Attempts to stop an escalation of U.S. military personnel and violence in Afghanistan officially failed this morning with reports of the “massive assault” under way on Helmand Province in Afghanistan.
Thousands of US Marines stormed into an Afghan river valley by helicopter and land early today, launching the first major military offensive of Barack Obama’s presidency with an assault deep into Taleban-held territory.
Operation Khanjar, which the Marines call simply “the decisive op”, is intended to seize virtually the entire lower Helmand River valley, a heartland of the Taleban insurgency and the world’s biggest heroin producing region.
It is the biggest operation launched by the US Marines Corps since the retaking of Fallujah in 2004 and seeks to break the grinding stalemate between Nato forces and the Taleban in the province.
US commanders stressed this morning their desire to move quickly and decisively with overwhelming force to seize the entire southern Helmand River valley from Taleban control ahead of the delayed Afghan Presidential elections on August 20.
“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,” Marine Corps Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marines in southern Afghanistan said in a statement.
He told his staff before the operation: “The intent is to go big, go strong and go fast, and by doing so we are going to save lives on both sides.”
A tentative prediction: things will be relatively quiet over the first several days as Taliban melt back into the population, observing the new state of play and waiting for U.S. troops to dig in. Then, all hell will break loose. This is the big banana for the Taliban–more than half of the world’s opium is grown in Helmand. They will not roll over without a screeching brawl.
These troops from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade also come with their own integrated air support. Note that air strikes in support of troops in contact with opposing fighters have accounted for the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties caused by pro-Afghan government forces (that’s the U.S., NATO and Afghan national government’s forces). Going “big,” “fast,” and “hard” with air support generally means dead civilians:
…[M]ost cases of civilian deaths from airstrikes occurred during the fluid, rapid-response strikes mostly carried out in support of “troops in contact” – ground troops who are under insurgent attack. Such unplanned strikes included situations where US special forces units – normally small in number and lightly armed – came under insurgent attack; in US/NATO attacks in pursuit of insurgent forces who had retreated to populated villages; and in air attacks where US “anticipatory self-defense” rules of engagement applied.
The U.S. forces have declared their intent is to protect the population. Let’s hold them to it. In the meantime, as Robert Greenwald’s Rethink Afghanistan Twitter feed points out, this escalation of the conflict will impact civilians, hard. Aside from pushing your lawmakers and media to remain focused on civilian casualties and well-being in Helmand, you can help by donating to the Afghan Women’s Mission to buy bare essentials for refugees of the fighting.