Largest Push Against Taliban Since the 2001 Invasion

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Update: See also U.S., Afghan forces begin assault in Helmand Provincey—C. J. CHIVERS and DEXTER FILKINS; MARJA, Afghanistan — Thousands of American, Afghan and British troops attacked the watery Taliban fortress of Marja early Saturday, moving on foot, in trucks and through the air to destroy the insurgency’s largest haven and begin a campaign to reassert the dominance of the Afghan government in a large swath of southern Afghanistan.

The force of about 6,000 Marines and soldiers — a majority of them Afghan — began moving into the city and environs before dawn.

As Marines and soldiers marched into the area, several hundred more swooped out of the sky in helicopters into Marja itself. There did not appear to be any resistance, although a ground assault with more soldiers concentrated within the city was expected to begin within hours.

“The message for the Taliban is: It will be easy, or it will be hard, but we are coming,” Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the commander of the United States Marines in Helmand Province, told the men of Company K, Third Battalion, Sixth Marines before the operation began. “At the end of the day, the Afghan flag will be over Marja.”

The operation, dubbed Moshtrarak , which means “together” in Dari, is the largest offensive military operation since the American-led coalition invaded the country in 2001. Its aim to flush the Taliban out of a huge area — about 75 square miles — where insurgents have been staging attacks, building bombs and processing the opium that pays for their war.

Outside of Pakistan, Marja, a town of about 80,000 residents, stands as the Taliban’s largest sanctuary, until now a virtual no-go zone for American, British and Afghan troops. The Taliban have been firmly entrenched there for about three years.

Moreover, the invasion of Marja is a crucial piece of a larger campaign to secure a 200-mile arc that would bisect the major cities in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces, where the Taliban are the strongest. That campaign, which is expected to last months, is designed to reverse the Taliban’s momentum, which has accelerated over the past several years.

The best measure of that momentum: The 520 American and NATO troops killed in Afghanistan in 2009 were the most since the war began.

The American, Afghan and British troops began moving into Marja before first light, making their way through a broad, flat area crisscrossed by irrigation canals and scattered with opium factories as well as, in all likelihood, several hundred hidden bombs.

American and Afghan commanders said they expected the heavy fighting to be over in a number of days. At that point, the commanders say, the overriding purpose of the campaign will take shape, when they bring in a fully formed Afghan government and security force that can hold the city so that the Taliban cannot return.

For all the speed with which they are hoping to move, American and Afghan officers say they are worried that homemade bombs — hidden on roads, footpaths and in houses — could slow them down. Those bombs, though rudimentary, are often extraordinarily powerful, and they are now the primary killer of American and NATO soldiers here.

Several hundred Taliban fighters are believed to be inside the city as well, which could make for a close and bloody fight. Despite that, the NATO and Afghan attackers appear to enjoy a huge numerical advantage—possibly more than 10 to 1.

The assault came as a surprise to no one. American commanders and Afghan officials have said publicly for weeks that an invasion of Marja was imminent, in an effort to chase away as many Taliban fighters as possible and keep the fighting, and civilian casualties, to a minimum. The hope is to win the support of local residents, even at the expense of letting Taliban get away.

Indeed, the American and Afghan troops moving into the city are setting for themselves a very high — and possibly difficult—standard. They have urged the Afghans to stay in their homes rather than flee the city. But that could make it difficult to avoid killing at least some noncombatants.

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