OUTSKIRTS OF MARJA, Afghanistan — U.S. Marines and Afghan troops faced rocket and heavy machine-gun fire from insurgents entrenched inside a Taliban-held town today, as a long-expected offensive began to re-establish government control.
The assault on Marja is the biggest offensive since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and will serve as a major test of a new NATO strategy focused on protecting civilians. The attack is also the first major combat operation since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 U.S. reinforcements here in December to try to turn the tide of the war.
Detecting multiple layers of insurgent defenses encircling the city, Cobra helicopters fired Hellfire missiles at tunnels, bunkers, and other defensive positions. Militants also flooded the main canal at the town's entrance, making it more difficult for U.S.-led forces to enter on foot.
Marine commanders had said they expected 400 to 1,000 insurgents — including more than 100 foreign fighters — to be holed up in Marja, a town of 80,000 people in Helmand province. Marja, located 360 miles southwest of Kabul, is the biggest southern town under Taliban control and the linchpin of the militants' logistical and opium-smuggling network.
Sporadic rocket fire from insurgents and the rattle of gunfire echoed in the air. A U.S. missile detonated a massive 55-gallon fuel-drum bomb that sent a mushroom of black smoke dozens of yards into the sky.
The operation, codenamed "Moshtarak," or Together, was described as the biggest joint operation of the Afghan war. Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, said 15,000 troops were involved, including about 7,500 troops fighting in Marja.
To the north, British, American and Canadian forces struck in the Nad Ali district in a push to break Taliban power in Helmand.
Once Marja is secured, NATO hopes to rush in aid and restore public services in a bid to win support among the estimated 125,000 people who live in the town and surrounding villages.
Tribal elders have pleaded for NATO to finish the operation quickly and spare civilians — an appeal that offers some hope the townspeople will cooperate with Afghan and international forces once the Taliban is gone.