NEAR MARJAH, Afghanistan - Helicopter-borne U.S. Marines and Afghan troops swooped down on the Taliban-held town of Marjah before dawn on Saturday, launching a long-expected attack to re-establish government control and undermine support for the militants in their southern heartland.
The attack on Marjah climaxed the biggest joint Afghan-international offensive of the war and is the largest combat operation since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 U.S. reinforcements here last December to turn the tide of the war.
Marine commanders say they expect between 400 to 1,000 insurgents to be holed up inside this southern Afghan town of 80,000 people in Helmand province, including more than 100 foreign fighters. Marjah is the biggest southern town under Taliban control and the linchpin of the militants' logistical and opium-smuggling network.
"The first wave of choppers has landed inside Marjah. The operation has begun," said Capt. Joshua Winfrey, commander of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, which was at the forefront of the attack.
Several hundred U.S. Marines and some Afghan troops were in the first wave of troops, flying over minefields the militants are believed to have planted around the town, 360 miles southwest of Kabul.
The operation, code-named "Moshtarak," or Together, was described as the biggest joint offensive of the Afghan war. Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, says 15,000 troops were involved.
Once the town 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 Marjah 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 are gone.
At the Pentagon, a senior U.S. official said Afghan president Hamid Karzai had signed off on the attack.