With so much going on, sometimes we forget about the blood sweat and tears that are being shed over in Afghanistan.
One American Marine has been killed as U.S. and Afghan forces on Friday continued their massive offensive deeper into Helmand River valley. The assault, the first major Afghan operation by the Obama administration, is part of an overall effort to secure militant strongholds ahead of Afghanistan’s national elections next month.
Nearly 4,000 Marines and about 600 Afghan soldiers are expanding their sweep of Southern Afghanistan, securing the Garmsir, Nawa, and Rig districts.
One Marine has died in action and several others wounded in the offensive. No civilian casualties have been reported, according to the Pentagon, and U.S. and Afghan forces have refrained from using artillery and other indirect fire weapons. No air strikes were conducted, but the 82nd Airborne Division Combat Brigade provided aviation support.
Called Operation Khanjar or Strike of the Sword, the operation was launched on Thursday, two days after American forces withdrew from the cities of Iraq, and less than two months before Afghanistan’s Aug. 20 presidential elections.
Similar NATO operations are underway in other parts of Helmand and Kandahar, such as the British led Operation Panchai Palang launched last week.
Over 90 percent of Afghanistan’s opium is harvested in Helmand, where militants support their activities from one of the world’s largest poppy fields. Most of the crop is made into black tar opium and then smuggled out of the country to be processed into heroin. The province’s opium economy constitute half of miltant funding, according to the Pentagon.
“Where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces,” Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commanding general of Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan, said in a statement. “The Taliban offer no future, no hope, and we will work to provide immediate security gains to the local citizens of the Helmand River Valley.”
Concern over burns on Afghans caught in battle
Afghanistan’s leading human rights organization was investigating the possibility that white phosphorus was used in a U.S.-Taliban battle that killed scores of Afghans in which heavy air strikes were witnessed. The U.S. military rejected speculation it had used the weapon but left open the possibility Taliban militants did.
White phosphorus can be employed legitimately in battle, but rights groups say its use over populated areas can indiscriminately burn civilians and constitutes a war crime.
Afghan doctors are concerned over what they are calling “unusual” burns on Afghans wounded in Farah province, which President Hamid Karzai has said may have killed 125 to 130 civilians.
Allegations that white phosphorus or another chemical may have been used threatens to deepen the controversy over what Afghan officials say could be the worst case of civilian deaths since the 2001 U.S. invasion that ousted the Taliban regime. The incident in Farah drew the condemnation of Karzai who called for an end to air strikes.
Nader Nadery, a commissioner for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, said officials were concerned white phosphorus may have been used, but he said more investigation was needed.
“Our teams have met with patients,” Nadery told The Associated Press. “They are investigating the cause of the injuries and the use of white phosphorus.”
Gul Ahmad Ayubi, the deputy head of Farah’s health department, said the province’s main hospital had received 14 patients after the battle, all with burn wounds. Dr. Mohammad Aref Jalali, the head of the burn unit at the Herat Regional Hospital in Western Afghanistan who has treated five patients wounded in the battle, described the burns as “unusual.”
White phosphorus is a spontaneously flammable material that can cause painful chemical burns. It is used to mark targets, create smoke screens or as a weapon, and can be delivered by shells, flares or hand grenades, according to GlobalSecurity.org.
The U.S. military used white phosphorus in the battle of Fallujah in Iraq in November 2004. Israel’s military used it in January against Hamas targets in Gaza.
Col. Greg Julian, the top U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan had said the U.S. did not use white phosphorus as a weapon in Farah. Yet it was admitted the U.S. does use white phosphorous to illuminate the night sky.
U.N. human rights investigators have also seen “extensive” burn wounds on victims and have raised questions about how the injuries were caused, said a U.N. official who asked not to be identified talking about internal deliberations. The U.N. has reached no conclusions about whether any chemical weapons may have been used, the official said.
Human rights groups denounce its use for the severe burns it causes, though it is not banned by any treaty to which the United States is a signatory.