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New chapter in fight for Afghanistan

By Jonathan Miller

Updated on 02 July 2009

The biggest military offensive of Barack Obama's presidency is launched, with thousands of US marines pouring into Taliban controlled villages in Afghanistan's Helmand province.

US marine in Afghanistan (Getty)

Their aim is to seize the entire valley - something British and NATO forces have not managed in three years.

Over 4,000 marines, backed by helicopter gunships, are pushing into southern Helmand province in a bid to crush Taliban fighters.

Pakistan's army has said it has moved troops to its border with Helmand to stop militants fleeing the US offensive.
Taliban militants in eastern Afghanistan also said they'd captured an American soldier, and the British army also mourned two soldiers killed in Helmand yesterday.

The offensive started at 1am local time, when wave upon wave of helicopters moved the US Marine Expeditionary Brigade through the pre-dawn darkness to locations throughout the fertile Helmand Valley. 

Their commander said "the intent is to go big, go strong and got fast". With that they fanned out through the poppy fields that are the financial lifeblood of the insurgency and the source of 90 per cent of the heroin on British streets.

What was billed as the aggressive first phase of Operation Strike of the Sword went off without any major engagements.

The number of US soldiers in Afghanistan is more than doubling this year, from 32,000 in January to nearly 70,000 by December. Many of them have been diverted from Iraq. Of the 10,000 marines in Helmand Province, 8,500 arrived in the past two  months as part of Obama's surge.

The American objective is to seize the entire lower Helmand river valley, with key targets being the Taliban strongholds of Nawa and Garmsir. British operations will remain focused in central Helmand around the regional capital Lashkar Gah.

Holding territory is notoriously harder than taking it, and the success of this operation will be judged less in military terms than by whether ordinary Afghans will be able to register and then vote in the presidential election in August.

Britain's 8,000-odd troops in Helmand have been too overstretched to get everywhere and British troops have been too thin on the ground in Helmand to hold territory they have captured for long. They have had to take the town of Musa Qala three times.

On a day when two more British soldiers were killed in Helmand, bringing total fatalities to 171, the British Army has had to take a back seat as the Americans surge in.

The Taliban have vowed to fight back. They can move around the mountain valleys quickly and they have a bargaining chip. They have captured an American soldier for the first time.

Channel 4 News has learned that a Taliban Shura, or council, is meeting tonight to decide what to demand in return for his release.

The insurgency is at its most violent since the Taliban were ousted eight years ago, but can Obama's surge fix it?  More than 100,000 troops did not win the war for the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, so it is a risk and Afghans are sceptical.

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