Nearly 8,000 U.S. and Afghan forces launched a well telegraphed offensive today to take back control of the central Helmand city of Marja, the military has confirmed.
U.S. Marines quickly moved to the outskirts of the city in the opening moments of the assault where heavy machine gun fire could be heard. Helicopters flew overhead and several missiles were seen launched towards the city, including one that targeted a group of people who were apparently planting a roadside bomb.
The immediate goal of the offensive, dubbed Operation Moshtarak is to seize Marja and the surrounding district of Nad-e Ali, home to as many as 125,000 civilians. It is suspected that anywhere from 400 to 1,000 hardcore insurgents are holed up in a town essentially run and controlled by the Taliban.
The offensive kicked off after the U.S. widely advertised that it was gearing up for an attack on the Taliban holding Marja, a tactic that allowed the Taliban to prepare for the attack, but also allowed civilians -- and possibly the Taliban to get out of the way.
"We hope the Taliban will disappear into their living rooms. We'd be okay with that," said one U.S. official involved in the planning.
Gen. Sher Mohammed Zazai, the Afghan National Army southern commander, said that Marja is a very important place for the Taliban. In addition to being their last biggest stronghold in the country, it is an area where vast quantities of poppies are grown and processed into opium, some of the profit of which funds the Taliban's shadow government and insurgent activities.
Establishing control over Marja will give Marines total control of central Helmand Province, home to some 750,000 people, and shut down Taliban supply and smuggling routes. It will also mean that for the first time, Marines or international forces will be in every major population center throughout Helmand, a key part of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy.
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In the days before the assault was launched, a shura or meeting of Marja elders was held outside the city that was attended by 450 town leaders. They asked that Afghan troops be in the forefront of the fight.
The tribal chiefs and elders also asked that the attackers limit air strikes to minimize civilian casualties and after taking over the city that forces stay in the area to provide a stable government and services.
The Afghan troops prepared for the battle alongside the 4,000 U.S. Marines who led the charge into Marja. An official in Afghanistan said in the hours before the offensive began that the latest fad among the Afghan troops is Marine-style haircuts.
"There is quite the trend for Marine haircuts with the Afghan soldiers going on now," the official said.
In addition to the 8,000 ground forces directly involved in the fight, there are another 7,000 troops supporting the mission, making it one of the largest operations since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Troops involved in the push include those from Britain, France, Canada and Estonia.
Operation Moshtarak, or Joint Operation, will also see the most Afghan soldiers and police ever fielded in battle. About 60 percent of the troops involved in the push are Afghans, officials said.