main Marine base in Helmand. "They're fighting, but not too effectively."
The offensive began three days after Obama announced that he was sending 30,000 reinforcements to Afghanistan to help turn the tide against the Taliban and train Afghan security forces to take responsibility for defending against the militants.
America's European allies will send an estimated 7,000 more troops to Afghanistan next year "with more to come," NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced Friday.
Most of the new troops are expected to be sent to southern Afghanistan, including Helmand, where Taliban influence is strongest.
Friday's fighting was taking place in one of the most challenging areas of the country for the U.S.-led NATO force, which has been trying for years to break the Taliban grip there.
Now Zad used to be one of the largest towns in Helmand, the center of Afghanistan's lucrative opium poppy growing industry.
However, three years of fighting have chased away Now Zad's 30,000 inhabitants, leaving the once-thriving market and commercial area a ghost town. Instead the area has become a major supply and transportation hub for Taliban forces that use the valley to move drugs, weapons and fighters south toward major populations and to provinces in western Afghanistan.
British troops who were once stationed there left graffiti dubbing the town "Apocalypse Now-Zad," a play on the title of the 1979 Vietnam War movie "Apocalypse Now." The British base was nearly overrun on several occasions, with insurgents coming within yards (meters) of the protection wall. The area was handed over in 2008 to the Marines, who have struggled to reclaim much of the valley.
In August, the Marines launched their first large-scale offensive in the barren, wind-swept valley, which is surrounded by steep cliffs with dozens of caves providing cover to Taliban units.
Although only about 100 hardline insurgents are believed to operate in the area, their positions are so strong that a fixed front line runs just a few hundred yards (meters) north of the Marines' base, according to Associated Press reporters who were with the Marines there last summer.
Elsewhere in Helmand, the leader of Britain's opposition Conservative Party warned that NATO had one "last chance" to succeed in Afghanistan and that patience was running out in countries that have provided troops to the NATO-led mission.
"We can't be here for another eight years," David Cameron told the British Broadcasting Corp. after touring a public market in Nad Ali, well south of Friday's fighting. "I think following President Obama's speech and the increase in American and British forces we have a chance, probably our last chance, to get it right, but we do have a chance."
In London, the Sun newspaper said the son of the Helmand governor is seeking asylum in Britain because of fears for his safety.
The newspaper said Barai Mangal, 25, applied for sanctuary in Britain at an immigration office in Liverpool in July. Britain's Home Office declined to discuss the asylum application.
His father, Gov. Gulab Mangal, would not confirm the report but told The Associated Press on Friday that his son was the target of an attempted kidnapping last summer.
"I have an armored car, I have security guards, but my family has no such possibility of security," the governor said.
0:25, an Abrams, but it does look like it's missing a barrel. I guess that's the "assault breaching vehicle" that was mentioned in the vid. And yeah, there is a Leo in there too, probably Danish.
KABUL - U.S. Marines and Afghan troops, conducting the first offensive since the new American war plan was announced, met little resistance from insurgents Saturday as they worked to disrupt Taliban supply and communications lines in a key valley in southern Afghanistan.
About 1,000 Marines and 150 Afghan troops are taking part in "Operation Cobra's Anger" in the Now Zad Valley of Helmand province, the scene of heavy fighting last summer.
On Friday, helicopters and MV-22 Osprey aircraft dropped hundreds of troops behind Taliban lines in the northern end of the valley in the first offensive since President Barack Obama announced a troop buildup. A second, larger Marine force pushed northward from the Marines' main base.
"We're not taking for granted the low level of contact," Marine spokesman Maj. William Pelletier said Saturday. "Just because it's quiet now doesn't mean it will be in 24 hours. Part of the operation is to have a disruptive effect on the Taliban resupply activities. The Marines and Afghan forces are continuing the clearing operation, continuing to move through the valley."
No casualties have been reported by U.S. or Afghan military authorities. A statement from the Afghan Defense Ministry said four militants have been killed and two others arrested. It said that troops confiscated one 82 mm mortar, 200 mines and 220 pounds (100 kilograms) of explosives.
The offensive is taking place in an area where the U.S.-led NATO force has been trying for years to break the Taliban's grip. The barren, wind-swept Now Zad valley is surrounded by steep cliffs with dozens of caves that provide cover to Taliban units.
Now Zad used to be one of the largest towns in Helmand, the center of Afghanistan's lucrative opium poppy growing industry. Three years of fighting have chased away its 30,000 inhabitants, leaving the once-thriving market and commercial area a near ghost town. Instead, the area has become a major supply and transportation hub for Taliban forces that use the valley to move drugs, weapons and fighters south toward major populations and to provinces in western Afghanistan.
David Petraeus, the top general in charge of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, told The Associated Press on Friday that the offensive was part of preparations for the arrival of 30,000 new U.S. reinforcements. Petraeus said the military has been working for months to extend what he called "the envelope of security" around key towns in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
In addition to the new U.S. troops, America's European allies will send an estimated 7,000 more troops to Afghanistan next year "with more to come," NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced Friday. Most of the new troops are expected to be sent to southern Afghanistan, including Helmand, where Taliban influence is strongest.
Back in August, U.S. forces launched "Operation Eastern Resolve II" in the Now Zad Valley to help provide security for the Afghan presidential elections and disrupt enemy activity in the valley, Pelletier said, adding that this new offensive was launched before the additional forces are to arrive because military officials thought it was the best time to try to disrupt the Taliban resupply lines and the militants' freedom of movement in the area.
"`When next?' is the question we want the Taliban to ask themselves every day throughout our entire area of operations," Pelletier said. "We have sufficient forces to clear this area, especially when you consider that our number of Afghan partners has almost quadrupled since July ... so we felt this was a mission we could do without additional troops and without stretching our forces too thin."
The Afghan government has approved a new seventh corps of the Afghan National Army - Corps 215 Maiwand - to be based in the Helmand capital of Lashkar Gah where the first fresh U.S. troops are expected to arrive. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said the Afghans have vowed to deploy 5,000 members of the new Afghan army corps to Helmand, to be partnered by British troops next year.
Pelletier said it was the first time the Osprey - an aircraft that combines features of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft - has been used in a combat assault support role at this level of operation. It also was the debut of the assault breacher, a tracked armored vehicle with a mine plow on the front that can shoot line charges used to create a safe corridor through the area, known as "IED Alley" because of the huge number of roadside bombs and land mines, Pelletier said.
Roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, and mines have become the biggest killer of American troops in Afghanistan.
Separately, three Taliban militants were killed Friday during a gunbattle with Afghan National Police at a checkpoint in Nimroz province, provincial Gov. Ghulam Dastagir Azad said Saturday. Five other militants and five policemen were wounded in the clash in the Khash Rod district. The battle started after the Taliban fighters attacked the checkpoint with mortars and machine guns, he said.
Also, NATO reported that a joint Afghan-international security force detained a handful of militants Saturday in Logar province, including an individual linked to senior leadership in the province who allegedly was helping militants move and train in the area.
The joint security force targeted a compound near the village of Sejawand in the Baraki Barak district of Logar in eastern Afghanistan and recovered AK-47 rifles, pistols, fragmentation grenades and chest racks fully loaded with AK-47 magazines, NATO said.
Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez contributed to this report.
By DEB RIECHMANN Associated Press Writer