KABUL, Afghanistan — The massive Marine assault launched Thursday in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province is intended to recapture an area that's been under Taliban control for the past five years — a step officials think is critical to showing Afghan civilians that coalition forces can protect them from Islamist militants.
If the offensive is successful, 4,000 U.S. Marines and 600 Afghan troops, will clear the Helmand river valley, district by district, of Taliban fighters in roughly seven weeks, finishing around Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential election. Then Afghan police will move in to sustain the security gains, and by the end of the year, residents will feel secure enough to return to abandoned communities and reopen businesses boarded up years ago.
Planners hope to see violent contact with the Taliban increase in the operation's opening weeks, followed by a drop as coalition forces clear areas. That would be a sign that the plan is working.
If, however, violence falls throughout the operation, that would suggest the Taliban have fled, and would likely raise concerns among villagers that they could return. And if violence rises and doesn't fall, that would indicate a failed strategy.
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"We're expecting a tough fight" at the beginning of the operation, a senior military official following the operation said, briefing a McClatchy reporter on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "If the insurgents can keep bringing in supplies and plant (explosive devices) after seven weeks, we will be concerned," he said.
Early casualty numbers suggests only modest Taliban resistance, with one Marine killed and several others wounded. Brig. Gen. Mahaiddin Ghori, the Afghan Army commander in Helmand, told McClatchy that as of 5 p.m. local time Thursday, none of his soldiers had been killed.
Violence in Helmand province is now at its worst levels since 2001. Ghori said there are about 500 foreign Taliban fighters in the province; he didn't say how many Afghan Taliban operate in his district.
In addition, the Taliban extracts about $150 million a year from the booming poppy trade there, demanding payments from both Afghan farmers and the drivers who transport the crop.
The offensive, dubbed Operation Khanjar, is part of a promise by the recently arrived U.S. commander, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, of major changes in what the Obama administration considers a failing war.
McChrystal arrived only a month ago, but he's already issued an order that troops not chase Taliban who flee into villages in an effort to reduce civilian casualties, a major source of tension between coalition forces and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
He's made a point of saying the U.S. goal is not to kill Taliban, but to secure the Afghan populace.
This week's operation is part of that, though the plan itself is nothing new; it was first tried in May in the Gasmir District in the center of the Helmand valley.
In that operation, Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit fought the Taliban in a month-long battle that resulted in the deaths of nearly two dozen Marines and 400 Taliban. Marines declared victory as residents returned and reopened businesses after local security forces moved in.
There weren't enough Marines, however, to expand the push, and the Taliban simply avoided the area as they brought weapons and explosives up the river valley from bordering Pakistan.
The Obama administration's commitment earlier this year of an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan, including the 4,000 Marines now in Helmand, should allow the expansion of the secure zone, planners think. When those 21,000 are fully deployed, there will be 68,000 American troops on the ground.
"We are hoping to recreate Gasmir on a larger scale," the military officer said. "We are going to introduce development governance" throughout the river valley.
Although the strategy resembles the surge strategy employed in Iraq in 2007 and largely credited with bringing a modicum of calm there, officials here stress there are major differences.
They note that while Iraq is made up of large swaths controlled by a relatively few tribes, Afghanistan is a mosaic of tribes that control much smaller areas. That means many more players must be involved in negotiations.
While a half-hour fight against the Iraqi insurgency was considered a long battle, Marines based in Helmand often engage in eight-hour firefights.
Regardless, commanders here say they know they're under the same pressure to change the perception of Afghanistan as Gen. David Petraeus was when he arrived in Iraq to command that war in early 2007.
"We know that have 12 to 18 months to turn Afghanistan around," a second military officer said. "We have to make this work."
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