Major Op in Helmand Valley underway in Afghanistan

It's being called the first "large scale test" of our new counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan and it involves about 4,000 Marines who will spread out over the valley and set up camp in the small villages and towns that dot the countryside.

The focus of the mission will be to protect the villagers from the Taliban while trying to restore government services according to this piece by Rajiv Chandrasekaran in the Washington Post:

"We're doing this very differently," Nicholson said to his senior officers a few hours before the mission began. "We're going to be with the people. We're not going to drive to work. We're going to walk to work."

Similar approaches have been tried in the eastern part of the country, but none has had the scope of the mission in Helmand, a vast province that is largely an arid moonscape save for a band of fertile land that lines the Helmand River. Poppies grown in that territory produce half the world's supply of opium and provide the Taliban with a valuable source of income.

The operation launched early Thursday represents a shift in strategy after years of thwarted U.S.-led efforts to destroy Taliban sanctuaries in Afghanistan and extend the authority of the Afghan government into the nation's southern and eastern regions. More than seven years after the fall of the Taliban government, the radical Islamist militia remains a potent force across broad swaths of the country. The Obama administration has made turning the war around a top priority, and the Helmand operation, if it succeeds, is seen as a potentially critical first step.

There will be no hunt and kill missions but that doesn't mean there won't be combat. Our boys will be targets of attacks no doubt, and it will be important to try and re-establish government control in an area where every time in the past the Taliban have been kicked out, they have infiltrated back in.

A critical first step, indeed.