UK troops lead major NATO Afghan assault

Launch helicopter advances in Helmand


British troops have launched helicopter advances in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province to prepare the battlefield for a major NATO operation, the British military said on Friday.

The British operations are on the outskirts of Marjah, a warren of desert canals held by the Taliban, which U.S. Marines say they intend to seize soon in what will be one of the biggest assaults of the eight-year-old war.

British and Afghan troops were carrying out "shaping operations" in Helmand's Nad Ali district as part of an initial phase of Operation Moshtarak, or "together," a large assault which will seize the entire district, the British military said.

Nad Ali includes Marjah, which the U.S. Marines describe as the last major Taliban-held bastion in the south of the province, Afghanistan's most violent region, which produces most of the country's illegal opium crop that helps fund the insurgency.

The assault on Marjah itself will be the first operation to employ some of the 30,000 new reinforcements sent by U.S. President Barack Obama at the end of last year.

NATO commanders say they intend to turn the tide this year on an insurgency that has grown far stronger and more deadly in recent years. Obama has said he plans to begin drawing down forces in mid-2011.

British troops have been conducting shaping operations for a few weeks in the area, and launched fresh helicopter and ground advances in the past 36 hours, military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel David Wakefield said in a statement.

"The operations which have been taking place in the British area of Nad Ali District over the last 36 hours have been part of that same series of 'shaping operations', all part of Op (operation) Moshtarak," he said.

"They have been commanded jointly by Afghan and British commanders and have involved insertions by helicopter and ground of Afghan and British troops to locations to the west of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah," he said.

Marjah sits near the dividing line between the northern part of the province, patrolled by a nearly 10,000-strong British-led NATO contingent, and the southern areas patrolled by the U.S. Marines, who mainly arrived last year and now number some 15,000.

U.S. commanders say the operation to seize Marjah will be backed by a larger Afghan contingent than ever before, in an effort to demonstrate the Afghan government's ability to take part in enforcing its own security.