Marines fire opening salvo to retake Helmand
Marines and sailors with Company L, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, patrol the area outside Now Zad, Afghanistan, with members of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. Photo by Corporal Zachary Nola.
US Marines backed by Afghan forces have launched the opening salvo in an operation designed to dislodge the Taliban from central and northern Helmand province.
More than 900 US Marines, sailors and British troops, backed by 150 Afghan soldiers and police, have launched operation Cobra's Anger in the northern district of Now Zad, according to the US military. Tribal militias are also playing a role, a US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal.
US Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 7, and the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion air assaulted behind Taliban lines into the northern Now Zad Valley. Another force pushed northward from the city of Now Zad.
The district of Now Zad is considered to be under the control of the Taliban. The city of Now Zad is largely deserted and has a company of Marines and Afghan forces facing off against a dug-in Taliban force.
Four Taliban fighters have been killed in Cobra's Anger, while US and Afghan troops have discovered more than 300 roadside bombs, The Associated Press reported.
Marines put off the operation until they could confirm that additional forces would be deployed to the province to capitalize on any potential gains. President Barack Obama settled on a surge of more than 30,000 US forces, of which 9,000 Marines are heading to Helmand. NATO is expected to send more than 7,000 additional troops.
A regiment of Marines is already preparing to deploy to Afghanistan in the next several weeks. "They're going to hit the ground running, they'll be pushed right out to take on the Taliban," a US Marine officer told The Long War Journal.
Cobra's Anger is the first in a series of operations designed to strangle the Taliban's support networks in northern and central Helmand. The ultimate goal is to lay siege to the town of Marja, the Taliban's main operations hub as well a major narcotics hub.
Marja is on the western side of the Helmand river, close to the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. Thousands of Taliban fighters are thought to have fled to Marja after the Marines launched operations in the districts of Nawa, Garmser, and Reg in southern Helmand province last summer during Operation Dagger.
"We may have to take Marja like we took Fallujah," a senior US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal. The city of Fallujah in Iraq's western Anbar province was wrested from the control of al Qaeda in Iraq and allied Sunni insurgents during a two-week-long operation in November 2004.
The districts of Sangin, Washir, and Baghran are also considered under Taliban control.
"There is a Salafist community in Sangin," the official said, referring to the group of Islamists who advocate waging violent jihad. The Taliban's leadership in northern Helmand is in what the official referred to as the "Sangin pocket."
Washir and Baghran are considered less problematic, as the tribal leaders there largely sided with the Taliban out of weakness. "These are largely 'small t' Taliban," the official said. "Absent government protection, they had little choice but to side with the Taliban."
The tribes in Washir and Baghran are taxed by the Taliban and provide recruits, but do not conduct attacks. "If we can take down the Sangin pocket, then support for the Taliban in these districts will dry up."
"Sangin and Marja are key," the official said.
Another focus of the upcoming operation will be the southern Helmand town of Baramcha.
The smuggler's town of Baramcha sits on the border of Pakistan's Baluchistan province. Weapons, bomb materials, drugs, cash, and Taliban and al Qaeda fighters pass through the region. Baramcha is considered under Taliban control.