U.S. Marines and Afghan troops have killed at least seven Taliban fighters during the first U.S.-led offensive since President Barack Obama announced a new American war plan this week, Afghan officials said Saturday.
American and Afghan troops have met little resistance since Operation Cobra's Anger was launched Friday to disrupt Taliban supply and communications lines in the strategic Now Zad Valley of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, Marine officials said.
About 1,000 Marines and British soldiers, as well as 150 Afghan troops, are taking part in the offensive, including hundreds of Marines dropped behind Taliban lines by helicopters and MV-22 Osprey aircraft. A second, larger Marine force pushed northward from the Marines' main base.
"We're not taking for granted the low level of contact," Marine spokesman Maj. William Pelletier said Saturday. "Just because it's quiet now doesn't mean it will be in 24 hours. Part of the operation is to have a disruptive effect on the Taliban resupply activities. The Marines and Afghan forces are continuing the clearing operation, continuing to move through the valley."
"Among other things found yesterday evening ... two or three weapons caches and IED-making materials, mortars, small arms machine guns and light weapons were seized," he said. "The operation is continuing today in an area that had an enemy presence. We are going to disrupt that presence."
No coalition casualties have been reported. Daood Ahmadi, spokesman for the governor of Helmand province, said 11 Taliban fighters have been killed and five captured. The Afghan Defense Ministry said seven militants were killed and two captured.
Extending 'envelope of security' Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. general in charge of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, told The Associated Press on Friday that the offensive was part of preparations for the arrival of 30,000 new U.S. reinforcements. Petraeus said the military has been working for months to extend what he called "the envelope of security" around key towns in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
Now Zad was one of the largest towns in Helmand until fighting drove away the 30,000 inhabitants. Now the area is 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.
Back in August, U.S. forces launched "Operation Eastern Resolve II" in the Now Zad Valley to help provide security for the Afghan presidential elections and disrupt enemy activity in the area. Pelletier said the latest offensive was launched before the reinforcements arrive because it was the best time to limit the militants' freedom of movement in the area.
"We have sufficient forces to clear this area, especially when you consider that our number of Afghan partners has almost quadrupled since July," Pelletier said. "So we felt this was a mission we could do without additional troops and without stretching our forces too thin."
British forces were flanking the Marines to the eastern side of the battle area, a spokesman for the British military in Helmand said, declining to say how many British troops were involved for operational security reasons.
The first contingent of a 9,000-strong Marine Expeditionary Brigade is arriving in Afghanistan in the next two to three weeks, scheduled to replace the Marine brigade now based in Helmand.
New Afghan army corps approved
The Afghan government has approved a new seventh corps of the Afghan National Army — Corps 215 Maiwand — to be based in the Helmand capital of Lashkar Gah where the first fresh U.S. troops are expected to arrive. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said the Afghans have vowed to deploy 5,000 members of the new Afghan army corps to Helmand, to be partnered by British troops next year.
Elsewhere, three Taliban militants were killed Friday during a gunbattle with Afghan National Police at a checkpoint in Nimroz province, provincial Gov. Ghulam Dastagir Azad said Saturday. Five other militants and five policemen were wounded in the clash in the Khash Rod district. The battle started after the Taliban fighters attacked the checkpoint with mortars and machine guns, he said.
NATO reported that a joint Afghan-international security force detained a handful of militants Saturday in Logar province, including an individual linked to senior leadership in the province who allegedly was helping militants move and train in the area.
The joint security force targeted a compound near the village of Sejawand in the Baraki Barak district of Logar in eastern Afghanistan and recovered AK-47 rifles, pistols, fragmentation grenades and chest racks fully loaded with AK-47 magazines, NATO said.