A massive military offensive involving thousands of U.S. Marines has been launched against Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province, considered by many to be the country's most insecure region.
With thousands of Marines and hundreds of Afghan police and soldiers involved, the operation is seen as a key challenge in turning around the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and improving security for the August 20 presidential election.
It is being described as the largest offensive conducted by the U.S. Marines since Vietnam.
Hundreds of military vehicles rolled into Helmand along with some 4,000 marines and 650 Afghan police and soldiers to launch operation "Khanjar," or Dagger, shortly after midnight.
Their mission is to turn around the situation in Helmand, where security has not been established despite the presence of more than 8,000 British troops. Helmand accounts for a lion's share of the world's opium supply and large swaths of the province are controlled by the Taliban.
Julian Lindley-French, a professor of military operational science at the Royal Military Academy of the Netherlands who closely follows the developments in Helmand, tells RFE/RL that past efforts to secure the province failed "because there simply wasn't the mass of military boots on the ground to make the security effort over the space -- it is a big space in the south of Afghanistan -- credible."
"Now there is -- with these additional American forces -- a genuine credible force that has a credible chance of making that space more stable for the all vital stabilization and reconstruction work," Lindley-French says, before praising the approach of the commander of U.S. and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
"General [Stanley] McChrystal, absolutely rightly, has said that the people are the critical ground -- they are the key to the success of the entire coalition strategy," Lindley-French says. "Now there is a genuine chance that progress can be made given the reinforcements that have been deployed particularly to Helmand."
The operation in Helmand is the first major Marine operation in Afghanistan since their recent deployment as part of the United States' 21,000-strong troop increase.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the opening of the offensive isn't entirely military. He said the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, are simultaneously playing a complementary role.
Once the Marines clear an area in Helmand, Kelly said, civilian assistance groups will move in, working with the Marines to help hold the territory and start building. For now, they'll be under the supervision of three civilian officials, but he added that their number will soon grow.
"These added civilians are part of the larger increase of more than 450 civilians that the State [Department] and other civilian agencies are sending to Afghanistan to work alongside our military personnel," Kelly said. "Their deployments have been and will continue to be closely coordinated by [the U.S.] Embassy [in] Kabul and U.S. forces [in] Afghanistan."
The Taliban guerrilla campaign is at its height in Helmand -- with suicide bombings, hit-and-run tactics, and deadly improvised bomb attacks -- and is believed to be financed in large part by the lucrative illegal drug trade in the region.
U.S. military commanders are taking a new approach with this offensive, the thrust of which is focused on Taliban strongholds in Nawa and Garmsir.
"What makes Operation Khanjar different from those that have occurred before is the massive size of the force introduced, the speed at which it will insert, and the fact that 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," says Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, the Marine commander in Helmand.
Hemand Province Governor Gulab Mangal anticipates an effective operation, and tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that Afghan security forces will build bases to provide security for locals.
He predicts that "when the operations are over, and after the Taliban and other armed opponents have been cleared out, Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police units will be based there, and they will be supported by the ISAF troops so that we can secure them forever."
"This [security presence] is very important," Mangal adds. "The second important thing is that we have planned very significant reconstruction programs for these same regions."
The Royal Military Academy's Lindley-French suggests that the operation is also linked to the anti-Taliban offensive in Pakistan, where the Pakistani army is engaged in expanded operations against the Taliban is Pashtun regions bordering Afghanistan.
"The offensive is primarily designed to keep the pressure on the Taliban on both sides of the 'Af-Pak' border," Lindley-French says, noting that Pakistani forces are increasingly active beyond the Swat Valley and into Waziristan.
"The essential objective is to disrupt their lines of communication, prevent them from infiltrating with such alacrity through the south -- in a sense so that the original objectives of clear build and hold can be further developed," Lindley-French says. "This is start of a critical period -- pre-election, postelection in Afghanistan -- so the operation has to be seen within that broader political-strategic, regional-strategic context."
The Pakistani military announced on July 2 that it has deployed troops along a stretch of the Afghan border to stop Taliban militants fleeing the U.S. offensive in Helmand.
On the ground in Helmand, U.S. Marine Captain Zachary Martins is quoted by the Pentagon TV channel as saying by the Marines are taking the fight to the Taliban.
"As marines, we are going to go there and we are going to go to the far reaches where the Taliban isn't looking for us, where they are not expecting a fight, where they are not sitting in prepared defensive positions, and that's going to keep them off balance," Martins says.