US led NATO troops launched an offensive today against the Taliban's last big stronghold in Afghanistan's Helmand province, a test of President Barack Obama's troop surge strategy. Wave after wave of helicopters landed across central Helmand marking the start of the major offensive that aims to finally defeat the insurgency. Two hours before dawn the first Chinooks swept low over the Taliban district capital of Showal disgorging a force of British, Afghan and French troops signalling D-Day, the start of Operation Moshtarak. The aircraft swept into landing zone Pegasus at 4am local time with three Chinooks packed with British, Afghan and French soldiers. The landings marked the start of the offensive involving 15,000 American, British and Afghan troops in the Marjah and Nad-e-Ali areas. Hours before midnight the Afghan leader President Hamid Karzai gave his personal approval for the operation to go ahead. It had been delayed for 24 hours as Afghan officials entered last minute negotiations to broker a deal with power-brokers in the area to get the Taliban to lay down their arms. Brigadier James Cowan, the commander of 11 Light Brigade, in an eve of battle speech told his men they were embarking on an operation that will clear the Taliban from its safe havens in central Helmand. Where we go, we will stay. Where we stay, we will build, he told to the troops in Camp Bastion. The next few days will not be without danger. Hold your fire if there is risk to the innocent, even if this puts you in greater danger. For those who will not shake our hand they will find it closed into a fist. They will be defeated. I wish you Godspeed and the best of luck. Landing in the cold, dark night into a ploughed field the soldiers of the 1st Bn The Royal Welsh slogged their way through clinging mud to assault the compounds. The men picked their way cautiously across the ground constantly checking for the ever-present threat of hidden bombs. Accompanied by Afghan commandos they seized several compounds. A few minutes after the initial wave other troops from A Company flew into landing zone Varsity to surround another village. The airborne attack marked the biggest air assault since the first Gulf War in 1991. Hours before the landings a special forces raid targeted Taliban redoubts that overlooked helicopter landing sites. The fleet of helicopters included 11 Chinooks, four American Blackhawks, eight Apache attack helicopters, three Merlin and four Griffin helicopter gunships. In a pre-operational briefing troops were told that if one aircraft went down it would not mean mission abort but that they should be prepared to quickly rejig the planning. British, American and Afghan ground forces also crossed over the Taliban front line pushing the enemy back from areas that they have held for years. The operation dwarfs the Panthers Claw assault in the Babaji area last summer in which 10 British soldiers were killed. Other troops from the Royal Welsh were landed across the area a third the size of the Isle of Wight, some by Canadian Chinooks guarded by Griffin helicopter gunships. Within two hours the entire assault force was set down across six different landing zones in the northern Nad-e-Ali area referred to as the Cat Triangle that contains a population of 40,000. It is estimated the enemy strength, which at its highest point reach 300 fighters, may have shrunk to less than 100 with a number melting away from the area before the attack began. The northern Nad-a-Ali sector, which is being secured by the Royal Welsh battle group, has been under the thrall of the Taliban for several years with the local population suffering intimidation and violence. Schools have been closed and the infrastructure has suffered in the district where the insurgents have set up a shadow government. But more importantly the area is vital to the Talibans income as poppies are widely grown for opium and heroin use. While corruption is rife in the Afghan government it is hoped that local farmers will be persuaded to grow alternative crops denying the insurgents of the poppy income that sustains their operations. The central Helmand area is seen as key in winning the counter-insurgency battle in the province as it contains three-quarters of the population and much of the agricultural land. For weeks the local population has been warned of the impending attack by radio broadcasts and leafleting campaign and have been told to remain in their homes during combat operations. In Showal A Company plan to push their way up through the town street by street until they seize the bazaar area where Taliban forces are entrenched. A key iconic moment will come when the joint British and Afghan force removes the white Taliban flag that has been flying from a crane overlooking the town for several years. We are expecting the Taliban to say to themselves that we are going to get malleted here and will decide to live another day, said Major Shon Hackney, A Companys commander, before the operation launched. We want to go in without firing a shot if we can but we are also prepared for hard fighting. The task force is supported by artillery firepower from all points of the compass. From Camp Bastion, 15 miles away to the north, highly accurate 250lb missiles from the Guided Multi Launch Rocket System are on hand alongside Paladin 155mm American heavy guns at another base. To the south the 105mm light guns of the 1 Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery are poised to fire and from all directions there are 81mm mortars at various patrol bases on hand. An armada of bombers overhead include RAF Tornado GR4s, American A10 Warthog and Dutch F16s. In addition armed Predator drones and other unmanned vehicles patrol the skies. In the coming days the force will carry out super hot stabilisation in which they will identify reconstruction projects such as refurbishing mosques or repairing roads to win the support of the locals. For the first time Helmand will have enough troops what commanders call force density to contain the insurgency, with an average of one soldier per 25 head of population. The operation has the full support of President Hamid Karzai who has been personally briefed by the British general in overall command of the operation, Major General Nick Carter. Lt Col Nick Lock, commanding officer of the Royal Welsh battle group, said: We are making a big leap forward here. Critical to this has been getting everyone on the ground safely as it is clearly a dangerous part of the world. My gut feeling is that the Taliban will not put up a fight but if they do then we have enough resources to remove them by force. After the area has been secured materials to build a number of patrol bases and checkpoints will be brought in to allow the British and Afghan police and army to tighten their grip on the area as it is expected the Taliban will counter-attack with a guerrilla campaign. Moshtarak means together in Dari and for the first time ISAF troops will be working shoulder-to-shoulder with equal numbers of Afghan security forces. If the operation is a success it will endorse the new counter-insurgency approach of Gen Stanley McChrystal who has insisted on Afghans taking a lead role and for the Kabul government to endorse the operation. The way to defeat the Taliban is to show the people that they are better off being with the government of Afghanistan than they are with what the Taliban have to offer, Major Gen Carter said. A list of combined forces in southern Afghan assault A combined Afghan and international force Saturday launched an assault on a Taliban-held region of southern Afghanistan. NATO said the force totalled 15,000 for Operation Mushtarak, meaning "together" in Dari, aimed at re-establishing Afghan sovereignty over an area controlled for years by insurgents and drug traffickers. The participants in the operation, according to NATO, are as follows: Approximately five brigades of Afghan forces, including members of the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, Afghan Border Police and Afghan Gendarmerie (formerly Afghan National Civil Order Police). ISAF Regional Command (South) elements, with forces drawn from the US, Britain, Denmark, Estonia and Canada. These elements include: 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines (US) 1st Battalion, 6th Marines (US) 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines (US) 4th Battalion, 23rd IN Stryker (US) Combat Engineer Battalion (US) Light Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (US) 1 Coldstream Guards Battle Group (UK) 1 Grenadier Guards Battle Group (UK) 1 Royal Welsh Battle Group (UK) Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team (UK) Operational Mentor and Liaison Team (UK) Task Force Pegasus Task Force Kandahar