- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 4, 2009

NAWA, Afghanistan | U.S. Marines pushed deeper into Taliban areas of southern Afghanistan on Friday, seeking to cut insurgent supply lines and win over local elders on the second day of the biggest U.S. military operation here since the American-led invasion of 2001.

On the other side of the border, U.S. missiles struck a Pakistani Taliban militant training center and communications center, killing 17 people and wounding nearly 30, Pakistani intelligence officials said.

Both U.S. operations were aimed at what President Obama considers the biggest danger in the region: a resurgent Taliban-led insurgency allied with al Qaeda that threatens both nuclear-armed Pakistan and the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan.

The 4,000-strong U.S. force met little resistance Friday as troops fanned out into villages in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, although one Marine was killed and several others were wounded the previous day, U.S. officials said.

Despite minimal contact, the Marines could see militants using flashlights late Thursday to signal one another about American troop movements.

Military spokesman Capt. Bill Pelletier said the goal of the Helmand operation was not simply to kill Taliban fighters but to win over the local population — a difficult task in a region where foreigners are viewed with suspicion.

Marines also hope to cut the routes used by militants to funnel weapons, ammunition and fighters from Pakistan to the Taliban, which has mounted an increasingly violent insurgency since its hard-line Islamist government was toppled in 2001 by an international coalition.

As Operation Khanjar, or Strike of the Sword, entered its second day, Marines took control of the district centers of Nawa and Garmser, and negotiated entry into Khan Neshin, the capital of Rig district, Capt. Pelletier said.

The operation will test the Obama administration’s new strategy of holding territory to let the Afghan government establish a presence in rural areas where Taliban influence is strong.

Taking territory from the Taliban has always proved easier than holding it. The challenge is especially great in Helmand because it is a center of Afghanistan’s thriving opium production, and drug profits support both the insurgency and corrupt government officials.

The missile attacks in Pakistan on Friday occurred about 620 miles east of Helmand in the rugged South Waziristan region, according to two officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

The area is a Taliban stronghold close to the Afghan border, where Pakistani troops are gearing up for a major offensive.

Two missiles struck an abandoned seminary in the village of Mantoi used as a training base by militants from Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud’s group, the officials said.

In the other strike, one missile hit an insurgent communications center in the nearby village of Kokat Khel, they said.

In all, 17 people were killed and 27 others were wounded, they said. However, Maulvi Noor Syed, an aide to Mehsud, said that only three Taliban fighters died in the strikes.

In northwest Pakistan, near Peshawar, an army transport helicopter carrying security personnel crashed after developing a technical problem, killing 26 people on board, military officials said.

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