CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — Columns of U.S. Marines in eight-wheeled armored vehicles pushed deep into southern Afghanistan on Thursday in an attempt to cut off Taliban supply lines from Pakistan and restore order in areas long neglected by short-handed NATO forces.
One Marine was killed and several others were injured or wounded on the first full day of the assault, the largest military operation in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001.
Almost 4,000 Marines, backed by helicopter gunships, pushed into the volatile Helmand River valley, reporting little resistance from Taliban fighters, whose control of poppy harvests and opium smuggling in the area provides major financing for the Afghan insurgency. The Marines are part of a larger deployment of additional troops being ordered by the new American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, to concentrate not just on killing Taliban fighters but on protecting the population.
Shortly after the offensive began, the American military said that it believed a soldier missing since Tuesday had been captured by the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan. The soldier was not involved in Operation Khanjar, or "Strike of the Sword," under way in Helmand, said Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a spokeswoman in Kabul.
"A U.S. soldier missing since June 30 from his assigned unit is now believed to have been captured by militant forces," Mathias said. It's believed to be the first time insurgents have captured a U.S. serviceman in the almost eight-year war.
The private first class didn't show up for formation Tuesday. When fellow soldiers went to his quarters, they found his weapon, but his journal was missing, officials said. Hours later, U.S. military officials received a phone call saying that the soldier had been kidnapped outside the base.
"We have no reason to believe someone came to the facility and kidnapped him. We believe he left the facility and got into trouble," said one senior defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
According to the AFP news agency, a commander from the Taliban network led by Afghan warlord Jalalludin Haqqani said that the group had captured a U.S. serviceman in Paktika.
"One of our commanders named Mawlawi Sangin has captured a coalition soldier along with his three Afghan guards in Yousuf Khail district of Paktika province," a commander identified as Bahram said.
"The coalition soldier has been taken to a safe place," Bahram said. "Our leaders have not decided on the fate of this soldier. They will decide on his fate and soon we will present videotapes of the coalition soldier and our demand to media."
The soldier's capture adds a complicating factor to this new phase of the Afghan conflict.
The soldier could provide insurgents with a propaganda bonanza and a bargaining chip.
Securing the election
An immediate goal of Operation Khanjar, the military says, is to clear away insurgents before the nation's Aug. 20 presidential election. Southern Afghanistan is a Taliban stronghold but also a region where Afghan President Hamid Karzai is seeking votes from fellow Pashtun tribesmen. Without such a large Marine assault, the Afghan government would likely not be able to set up voting booths to which citizens could safely travel.
The Pentagon is deploying 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in time for the elections and expects the total number of U.S. forces there to reach 68,000 by year's end. That is double the number of troops in Afghanistan in 2008 but still half as many as are now in Iraq.
In Nawa village, Marines took militants by surprise by dropping behind Taliban lines, said Capt. Drew Schoenmaker, 31, of Greene, N.Y.
"We are kind of forging new ground here. We are going to a place nobody has been before," said Schoenmaker, who commands Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.
At 3 a.m., several hundred Marines took positions in a freshly plowed dirt field around Nawa. The soft, deep dirt proved challenging for troops weighed down with days' worth of water, food and gear. Many stumbled.
At daybreak the Marines walked along tree lines, and at 6:15 a.m. the company took its first incoming fire, likely from an AK-47 along a tree line. The next three hours brought repeated bursts of gunfire and volleys of rocket-propelled grenades.
A small force of Afghan soldiers accompanying the Camp Pendleton-based Marines got into several scraps with an insurgent force of about 20 fighters firing from a mud-brick compound.
Before the mission, Schoenmaker, the company commander, said he would practice "tactical patience" as a way to avoid civilian casualties — an issue Gen. McChrystal has underscored in recent weeks. Although troops in many similar circumstances have called in air strikes on militant-controlled compounds, Schoenmaker did not.
"We made the decision to isolate the compound and not destroy it because we couldn't confirm if civilians were inside," he said. The militants were believed to have escaped out the back.
Pakistan, meanwhile, said it deployed troops to a stretch of its largely porous and mountainous 1,600-mile border with Afghanistan to seal off a potential escape route for insurgents fleeing the American advance.
A significant challenge for the Marines was the 110-degree weather. Loaded down with backpacks and ammunition, and insulated by flak vests and Kevlar helmets, several fell ill from heat stroke, and five had to be evacuated for further medical attention. Helicopters were summoned to replenish units with extra water.
"It's like when you open up the oven when you're cooking a pizza and you want to see if it's done, you get that blast of hot air. That's how it feels the whole time," said Lance Corp. Charlie Duggan Jr., 21, of Baldwinsville, N.Y.
But the Marines trained for months in the heat of the Mojave desert for the deployment, and many appeared happy to be here.
At one point, some 50 Marines were relaxing in an abandoned and dilapidated mud brick compound, their dusty-brown uniforms stained with sweat. Someone spotted an Afghan male who appeared to be observing them from a nearby road.
The Marines quickly threw on their flak jackets and helmets.
"It sucks, but it's what you've been training for your whole life," Lt. Chris Wilson, 25, of Ramsey, N.J., said with a smile as he held a radio with an 8-foot antenna. Thursday was Wilson's first mission into a combat zone.
The New York Times, Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers and Associated Press contributed.