NAWA, Afghanistan – U.S. forces have encountered little resistance in the initial phase of a massive operation by some 4,000 Marines in Taliban-controlled areas of southern Afghanistan, but that's a common tactic by insurgents.
The hard part will be winning support in a region where few foreigners have ventured. The lack of resistance by insurgents in Helmand province in the mission's first phase could change in coming days, said Capt. Bill Pelletier, a spokesman for the unit, on Friday.
The operation's focus is not killing the Taliban but winning the local population over, Pelletier said — a difficult task in a region where foreigners are viewed with suspicion, and few have stayed for long.
"We are not worried about the Taliban, we are not focused on them. We are focused on the people," Pelletier said. "It is important to engage with the key leaders, hear what they need most and what are their priorities."
The offensive along 55 miles of Taliban-controlled areas in southern Afghanistan will test the Obama administration's new strategy of holding territory to let the Afghan government sink roots in Helmand.
The insurgency has proven particularly resilient in the area, and foreign troops have never before operated in such large numbers here. Large areas have been under Taliban control, with little or no government presence.
As the operation entered its second day, the units secured control of the district centers of Nawa and Garmser, and negotiated entry into Khan Neshin, the capital of Rig district, Pelletier said.
"They waited for the local and village elders," outside Khan Neshin and "with their permission they went in and now are engaged in talks," Pelletier said.
One Marine was killed and several others injured or wounded on the first full day of the assault Thursday, the largest military operation in Afghanistan since the fall of Taliban government in 2001.
But there have been no big battles, with militants choosing to mostly keep their guns silent, Pelletier said.
Taking ground from the Taliban in Afghanistan has always proved easy. Keeping it and ensuring the government's presence has been the difficult part. When the area happens to be the world's largest producer of opium that feeds the insurgency and corrupts government officials, the challenge becomes monumental.
Haji Akhtar Mohammad, from Gereshk village now living in Helmand's capital of Lashkar Gah, said the U.S.-led force will not have community support in the region weary of any foreign interference.
"It is difficult to tell who is Taliban and who is civilians," Mohammad said. "They all have the same face, same beard and same turban," he said. "It is very difficult to defeat them."
Three years ago, only a handful of U.S. troops were in Helmand, Afghanistan's biggest province that is bisected by the Helmand river.
Afghanistan accounts for more than 90 percent of the world's production of opium, and Helmand alone is responsible for about half that amount.
While Pelletier said winning hearts and minds was the mission's main focus, other military officials have said the immediate goal of the offensive is to clear away insurgents before Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential election.
Southern Afghanistan is a Taliban stronghold but also a region where Afghan President Hamid Karzai is seeking votes from fellow Pashtun tribesmen. Without such a large Marine assault, the Afghan government would likely not be able to set up voting booths where citizens could safely travel.
The Pentagon is deploying 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in time for the elections and expects the total number of U.S. forces there to reach 68,000 by year's end. That is double the number of troops in Afghanistan in 2008 but still half as many as are now in Iraq.
Even bigger challenges, perhaps, will come in the weeks and months after the Marines have established their presence here.
The U.S. will have an opportunity to help develop alternate livelihoods for farmers whose opium poppy crops bankroll the Taliban, who have made a violent comeback since the U.S.-led invasion ousted them from power in 2001.