|US marines are in the forefront of the latest offensive to wrest Marjah from the Taliban [AFP]
The joint command at Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) has launchedwhat it calls an "Afghan-led counter-insurgency operation", sending 15,000 troops into key areas of Helmand province to fight the Taliban.
The Taliban has a fraction of that number of forces, claiming 2,000 fighters are ready to fight back.
Codenamed Operation Moshtarak (meaning "together" in the local Dari language), the latest offensive's first objective is to secure control of the town of Marjah, southwest of Helmand's provincial capital Lashkar Gah. Marjah is known to be the heart of the region's opium's cultivation and drug trade.
To the north, troops are also fighting in the district of Nad Ali, the scene of recent, smaller clashes between Nato forces and Taliban fighters.
The forces involved in Operation Moshtarak are:
- Afghans comprise about 60 per cent of the total force, although most are in support roles. This includes members of the Afghan National Army, border police and Afghan Gendarmerie.
- 1,500 Afghan army troops are fighting.
- 3,500 US marines are also being deployed.
- 2,000 British soldiers will be taking part as well, as are forces from Denmark, Estonia and Canada.
The US is calling this assault a prototype for a new kind of military operation, in which the goal is to capture the area with a minimum amount of violence.
And for the first time Nato and Afghan officials have readied a large number of Afghan administrators as well as an Afghan governor to run Marjah as soon as the fighting ends.
More than 1,000 local police are also standing by.