GARMSIR (Reuters) -- Thousands of U.S. Marines stormed into an Afghan river valley by helicopter and land on July 2, launching the biggest military offensive of Barack Obama's presidency with an assault deep in Taliban territory.
Operation River Liberty, which the Marines call simply "the decisive op," is intended to seize virtually the entire lower Helmand River valley, heartland of the Taliban insurgency and the world's biggest heroin producing region.
In swiftly seizing the valley, commanders hope to accomplish within hours what NATO troops had failed to achieve over several years, and by doing so turn the tide of a stalemated war in time for an Afghan presidential election in August.
"The intent is to go big, go strong and go fast, and by doing so we are going to save lives on both sides," Brigadier-General Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marines in southern Afghanistan, told his staff before the operation.
Wave upon wave of helicopters landed Marines in the early morning darkness at locations throughout the valley, a crescent of opium and wheat fields criss-crossed by canals and dotted with mud-brick homes, where firmly entrenched fighters defied NATO forces for years.
A Reuters reporting team drove in by land in an armoured convoy with third platoon of Fox Company, 2nd Batallion, 8th Marines. The Marines dismounted before dawn and fanned out into the fields alongside the river as the sun rose.
Desert Of Death
Hundreds more Marines raced by ground in convoys through a barren area known as the Desert of Death.
In all, about 4,000 Marines surged forward and thousands more were mobilised to assist them, an operation by foreign ground troops on a scale unseen in Afghanistan since the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
The Marines hope by appearing suddenly and in overwhelming numbers, they can capture some of the Taliban's firmest strongholds with little resistance.
"Towns that were the Taliban heartland will fall. They will fall quickly. And hopefully they will fall without a shot. That's our intent," Nicholson said.
The 10,000 Marines in Helmand Province, 8,500 of whom arrived in the last two months, form the biggest wave of an escalation ordered by Obama.
The new U.S. president has declared the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan to be America's main foreign threat. Insurgent attacks in Afghanistan are at their highest since the militants were toppled in 2001.
Under Obama, the U.S. force in Afghanistan is more than doubling this year, from 32,000 at the start of 2009 to an anticipated 68,000 troops by year's end, many of them diverted from Iraq. Other Western countries have about 33,000 troops in Afghanistan.
The arrival of the Marines doubles the international force in Helmand, where an overstretched British-led NATO contingent has in the past lacked the manpower to hold onto territory it cleared, and instead mainly defended a few scattered outposts in heavy fighting.
Most of the province has remained outside government control, and produced by far the largest share of Afghanistan's opium crop, which accounts for 90 percent of the world's heroin.
Launching such a bold operation carries great risk. A protracted, bloody fight could erode support for the war in the United States, among its NATO allies and among Afghans.
Taliban fighters have had years to reinforce positions among the valley's irrigation ditches and canals. They have fiercely resisted past advances.
But U.S. and NATO commanders hope a rapid and decisive victory in the Helmand Valley will prove the tipping point that will turn the course of the war once and for all.
Addressing Marine commanders days before the assault, Dutch Major-General Mart de Kruif compared it to the D-Day invasion that changed the course of World War II.
"We have people out there who do not realize that progress is about to come to them," he said. "We have enemies out there who do not yet realise that they are going to lose."