KABUL, Feb 13, (AFP) - Thousands of US-led troops today launched the first major offensive against Taliban insurgents since US President Barack Obama began sending more troops to Afghanistan, NATO said.
For the first time, Afghan soldiers are involved shoulder-to-shoulder with the international troops at the tip of the spear as they bring their fight to insurgents holding sway over the Marjah district of Helmand province.
“The Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan announced today that key military 'clearing' operations for Operation Mushtarak have begun in central Helmand,” NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said.
“These 'clearing' operations follow the smaller-scaled 'shaping' operations that have helped set the conditions for this new phase of operations,” it said, referring to weeks of build-up and skirmishes with militants in the area.
US Marines are leading a combined force of 15,000, ISAF said, in Operation Mushtarak, meaning “together” in Dari, an assault aimed at undermining Taliban control over one of the world's biggest opium-producing regions.
Mushtarak is the first phase of a major operation to re-establish Afghan government control over the region.
Helmand Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal said earlier this week that a government-in-waiting is poised to move in behind the military operation to set up civil services, including police and security.
The goal of the operation is to assist the Afghan government “in asserting its authority in central Helmand, thereby demonstrating the Afghan government's commitment to the people living there,” the ISAF statement said.
The operation, described as the biggest military assault in Afghanistan since the war began more than eight years ago, got under way soon after midnight (1930 GMT), backed by NATO air support.It comes after Obama announced in December a surge of 30,000 US troops, many of whom will be deployed to the troubled south where the insurgency is at its hottest, supplementing the 113,000 foreign troops already in the country.