Marines Launch New Offensive in Afghanistan's Helmand Province

Offensive aims to "cut off enemy supply and communications lines."

December 4, 2009, 12:21 AM

NOW ZAD, Afghanistan, Dec. 4, 2009 — -- Marines are trying to make good on President Obama's promise to "reverse Taliban momentum" in southern Afghanistan, launching with the first major offensive since the president spoke about his Afghanistan plans Tuesday night.

In the early morning hours, arriving by helicopter and V22 Osprey aircraft, approximately 300 Marines from Kilo Company of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines and the Marine recon unit Task Force Raider, dropped into a strategically important area in northern Helmand Province.

This is the first time the Osprey tilt-wing aircraft have been used in an offensive in Afghanistan.

The commander of the operation dubbed "Cobra's Anger," Lt. Col. Martin Wetterauer, said two Marines units dropped into two areas at 3 a.m. on Friday morning. The focus of the operation is to "cut off enemy supply and communications lines to the north."

So far, Wetterauer said, three insurgents have been killed after he said they were caught placing bombs in a road.

The Marine units dropped into two areas -- one just north of the once-bustling city of Now Zad and the small town further north called Kenjake Sofla. Both are places where Marines believe several Taliban insurgents operate.

Initially, the Marines have faced little opposition, Wetterauer said.

For the last four years, Marines and British forces have battled the Taliban in the area.

Because of the fighting, Now Zad, the second-largest city in Helmand Province, which once had a population of 30,000, has been reduced to a ghost town. Only members of the Taliban and their sympathizers remain.

In building defenses against the Marines, Taliban fighters have planted thousands of homemade bombs and dug in positions throughout the valley at the foot of the craggy Tangee Mountains.

Homemade bombs, or improvised explosive devices, may be the gravest threat Marines face in the area. The bombs, coming in just about every size and shape, are used to create minefields, a defense against Marines and booby traps throughout the city.

Dodging Danger in 'No Leg Alley'

One area of town is so heavily mined, Marines refer to it as "no leg alley." Since 2005 several Marines have lost limbs there because of small bombs planted apparently not to kill, but to maim.

The principle tactic of Taliban forces in the area is to injure at least one Marine using an IED placed in a wall, doorway or path, and then to draw in more Marines who try to extricate the injured.

To the frustration of the Marines, it's a tactic that has some success. In October, one Marine was killed and eight others were injured after their MRAP hit an IED. After dismounting, they began taking small arms and indirect fire from insurgents.

All the casualties occurred after the Marines dismounted from the vehicle and encountered several secondary IEDs. What started as a routine engagement turned into a 10-hour firefight.

In keeping with President Obama's plan to "reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government," Marines want to squeeze the Taliban in the area by shutting down lines of communication and routes through which fighters and weapons move.