Soldier captured by rebels as US launches Afghan offensive

24,000 Marines storm Taliban heartland in first test for 'surge strategy'

In the biggest military offensive of the Obama presidency, more than 4,000 US Marines, backed by heavy artillery and helicopter gunships, stormed into the Taliban heartland yesterday, the first assault in what one commander called a "summer of decision" aimed at stabilising Afghanistan ahead of next month's elections.

As the mission unfolded, news broke that a US soldier had been kidnapped in Paktika province further south. The man, who has not been named for fear of jeopardising his safety, was believed to be the first US soldier seized in either Iraq or Afghanistan for two years. However, US officials said the soldier had not been on military duty when he disappeared and Taliban commanders claimed he had been found drunk outside his base.

Operation Khanjar, Pashtu for "Strike of the Sword" saw troops strike through a valley which has been a "blooding ground" for jihadists and a major centre for poppy harvesting. "You're going to change the world this summer and it starts this morning," Lieutenant-Colonel Christian Cabaniss, the commander of the 2nd battalion, 8th Marines, told his troops who were dressed in desert fatigues, before they mounted helicopters and Humvees. "The United States and the world are watching," Reuters quoted him as saying. "Their expectations are enormously high during this summer of decision."

In an indication of the dangers facing coalition troops, it was confirmed that Britian had lost its highest ranking British soldier since Colonel H Jones was killed in the Falklands. Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, the officer commanding the Welsh Guards, died alongside a trooper when a Viking armoured vehicle in which he was travelling was hit by a roadside bomb in Helmand. Six other soldiers were injured in the attack.

Yesterday's operation – which also involved 400 Afghan government troops – marked the first big test of Washington's surge strategy. US army Brigadier General Larry Nicholson said the operation differed from previous ones because of its "massive size". "The intent is to go big, go strong and go fast, and by doing so we are going to save lives on both sides," he said.

The number of Marines deployed is about the same as was used during the bloody and controversial first siege of Fallujah, in central Iraq, in 2004. That operation was halted before the town was taken after international shock at the scenes of carnage. For the next six months, Fallujah became an insurgent headquarters, with waves of suicide bombers striking across the region.

The marines are part of a 22,000-strong group of reinforcements sent to Afghanistan by Barack Obama in an attempt to stem the violence at what Washington is calling a seminal juncture in the war. The US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, has said American patience is wearing thin and improvements are needed by year-end.

Operation Khanjar followed a smaller British operation further north along the Helmand River valley which regained control of the town of Babaji and surrounding areas north of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gar. British forces have, however, experienced problems in holding ground they have gained because of a lack of numbers.

The US mission began with helicopters dropping Marines into the village of Nawa, 20 miles south of Lashkar Gar, in an area which has not seen the permanent presence of either Western or Afghan government troops. The US military said the move had taken the enemy by surprise. "We are kind of forging new ground here. We are going to a place nobody has been before," said Captain Drew Schoenmaker.

The insurgents retreated into high ground and engaged the Marines in a firefight. Afghan troops were hit with rocket-propelled grenades. With gunfire echoing around them, residents fled into their mud-walled huts.

Following on from Operation Khanjar, a series of further "mini-missions" is expected to be launched but after that there will be a pause. US and British forces are not expected to launch any offensives just before the 20 August elections and in the period immediately afterwards "so as not to provoke violence".

Yesterday, the Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi declared that the Americans would not be allowed to "occupy Afghan soil". He added: "We have a large number of our fighters in the area. The Americans... will not have a permanent victory."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power