Thousands of U.S. Marines poured from helicopters and armored vehicles into Taliban-controlled villages in southern Afghanistan on Thursday in the first major operation under President Obama's strategy to stabilize the country.
The offensive was launched shortly after 4:30 p.m. EDT Wednesday in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold and the world's largest opium poppy-producing area. The goal is to clear insurgents from the hotly contested region before the nation's Aug. 20 presidential election.
The Marines have not suffered any serious casualties and have seen only a sporadic resistance, said Lt. Abe Sipe, a spokesman for the unit.
"The enemy has chosen to withdraw rather than engage for the most part," Sipe said. "We had a couple of heat casualties, but not deemed serious in nature at this time."
The operation came as U.S. military announced that one of its soldiers was missing and believed captured by insurgents in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday. The missing soldier was not involved in the Helmand operation.
Officials described the offensive — dubbed Khanjar or "Strike of the Sword" — as the largest and fastest-moving of the war's new phase and the biggest Marine offensive since one in the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004. It involves nearly 4,000 newly arrived Marines plus 650 Afghan forces. British forces last week led similar, but smaller, missions to clear out insurgents in Helmand and neighboring Kandahar province.
"Where we go, we will stay. And where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces," Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson said in a statement.
Pakistan's army said it had moved troops from elsewhere on its side of the Afghan border to the stretch opposite Helmand to try to stop any militants from fleeing the offensive. It gave no more details, but U.S. and Pakistani officials have expressed concern that stepped-up operations in southern Afghanistan could push the insurgents across the border.
Transport helicopters carried hundreds of Marines into the village of Nawa, some 20 miles south of the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, in a region where no U.S. or other NATO troops have operated in large numbers.
The troops took many insurgents by surprise, dropping behind Taliban lines, said Capt. Drew Schoenmaker, from Greene, New York.
"We are kind of forging new ground here. We are going to a place nobody has been before," said Schoenmaker, 31, who commands Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.
Daybreak brought the sporadic crackle of gunfire. Medical helicopters circled overhead and landed, indicating possible early casualties among the Marines.
A Marine unit in Nawa traded gunfire with a group of some 20 insurgents, while Afghan troops exchanged small arms fire with militants after they were attacked with rocket propelled grenades fired from several houses. A Cobra helicopter circling overhead for most of the day fired rockets at a tree line nearby. Other troops walked through fields of corn and past mud-wall homes. Only a handful of villagers dared to venture outside.
A roadside bomb early in the mission wounded one Marine, but he was able to continue, spokesman Capt. Bill Pelletier said.
Southern Afghanistan is a Taliban stronghold but also a region where Afghan President Hamid Karzai is seeking votes from fellow Pashtun tribesmen.
The Pentagon is deploying 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in time for the elections and expects the total number of U.S. forces there to reach 68,000 by year's end. That is double the number of troops in Afghanistan in 2008 but still half as many as are now in Iraq.
The Taliban, who took control of Afghanistan in 1996 and were ousted from power following a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, have made a violent comeback, wreaking havoc in much of the country's south and east, forcing the United States to pour in the new troops.
Pelletier said troops in Thursday's operation were sent in by a mixture of aircraft and ground transport under the cover of darkness.
The operation aims to show "the Afghan people that when we come in, we are going to stay long enough to set up their own institutions," Pelletier said.
Once on the ground, the troops will meet with local leaders, hear their needs and act on them, Pelletier said.
"We do not want people of Helmand province to see us as an enemy. We want to protect them from the enemy," Pelletier said.
This program aired on July 2, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.