Shortly before dawn on Saturday, under a starry, icy desert sky in southern Afghanistan, American-led coalition forces launched the long foretold attack against the Taliban stronghold of Marja, along the Helmand River. In the biggest land and air offensive in the nine-year long war against Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, more than 15,000 coalition forces, backed by wave after wave of 90 helicopters and aircraft, sealed off Marja and seized key positions inside the town and on its periphery.
One Canadian participant in the assault contacted by TIME by telephone in Nad el-Ali, on the outskirts of Marja, said that over 2,500 troops were inserted into Marja by helicopter without encountering enemy fire. "We were expecting hot landings in a few places, but there weren't any," said the Canadian who flew in on a Royal Canadian Air Force helicopter accompanying British, Estonian and Afghan troops.
However, Army sources say that the Taliban ringed Marja and its surrounding network of canals, fields and roads with thousands of hidden mines and booby-traps. Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, Marine commander for southern Afghanistan told newsmen, "This may be the biggest improvised explosive device (IED) threat and largest minefield that NATO has ever faced." A British officer in Nad el-Ali reported that in one 50-m stretch of lane, his men found and disabled "dozens" of IEDs.Early reports say that NATO and Afghan forces encountered sporadic gunfire, and the Canadian source in Nad el-Ali reported seeing several U.S. Blackhawk helicopters flying away from the combat zone with an unidentified number of wounded.
For months, NATO officers were signaling a major assault on Marja, hoping that that this tactic would draw the Taliban out of the heavily populated areas around the Helmand River a major opium poppy growing area and a source of Taliban funds and enable coalition and Afghan forces to re-capture and establish government control over this major Taliban bastion without causing too many civilian casualties.
In the opening moments of the offensive, it is too early to tell whether this counter-insurgency strategy will succeed. Recapturing Marja is the cornerstone of the Obama Administration's new "surge" of troops and civilian experts aimed to claw back towns and cities from the Taliban.
Tribal elders from Marja on Friday pleaded with Afghan officials to refrain from air strikes that could kill many civilians and destroy homes and crops.
In the weeks before Saturday's assault, NATO aircraft dropped thousands of leaflets urging civilians to leave Marja until the fighting was over and the town had been re-captured. Over 100,000 Pashtuns live around Marja, but only several thousand fled. Fleeing families told journalists on the road that the Taliban had ordered Marja's people to stay behind, giving them a human shield to hide behind as the NATO forces closed in. Others said their relatives could not leave because the roads outside their homes were too heavily mined.
With such a huge juggernaut, it may be easy for coalition forces to conquer Marja, but winning over its inhabitants may be another matter. The areas's residents are Pashtuns, who share tribal links with the Taliban. Anywhere between 400 to 1,000 Taliban fighters are said to be holed up in Marja's dusty maze of lanes and high, mud-walled homes. Now the coalition forces face the difficult task of threading through minefields, and a dense warren of houses, to hunt down the Taliban fighters.
Coalition officers say that if past confrontations are anything to go by, the Taliban will simply melt away. Usually in wars, commanders keep their battle plans a secret, but NATO officers in southern Afghanistan have found that this strategy of trumpeting their intended assault has worked well in several engagements over the past six months, since it succeeds in clearing out the Taliban without incurring the heavy loss of civilians. It also allows NATO to implant Afghan troops and civic officials to restore some semblance of Kabul's control over areas previously under the sway of Taliban justice and administration. After Marja is cleared of Taliban, more than 1,900 Afghan police will support a team of administrators selected by the Kabul government to run the town.
As Brig. James Cowan, the British commander of forces in Helmand, told his troops on Thursday, "We are in this together; we will fight it together, we will see it through together. Afghans with allies, soldiers with civilians, government with people."
But for the Taliban, retreating from Marja gives them a chance to strike again, avoiding face-to-face combat with a larger and mightier enemy. Though some Marja refugees said that many Afghan Taliban may have fled, they also said a large contingent of more zealous Pakistani fighters stayed behind, bent on martyrdom. That is possible; after decades of war, Afghans have developed a keen instinct about when to fight, and when to slip away.