LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) – British troops have launched helicopter advances in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province to prepare the battlefield for a major NATO operation, the British military said on Friday.
The British operations were the first confirmation that small-scale military activity has already begun ahead of an expected massive assault on the town of Marjah, a warren of desert canals that U.S. Marines say they intend to seize soon.
That assault is expected to be one of the biggest of the eight-year-old war and a decisive test of U.S. President Barack Obama’s new strategy of dispatching 30,000 extra troops to turn the tide on the battlefield.
British and Afghan troops were carrying out “shaping operations” in Helmand’s Nad Ali district as part of an initial phase of Operation Moshtarak, or “together”, a large assault which will seize the entire district, the British military said.
Nad Ali includes Marjah, which the U.S. Marines describe as the last major Taliban-held bastion in the center of the province, Afghanistan’s most violent region, which produces most of its illegal opium crop that helps fund the insurgency.
The assault on Marjah will be the first operation to employ the new reinforcements sent by Obama at the end of last year.
A Taliban commander reached by satellite phone said guerrillas in the town will “stand and fight against foreign troops and their Afghan slaves”.
“We know they are preparing to attack the mujahideen in thousands, but we are not afraid. Let them come. They will meet the fate of others we have already sent to hell,” said the commander, Qari Fazluddin, who said he was inside the town.
NATO commanders say they intend to reverse momentum this year on an insurgency that has grown far stronger and more deadly in recent years. Obama has said he plans to begin drawing down forces in mid-2011, making progress this year crucial.
The Americans have made no secret of their plans for the assault on Marjah, in the hope that publicizing it widely ahead of time will convince less-committed fighters to run away, and minimize fighting.
The tactic is part of the counter-insurgency strategy of the U.S. and NATO commander, General Stanley McChrystal, which emphasizes securing population centres and avoiding combat in built-up areas whenever possible.
British troops have been conducting “shaping operations” for a few weeks in the district, and launched fresh helicopter and ground advances in the past 36 hours, military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel David Wakefield said in a statement.
“The operations which have been taking place in the British area of Nad Ali District over the last 36 hours have been part of that same series of ‘shaping operations’, all part of Op (operation) Moshtarak,” he said.
“They have been commanded jointly by Afghan and British commanders and have involved insertions by helicopter and ground of Afghan and British troops to locations to the west of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah,” he said.
Marjah sits near the dividing line between the northern part of the province, patrolled by a nearly 10,000-strong British-led NATO contingent, and the southern areas patrolled by the U.S. Marines, who mainly arrived last year and now number some 15,000.
U.S. commanders say the operation to seize Marjah will be backed by a larger Afghan contingent than ever before, in an effort to demonstrate the Afghan government’s ability to take part in enforcing its own security.