Thousands of US Marines have poured into Afghanistan’s Taliban heartlands, capturing a district in the first major assault of President Barack Obama’s new war plan.

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Dozens of aircraft ferried out the Marines from bases before dawn, aiming to take control of insurgent bastions of Helmand province in the country’s south ahead of landmark Afghan elections next month.

Involving nearly 4,000 Marines, the air and ground assault was their first major operation since they arrived in Afghanistan as part of Obama’s aggressive new strategy to turn the tide on a dragging conflict with the Taliban.

Within hours Marines and Afghan troops had hoisted the Afghan flag in the southern Khanishin district, entering the main town with no resistance, Afghan commanders said.

“The enemies have fled,” Afghan army corps commander General Shair Mohammad Zazai told AFP, adding troops had told the locals they would stay to maintain security, a key tenet of the revised strategy.

Khanishin, towards the border with Pakistan across which Taliban travel, was one of a handful of districts in opium-growing Helmand where the Taliban held sway, establishing a proxy administration and justice system.

But the Marines also counted their first fatality with one killed in “hostile fire”, spokesman First Lieutenant Kurt Stahl said without providing details.

‘Slight resistance’ met

“The helicopter insert has put all troops on the ground now in Garmser and Nawa,” Stahl said, referring to districts that are key targets of the assault in the desert.

“Half of the objectives have been secured by nightfall, ahead of schedule. Slight resistance has been met,” he said.

It was the Marines’ biggest battle since Fallujah in Iraq in November 2004 and believed to be the largest joint operation in Afghanistan since March 2007 when British forces led 5,500 troops elsewhere in Helmand.

But it was reportedly dismissed by the Taliban, with the Afghan Islamic Press quoting a spokesman as saying that previous operations had not yielded success for the armed forces.

“We are resisting but would adopt all kinds of war tactics to the situation,” spokesman Yousaf Ahmadi was quoted as telling the agency.

In one small part of the operation, a fleet of helicopters lifted about 300 Marines from the desert camp called Dwyer at dawn, their commander confident they would have cleared a key road, secured a bridge and met villagers by evening.

“I told my men everything they have done to prepare for this operation means they are ready to go,” said Captain Junwei Sun, 39, commanding officer of 2/8 Infantry Battalion’s Fox company.

Battle against the Taliban

“We expect to encounter resistance and come into enemy contact,” the captain said.

Called Khanjar, which means dagger in Dari and Pashtu but was translated by the Marines as “Strike of the Sword”, the operation also involved about 650 Afghan police and soldiers.

“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,” Marine commander Brigadier General Larry Nicholson said.

The forces pushed south down the Helmand River valley, deep into insurgent-held areas where foreign troops have failed to establish a presence despite ousting the Taliban from power in 2001.

“Our aim is for us to be meeting local people within hours, and that’s what we’ll be doing for the next seven or eight months,” Nicholson told AFP.

Commanders said they would persuade locals that the Afghan security forces – backed by Western troops – offered them a better long-term future than the Islamist hardliners.

British soldiers killed

Officers walking through the battle plan on a large floor map said they expected to find 300 to 500 Taliban fighters in Nawa district.

The Afghan army’s Zazai told AFP the operation would establish security “so that people can go and vote with confidence and without fear”.

Authorities have been concerned that the Taliban could undermine Afghanistan’s second-ever presidential vote with violence and intimidation.

The British military, which has proved unable to quell violence in its Helmand base, announced meanwhile that two of its soldiers were killed in a blast that struck a separate operation north of the Helmand capital, Lashkar Gah, on Wednesday.

And the Taliban’s Haqqani network claimed it had seized a US soldier in what was believed to be the first such case in Afghanistan.

The US military confirmed one of its men was believed to have been captured.

US troops capture Afghan district