NATO offensive kicks into Taliban

AP/NY Times:

Hundreds of British troops swept into the lush poppy fields of southern Afghanistan Monday, drawing hostile fire at the start of a NATO operation to expel the Taliban from a valley stronghold.

More than 3,000 NATO and Afghan troops are participating in the operation, the latest effort to bring Helmand province under the control of President Hamid Karzai.

A long column of armored vehicles brought several hundred British soldiers to the Sangin Valley, near the town of Gereshk and Afghanistan's strategic ring road that links the cities of Kandahar and Herat.

''It is all part of a longer-term plan to restore the whole of Helmand to government control,'' said Lt. Col. Stuart Carver, a British commander. ''You have to do it a piece at a time.''

The British soldiers came under attack from mortar rounds and machine-gun fire after they fanned out to patrol on foot.

An Associated Press reporter traveling with the troops heard officers ordering British artillery units to respond. Three Apache helicopters flew overhead but didn't immediately open fire. There were no reports of casualties.

The operation will not touch Helmand's poppy fields, which supply much of the world's opium and its more potent derivative, heroin. That could antagonize the 2 million farmers whose livelihoods depend on growing poppy, something the alliance wishes to avoid.

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There was also a big fight near Herat to the west killing 136 Taliban.

The battle in the poppy fields is still something of a dilemma for NATO. The world would certainly be a better place if the crops were destroyed. However, adding two million to the ranks of the Taliban would certainly make NATO's job much more difficult. So, the crops will be dealt with later.It appears the Taliban response to the offensive is pretty week at this point. They are not really encountering dug in resistance so far. Ineffective machine gun fire and mortar attacks that cause no casualties appear to be more flash bang noise makers rather than serious defensive efforts. It might have been enough to halt the Dutch force with its soft approach to warfare but this offensive is intended to be the real deal.

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