Image: Marines set up to return fire
Joe Raedle  /  Getty Images
U.S. Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, RCT 2nd Battalion 8th Marines Echo Company look to return fire during the start of Operation Khanjar on Thursday in Main Poshteh, Afghanistan.
msnbc.com news services
updated 7/2/2009 12:48:07 PM ET 2009-07-02T16:48:07

U.S. Marines suffered their first casualties of a massive new military campaign Thursday as they engaged in sporadic gunbattles along 55 miles of Taliban-controlled heartland in southern Afghanistan.

One Marine was killed and several others were injured or wounded on the first full day of the assault, the largest military operation in Afghanistan since the fall of Taliban government in 2001.

The offensive will test the Obama administration's new strategy of holding territory and letting the Afghan government sink roots in Helmand province. The insurgency has proven particularly resilient in this area, where foreign troops have never before operated in such large numbers.

President Barack Obama told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday that he has a "very narrow definition of success when it comes to our national security interests" in the region. "And that is that al-Qaida and its affiliates cannot set up safe havens from which to attack Americans."

"I think we can measure it by whether or not they've got training camps where people are coming in and getting trained in explosives, being sent out and directed in carrying out terrorist activity," Obama said in Washington.

An immediate goal, the military says, is to clear away insurgents before the nation's Aug. 20 presidential election. Southern Afghanistan is a Taliban stronghold but also a region where Afghan President Hamid Karzai is seeking votes from fellow Pashtun tribesmen. Without such a large Marine assault, the Afghan government would likely not be able to set up voting booths to which citizens could safely travel.

In swiftly seizing the valley and holding ground there, U.S. commanders hope to accomplish within hours what overstretched NATO troops had failed to achieve over several years, and help secure Afghanistan for an August 20 presidential election after years of stalemate.

'Go big, go strong'
"The intent is to go big, go strong and go fast, and by doing so we are going to save lives on both sides," Brigadier-General Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marines in southern Afghanistan, told his staff before the operation.

The offensive was launched shortly after 1 a.m. Thursday local time (4:30 p.m. ET Wednesday). Thousands of Marines poured from helicopters and armored vehicles into Taliban-controlled villages in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold and the world's largest opium poppy-producing area.

The Marines 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.

Some Marines said they anticipated violence would rise in the days ahead.

"I expect we are going to see enemy pretty soon," said Capt. Junwei Sun, commander of a unit which moved into the village of Sorkhdoz, where old men crouched in clusters on the road, worrying prayer beads and observing the Marines.

"You come in pretty heavy, with helicopters and stuff, they do not want to test us. But I expect once we settle down they will try something," Sun said.

"It's always like that. The calm before the storm. Then we take care of the storm."

Officials described the offensive as the largest and fastest-moving of the war's new phase and the biggest Marine assault since the one in Fallujah, Iraq, 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," Nicholson said in a statement.

Border sealed, Pakistan vows
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.

Slideshow: On the front lines 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, N.Y.

"We are kind of forging new ground here. We are going to a place nobody has been before," said Schoenmaker, who commands Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.

Several hundred Marines took positions in a freshly plowed dirt field at 3 a.m. The soft, deep dirt proved challenging for troops weighed down with days' worth of water, food and gear, and many frequently stumbled.

At daybreak the Marines walked along tree lines, and at 6:15 a.m. the company took its first incoming fire, likely from an AK-47 along a tree-line. The next three hours brought repeated bursts of gunfire and volleys of rocket-propelled grenades, sending deep booms across the countryside.

A small force of Afghan soldiers accompanying the Camp Pendleton-based Marines got into several scraps with an insurgent force of about 20 fighters. The fire came from a mud-brick compound, and the Marines, the Afghan soldiers and their British advisers surrounded the compound on the east and the south.

Afghan civilians kept their distance, sitting in the shade under trees by the side of the road as armored convoys rumbled past and helicopters kicked up swirling clouds of dust.

