NAD ALI, Afghanistan — Canadian Chinook helicopters touched down in a Taliban stronghold Friday in Afghanistan’s restive south as coalition forces mount the largest air assault of the nine-year war.
American, British, Afghan and other coalition troops were storming the insurgent-held town of Marjah and the district of Nad Ali, said to be two of the last major bastions of Taliban control in Helmand province.
The pre-dawn attack is called Operation Moshtarak — meaning “together” in Dari — and it is by far the largest offensive staged since U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan to try to quell a spreading insurgency.
Three Canadian Chinook helicopters were helping ferry some 1,100 coalition troops to Nad Ali, under the watch of four Canadian Griffon escorts.
The helicopters flew without lights through the pitch darkness of night. Only the sound of their whirling rotor blades could be heard overhead.
From on board a chopper nicknamed “Black Jack,” the mud-walled compounds below looked deserted in the early hours of the morning. The Canadian helicopters dropped troops in muddy fields without taking any fire from the insurgents.
“The insurgents didn’t show up at all,” said Col. Christian Drouin, commanding officer of the Canadian air force in Afghanistan.
“We had no resistance whatsoever.”
The seven Canadian choppers joined 33 British and American helicopters in the assault on Nad Ali. Before the attack, military officials said their intelligence showed between 150 to 200 insurgents hunkered down in small pockets around Nad Ali.
The militants were believed to be armed with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, anti-aircraft weapons and other light weaponry.
Even more helicopters and troops attacked Marjah, southwest of the Helmand provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. Thirty Canadian military trainers were part of the Marjah assault with their Afghan army pupils.
Thousands of coalition troops were part of the dual attacks on Marjah and Nad Ali. About half the soldiers are Afghan.
For weeks now special forces have been targeting Taliban leaders and bomb-making factories in the area ahead of what could be one of the largest and bloodiest stands of the Afghan war.
U.S. Marines surrounded Marjah days ahead of the attack to seal off escape routes to nearby Lashkar Gah. The insurgents countered by firing rockets and mortars at American and Afghan troops positioned in foxholes around the farming community of 80,000 people.
Military officials believe there are hundreds of Taliban fighters in Marjah and the Nad Ali district, one of the world’s biggest poppy growing areas, as well as a major bomb-making centre and a staging area for suicide bombers.
The fertile terrain around Marjah is latticed with canals built decades ago by the Americans to irrigate the region. Today, those canals and ditches have become minefields for the militants.
Makeshift bombs, which the military calls improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, have caused the most worry since the offensive will be largely carried out on foot. It’s believed the insurgents scattered bombs throughout the area ahead of the attack.
A man purporting to be a Taliban commander on the ground in Marjah, who called himself Mullah Majeed Akhund, had a grim warning for coalition forces days before the attack.
“The more we are suppressed, the more we will explode,” he said.
U.S. commanders and their NATO and Afghan allies have heavily publicized their plans to clear Marjah, without giving away the day of the assault. The unusual advance warning included dropping leaflets written in Pashtu and broadcasting messages in and around Marjah.
Hundreds of farmers and other civilians fled the area before Saturday’s attack.
One of them, named Muhammad Akbar, said he and his family fled Marjah for the relative safety of Lashkar Gah for fear the attack would cost them their lives.
“We left our place because of war, and we knew that we would lose family members,” he said.
“We received the leaflets from ISAF authorities. They mentioned dropping our weapons or facing death.”
Canadian military officials said it was necessary to advertise plans for the offensive to get as many civilians as possible out of harm’s way, but also to counter Taliban propaganda.
The insurgents apparently were telling the people of Marjah and Nad Ali that coalition forces were coming to steal their land in the hopes the locals would take up arms against the foreign troops.
The attack was delayed a day after tribal elders convened a high-level political meeting at the last minute with Helmand’s governor, top military officials and members of the Afghan government, including the country’s interior minister.
The meeting, or shura, in Lashkar Gah ran late into the evening and pushed back the assault.
Helmand’s governor urged about 300 tribal leaders to try to sway Taliban fighters in the area to switch sides before the fighting started. The elders begged for limited use of air strikes to minimize civilian casualties.
Canadian soldiers waiting at the British military base Camp Bastion learned of the delay only hours before the offensive was supposed to start.
Lt.-Col. Jeff Smyth, head of Canada’s helicopter operations in Afghanistan, stood on the bed of a pickup truck under stadium-style floodlights and implored his troops to stay sharp.
“What I need you guys to do is stay focused on the mission,” he said.
Canadian and NATO commanders have stressed how important it is to convince civilians that the Afghan government will improve services once the insurgents are gone.
“We’re trying to create a situation where we communicate to them that when the government re-establishes security, they’ll have choices,” U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, said earlier this week.
The trick is to hold the ground. Past offensives have cleared insurgents, only to see them return weeks or months later after coalition troops have moved elsewhere.
This time, Afghan police and government agencies will come to Marjah and Nad Ali soon after the operation, supported by British and American troops. It’s hoped these Afghan institutions will fill the void left after the Taliban relinquishes its grip on the area.