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Afghanistan: US and British to Launch Biggest Offensive since 2001

Thousands of US and British forces are preparing to launch the biggest offensive in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion.

by Ben Farmer in Kabul

American commanders gave notice on Wednesday that the assault is imminent.

An Afghan farmer watches as US Marines from 1st Battalion, 6th regiment, Charlie company patrol around Huskers camp on the outskirts of Marjah in central Helmand. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images) US, British and Afghan forces will flood into a Taliban enclave in southern Helmand province in a massive show of force intended as a decisive start to President Barack Obama's "surge" of 30,000 extra troops.

The operation is expected to involve up to 15,000 personnel and could last between six and eight weeks.

They are preparing to take the town of Marjah which they describe as a "festering sore" after last summer's Helmand offensives.

The town has been described as a nexus of militant fighters, bomb makers and opium traffickers and is believed to have given sanctuary to many fighters who fled British and US operations in central Helmand last July.

US officers believe between 600 and 1,000 fighters, including 150 foreign volunteers, are in the district.

Coalition forces have met sporadic gunfights and roadside bombs as they have manoeuvred on the town in recent weeks, but predict many will flee a determined offensive leaving a hard core.

Col George Amland, deputy commander of UN marines in Helmand, predicted Taliban ranks would "dwindle very quickly into a very manageable number" as the assault began.

Taking Marjah would fill in gaps and refuges left after last summer's Operation Sword Strike along the southern Helmand river valley.

He said: "We are going to gain control of a capital investment they have had control of for some time. We are going to alter the ecosystem here considerably." Marjah district is surrounded by irrigation canals built in the 1950s and 1960s with American aid. The district is home to around 125,000 people, including 80,000 in the town itself.

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