One company commander said he was looking forward to meeting village leaders in the evening. Orders went out to set up shuras, or community councils, within 24 hours of arriving in a village.

'Tactical patience' strategy
Before the mission, Schoenmaker, the company commander, said he would practice "tactical patience" as a way to avoid civilian casualties — an issue newly arrived Gen. Stanley McChrystal has underscored in recent weeks. Though troops in many similar circumstances have called in airstrikes on such a militant-controlled compound, Schoenmaker did not.

"We made the decision to isolate the compound and not destroy it because we couldn't confirm if civilians were inside," he said. The militants were believed to have escaped out the back.

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.

Helmand's deadly heat, well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, proved to be another enemy the Marines had to fight. Because soldiers were on foot, they had to carry all their own water and food. Forward observers and snipers spent the entire day under the cloudless sky.

"It's like when you open up the oven when you're cooking a pizza and you want to see if it's done. You get that blast of hot air. That's how it feels the whole time," said Lance Corp. Charlie Duggan Jr., 21, of Baldwinsville, N.Y.

In the capital Kabul, Afghans accustomed to war over the past 30 years watched the operation play out on television screens. Many were skeptical about its chances for success.

"In my opinion these operations won't have any good result. The only thing that will give a good result will be peace talks, talks with the Taliban," Wahdat Khan, a 23-year-old from Helmand, told Reuters television.

Amirollah, from Jalalabad, was blunt in his assessment.

"They haven't come here for Afghans or to take their hand and give them peace," Amirollah, 45, said of the Americans.

But Mustafa, a 22-year-old student, disagreed. "Everybody is happy about this offensive because these people (the Taliban) are creating violence and they are destroying people's homes. They should launch such offensives in different parts of the country."

U.S. troops to double
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.

While Marine troops were the bulk of the force, recently arrived U.S. Army helicopters were also taking part in the operation.

Even bigger challenges, perhaps, will come in the weeks and months after the Marines have established their presence here.

The U.S. will have an opportunity to help develop alternate livelihoods for farmers whose opium poppy crops bankroll the Taliban. Helmand province is the world's largest opium poppy-producing area.

Obama told the AP he wants to help ensure that Afghans "are benefiting from development and improved agricultural systems and education systems and health care systems."

He also said Washington and its allies must build up the Afghan national army and police and help Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan secure their common border.

"The benchmarks of success that we've laid out are: Are we building an Afghan national army and police structure that can secure itself without the assistance of NATO forces or U.S. forces? Is Pakistan able to maintain its borders so that al-Qaida or affiliates aren't operating there?" Obama said.

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.

Thousands of British forces, fighting under NATO command, have been in Helmand since 2006 with broadly the same strategy, but security has deteriorated. They have encountered stronger resistance than had been expected from Taliban fighters bankrolled by the vast opium and heroin trade.

Reversing the insurgency's momentum has been a key component of the new U.S. strategy, and thousands of additional troops allow commanders to push into and stay in areas where international and Afghan troops had no permanent presence.

Pakistan is key player
In March, Obama unveiled his strategy for Afghanistan, seeking to defeat al-Qaida terrorists there and in Pakistan with a bigger force and a new commander. Taliban and other extremists, including those allied with al-Qaida, routinely cross the two nations' border in Afghanistan's remote south.

Last year, NATO and Pakistani forces cooperated in a series of complementary operations on the border, but the overall commitment of Islamabad to Washington's aims in Afghanistan has long been questioned. Pakistan has frequently been accused in the past of failing to stop — and sometimes aiding — the movement of insurgents into Afghanistan from its side of the border.

There is no timetable for withdrawal, and the White House has not estimated how many billions of dollars its plan will cost.

Elsewhere, the U.S. military announced that insurgents were believed to have captured an American soldier missing in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday. The missing soldier was not involved in Operation Khanjar, or "Strike of the Sword," under way in southern Afghanistan.

More on Afghanistan | NATO

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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