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.