The U.S. military in Afghanistan launched a major offensive in Taliban-controlled parts of southern Afghanistan Thursday, the first such operation under U.S. President Barack Obama's revamped strategy to defeat an increasingly violent Taliban insurgency.  

Thousands of U.S. Marines and hundreds of Afghan soldiers and police landed deep inside southern Helmand province under the cover of darkness in the early hours of Thursday, marking the beginning of operation Khanjar, or "Strike of the Sword."  

"The combined U.S. and Afghan mission is to provide security for population centers along the Helmand river valley and to connect local citizens with their legitimate government while establishing stable and secure conditions for national elections scheduled in August as well as to enhance security in the future," said Sergeant Charles Marsh, a spokesman for the U.S. led coalition.

The operation is the first major military offensive since  President Barack Obama unveiled his new war strategy for Afghanistan.  It involved nearly 4,000 newly arrived Marines and 650 Afghan soldiers who entered Helmand by air and ground transport.  Last week, about 500 British troops led a mission to flush out militants in the province, a longtime Taliban stronghold and the top opium producing region in the country.

The U.S. military says once Helmand is free of insurgents, Afghan security forces will take over.
Jorrit Kamminga is senior policy analyst at the International Council on Security and Development.  He says U.S. and NATO forces have tried repeatedly to grab and hold territory in Helmand province.  Kamminga is doubtful this new effort, while bigger and bolder, will be successful without a plan to fulfill the needs of the local population.

"It's not only a matter of sending these troops in and keeping them in place.  It's really what these military troops do when the fighting is over, basically when they have had the first successes against the Taliban insurgency.  Then it's really important that the military also is involved in development, humanitarian aid, really trying to build this hearts and minds strategy that we've been talking about for so many years now.  But it really hasn't been implemented successfully on the ground," he said.

One of President Obama's key goals in Afghanistan is to rebuild trust among local residents by avoiding civilian deaths, an extremely sensitive issue that has plagued international forces in Afghanistan who rely heavily on airstrikes to target militants.  

The new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has said protecting Afghan civilians is a top priority under the revamped strategy to defeat an increasingly violent Taliban movement.   

"Each of us must execute our mission with the realization that displaying respect, cultural sensitivity, accountability and transparency are essential in gaining the trust of the Afghan people. If we gain that trust, we cannot lose.  If we lose that trust, we cannot win," he said.

The president's new war strategy also includes the deployment of an additional 21,000 U.S. troops and trainers.  By the end of this year, the U.S. force in Afghanistan is expected to more than double to an estimated 68,000.

Helmand is strategic, lying along the Pakistan border, where the illicit opium trade flourishes and fighters and weapons move easily across the porous border.  

Thursday's operation immediately caused concern in Pakistan. Hours after it began, the Pakistani military said it had re-deployed some of its troops to block militants who are on the run as a result of the Helmand offensive.