After the first day of the new major offensive in Helman province, 4,000 US Marines have thus far met little resistance as they push their way into the Taliban-controlled southern end of Afghanistan.  Instead of fighting, many Marines have established themselves in the villages and begun coordinating with local leaders to root out any terrorists hiding in the advance area.  One Marine has been killed, as has the highest-ranking British officer to die in combat in this theater:

U.S. Marines moved into villages in Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan on Friday, meeting little resistance as they tried to win over local chiefs on the second day of the biggest American military operation here since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001.

One Marine was killed and several others wounded on Thursday, when some 4,000 Marines launched the operation in Helmand province — a remote area that is at the center of the country’s illegal opium cultivation, which helps finance the insurgency.

So far, however, there has been little resistance from the Taliban, according to a military spokesman Capt. Bill Pelletier. …

Britain’s Defense Ministry said a roadside bomb Wednesday in Helmand killed two soldiers, including the most senior U.K. officer to have died in combat in Afghanistan. Lt. Col. Rupert Thorneloe was the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown praised Thorneloe as someone “I admire and someone who will be missed by all his colleagues in the armed forces for the leadership he gave, the bravery he showed and the professionalism at all times he exhibited.”

The mission focuses on winning hearts and minds in Helmand, the nation’s primary region for opium.  Part of that will entail massive investments in infrastructure.  The farmers of that region have no way to store crops in the harsh winters — no electricity, no refrigeration, and no reliable transportation paths.  Opium provides a reliable year-round income because it doesn’t require refrigeration and never spoils.  Unfortunately, the Taliban have a thriving loan-sharking business in Helmand that enslaves the farmers and forces them to grow opium in order to keep from being killed or having their children stolen from them, although lately that’s not much of a guarantee.

If the Marines can secure Helmand, the Taliban will not just lose ground but also a big part of their revenue.  Successful counter-insurgency work will create trust between locals and the US, much as we saw in Iraq once we began working within the social-tribal system there.  The lack of initial resistance is a good sign that we can use softer methods on the ground to kick the struts out of the Taliban in the most critical region for their survival in Afghanistan.