be6709857b868210VgnVCM200000e66411acRCRDapproved/thenational/Articles/Migration/2009-Q3Marines meet little Taliban resistanceae6709857b868210VgnVCM200000e66411ac____Marines meet little Taliban resistanceTaliban fighters put up patchy resistance as thousands of US marines storm southern Helmand province in the biggest military operation since 2001.Kabul<p>KABUL // Taliban fighters were putting up patchy resistance yesterday as thousands of United States marines stormed through southern Helmand province in the second day of the US's biggest military operation since 2001.
Commanders said one American marine unit had been locked in "a hell of a fight", but other districts remained eerily quiet while 4,000 US troops and 600 Afghan soldiers pushed along the Helmand river valley, cutting insurgent supply lines and aiming to win over tribal elders.</p>
<p>As Operation Khanjar, or Strike of the Sword, finished its second day, officers said a single marine had died and there were as yet no reports of civilian deaths.
At the same time, around 800 British troops pushed north of the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah in the third wave of their own Operation Panther's Claw.
US forces attacked Taliban strongholds in Garmsir and Nawa in the early hours of Thursday with the biggest marine helicopter attack since Vietnam.</p>
<p>The huge assault is the first big push of Barack Obama's surge strategy, which has seen him order 21,000 reinforcements to Afghanistan this year.
While Taliban fighters had melted away with sporadic shooting in most districts, the commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade reported stiff opposition south of Garmsir. Brig Gen Larry Nicholson said there was "a hell of a fight going on in the southern quarter of the sector", where the 2/8 infantry battalion was "going to face some challenges".</p>
<p>There were no immediate reports of casualties from the fighting in Toshay, 25km south of Garmsir. Units had controlled the district centres of Nawa and Garmsir, and peacefully entered Khan Neshin, the capital of Rig district.
Brig Gen Nicholson said that the other districts were quiet, but insurgent fighters were expected to regroup and counter attack in the coming days.
"In the next few days the enemy will observe us to see what we are doing. Then they will come back with a vengeance.</p>
<p>"Nawa is quiet, too quiet. Something is eerie.
"The enemy has gone to ground, shuras [councils of elders] are being set up," he said.
Yosuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, said fighters would bide their time to launch guerrilla attacks against the marines.
"We are trying not to engage with them too soon because there are a lot of them and they would use air force, in which case there will be civilian casualties.</p>
<p>"So far we did not start any fight with them face-to-face but we are conducting our own guerrilla clashes, especially in Nawa and Garmsir."
Officers said they were focused on reassuring the local population and winning hearts and minds as they moved through the flat farmland dotted with compounds and crisscrossed with irrigation canals.
"We are not worried about the Taliban, we are not focused on them," said Capt Bill Pelletier. "We are focused on the people. It is important to engage with the key leaders, hear what they need most and what are their priorities."</p>
<p>Marines were accompanied by "civilian stabilisation advisers", he said.
The assault marked the first stage of the US 'clear, hold and build' strategy which aims to secure areas for long enough to bring aid and reconstruction, which in turn undermines the insurgency.
A spokesman for the provincial governor admitted that the districts had been outside government control for several years and opium production was rife in the region.</p>
<p>Insurgent fighters cream off hundreds of millions of dollars from the drugs trade by collecting tithes and offering protection from eradication efforts.
Villagers in Nawa, which has so far seen little activity from overstretched coalition forces and proved a haven for insurgents, eyed the American marines cautiously.
Mohammad Nabi, a 25-year-old from Nawa said: "Are you going to enter our houses? We are afraid that you will leave, and the Taliban will come back.</p>
<p>"They spend one night in the village and then move onto another village, just as you guys."
Haji Akhtar Mohammad, from Gereshk now living in Lashkar Gah, said the Americans would struggle to win over a population weary of foreigners.
"It is difficult to tell who is Taliban and who is civilians. They all have the same face, same beard and same turban. It is very difficult to defeat them."
The push is also designed to secure the region for voting in next month's presidential elections.</p>
<p>Observers fear security is so poor in large swathes of southern Afghanistan that polling will be impossible and the ballot will be fatally undermined.
British forces said their own operation north of Lashkar Gah was one of the most strategically significant ever conducted in the province.
Around 800 men of the Light Dragoons pushed north after the Welsh guards had spent 10 days seizing 13 crossings along the Shamalan canal.</p>
<p>"As troops move into the Babiji area, they do so knowing that it is a Taliban stronghold; one which is key to their lines of communication and contains vital transport routes between Gereskh and Lashkar Gah," Lt Col Nick Richardson, a spokesman for the British-led Taskforce Helmand, said.
"Securing this area and then maintaining that security on a long-term basis is, therefore, vitally important to our overall mission here in Helmand."</p>
<p>Two days ago the operation claimed the life of the highest-ranking British officer to die in action since the Falklands war.
Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, 39, of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards died in a roadside bomb attack during the operation.
* The National</p>
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