In Helmand Province, poppy cultivation funds insurgent activities. As the operation began, the US military announced a US soldier had been captured in another province.
Nearly 4,000 US Marines and 650 Afghan soldiers and police moved into riverside towns in Helmand Province overnight. The operation marks the first major strike using some of the additional 21,000 US forces sent to Afghanistan by President Barack Obama.
As the offensive got under way, the military said that an American soldier who had been missing since Tuesday was believed to have been captured in Paktika Province, in eastern Afghanistan. A spokesman for the Taliban could not confirm that the soldier was being held by militants.
Over the past several years, British forces have struggled to permanently wrest territory in Helmand away from entrenched Taliban insurgents. The fertile province leads the nation in poppy cultivation and has become a cash cow for insurgents involved in the drug trade.
However, Helmand’s rich agriculture land and large population also make it attractive as an initial target for the new US-led counterinsurgency push, say analysts.
“It provides a lot of the drugs which are sold in order to fund the insurgency, but it also provides a lot of opportunities for turning the population around,” says Christopher Langton, a retired British Army colonel and senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “It’s a relatively fertile province with the possibility of the cultivation of a lot of legal crops.”