The sound of gunfire and explosions fill the air, summer has come, and once more war has come to Helmand Province. In one of the largest military operations seen in Afghanistan since the start of the war, Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade have launched a wide ranging operation deep into the Helmand River Valley, a major poppy producing region, and a hotbed of Taliban activity.
The operation has been dubbed, “Khanjar,” and commanders are calling it the largest Marine action since the 2006′s battle of Fallujah, and the largest Marine airlift since Vietnam.
The combined air and ground assault launched early Thursday morning, a combined effort rarely seen in an area previously held by British forces. The operation is aimed at bringing order to Helmand Province, an area that has grown increasingly violent in recent months.
Marines have encountered significant resistance in their movement south; the Taliban are well armed with both conventional weaponry: AK-47s, RPGs, and mortars, as well as IEDs that have seen a spike in use recently.
Progress is also careful: recent concern over civilian casualties has seen a change in the tactics used by commanders on the ground, with an even greater emphasis on the oft mentioned “hearts and minds” of the population.
The Rising Tide
Operation Khanjar is aimed at stemming rising violence in the region, and Afghanistan as a whole. The past year has seen a marked uptick in the deaths for NATO forces, as well as rising fears of a rapidly destabilizing security situation throughout the country.
Commanders believe that decisive action in targeting the south will stem the ever-rising flow of money, weapons, and manpower to Taliban forces throughout the country. The Pakistan border is close by and porous: there is little NATO presence to stop movement back and forth.
Afghanistan’s upcoming elections are also a concern; polling places have been targeted in past years, and the low turnout caused by violence would have a strongly adverse effect on a government seen as weak by many.
The Shifting Focus
The offensive is a clear sign of the shift in focus from Iraq to Afghanistan: with the passing of June 30 US Troops have pulled out of Iraq’s cities, a reminder of a war that has wound down rapidly, while the 21,000 Troops pledged to Afghanistan by President Obama have shifted attention squarely upon the war many have called “forgotten.”
The Marines are among the first of these promised forces, and their level of success will determine much about the war’s future direction. But for the Marines there is one direction, south, and a long road ahead.