US-led NATO troops launched a crucial offensive on Saturday against the Talibanââ‚¬â„¢s last big stronghold in Afghanistanââ‚¬â„¢s most violent province and were quickly thrown into a firefight with the militants.
The assault is a test of President Barack Obamaââ‚¬â„¢s ordered ââ‚¬Å“surgeââ‚¬ of extra troops to Afghanistan in December and the start of a campaign to impose government control on rebel-held areas this year, before US forces start to withdraw in 2011.
Within hours of the operation getting underway, US Marines battled Taliban militants in Marjah, in Helmand Province in the south.
Three US soldiers died after a roadside bomb attack in southern Afghanistan on Saturday, NATO said in a statement. It was not clear whether they were killed during the offensive.
Like civilians in the district of up to 100,000 people, the Marines face the risk of being blown up by scores of booby traps the Taliban are believed to have rigged.
Marines engaged in a firefight with the Taliban after the US troops landed in helicopters near the town. They fired at least four rockets at militants who attacked from compounds.
At least one Marine was wounded by shrapnel.
More than two hours later, the area was still gripped by the firefight, with the Marines firing another large rocket. One family of civilians nearby was huddled in a room of their house, with the washing flapping on the line outside.
The first objective of US Marines was to take over the town center, a large cluster of dwellings.
The safety of civilians may be the big issue in the NATO drive against the Taliban, which re-emerged as a fighting force since being toppled by a US-led invasion in 2001. Heavy casualties may ruin the Afghan governmentââ‚¬â„¢s chance of gaining more support.
NATO forces have advised civilians not to leave their homes, though it is uncertain how heavy the fighting will get.
ââ‚¬Å“The international forces must adopt certain procedures and mechanism during operation in Marjah to protect civilians,ââ‚¬ Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in a statement.
The offensive began with waves of helicopters ferrying US Marines into the city in the early morning hours. British troops then flew into the northern part of the surrounding Nad Ali district, followed by tanks and combat engineering units.
ââ‚¬Å“The first phase of the operation is proceeding very successfully. The Taliban have heavily booby-trapped the area, but there has not been any fierce fighting yet,ââ‚¬ Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal told a news conference.
ââ‚¬Å“We have seized 11 key locations in the district and the resistance from the insurgents has been subdued.ââ‚¬
15,000 troops in operation
The 15,000-troop operation was named Mushtarak, or together, perhaps to highlight that NATO and Afghan forces are determined to work closely to bring stability to Afghanistan.
Much of whether the apparent early success can translate into a more permanent solution to militancy may depend on whether the government can ensure long-term political and economic stability.
It is also essential that Afghan troops become effective enough, on their own, to keep militants outside of areas they previously controlled.
US Marines called in two Harrier jets which flew over a Taliban position and unleashed machinegun fire.
ââ‚¬Å“We are currently moving to seize our objective. We have been in contact for five hours from the southwest, north and east and we are moving to push to finish securing the areas of insurgents still,ââ‚¬ Lt. Mark Greenlief told Reuters.
ââ‚¬Å“Hopefully in the next few days the people will reap the benefits of security and stability from the ANA (Afghan National Army) and the Marines.ââ‚¬
Marjah has long been a breeding ground for insurgents and lucrative opium poppy cultivation. Residents may not be keen for any upheaval. Western countries say poppy trade funds the insurgency against NATO troops and the Afghan government.
Even if NATO deals a heavy blow to the Taliban, there are other complicating factors. Militants on the top of the US hit list operate from sanctuaries in border areas in Pakistan.
The US ally is reluctant to pursue them as they see the militants as assets to counter the influence of rival India in Afghanistan, so offensives may produce limited results.
Decades ago, the Marjah area was home to an Afghan-American development project. Its canals, which criss-cross lush farmland, were built by the Americans. Now NATO is trying to recapture it from militants unlikely to contemplate cooperation with the West.
A local Taliban commander, Qari Fazluddin, told Reuters earlier some 2,000 fighters were ready to fight.
ââ‚¬Å“All the walls between the streets and houses are surrounded by bombs. Most people have gone to Lashkar Gah. Thatââ‚¬â„¢s where we want to go today,ââ‚¬ resident Abdel Aziz, 16, told the Marines through a translator.
Soon after, an elderly woman emerged from her house and asked Marines not to fire at it. ââ‚¬Å“This is just my house,ââ‚¬ she said.