Feb 19, 2010

Marines Hold the Roads

NATO Holds Marjah Roads; Troops Dropped Into Key Area

By Alfred de Montesquiou, AP
Feb 19

MARJAH, Afghanistan -- Two U.S. helicopters dropped elite Marine recon teams behind Taliban lines before dawn today as the U.S.-led force stepped up operations to break resistance on the seventh day of fighting in the extremist stronghold of Marjah.

About two dozen Marines were inserted into an area where skilled Taliban marksmen are known to operate, an officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

U.S. and Afghan troops encountered the sharpshooters and better-fortified Taliban positions yesterday, indicating that insurgent resistance in their logistics and opium-smuggling center was far from crushed.

NATO said six international service members died yesterday, bringing the number of allied troops killed in the offensive to 11 NATO troops and one Afghan soldier. The international coalition did not disclose their nationalities, but Britain's Defense Ministry said two British soldiers were among the dead.

No precise figures on Taliban deaths have been released, but senior Marine officers say intelligence reports suggest more than 120 have died. The officers spoke on condition of anonymity.

Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of U.S. Marines in Marjah, said that allied forces had taken control of the main roads, bridges, and government centers in the town of 80,000 people 360 miles southwest of Kabul. "I'd say we control the spine" of Marjah, he said as he inspected the Marines' front line in the north of the dusty, mud-brick town. "We're where we want to be."

As Nicholson spoke, bursts of heavy machine-gun fire showed that insurgents still held terrain about a half-mile away. "Every day, there's not a dramatic change; it's steady," he said, noting that fighting continued to erupt.

The offensive in Marjah is the largest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and a test of President Obama's strategy for reversing the rise of the Taliban while protecting civilians.

Plans call for NATO to rush in a civilian administration, restore public services, and pour in aid to try to win the loyalty of the population in preventing the Taliban from returning.

But stubborn Taliban resistance, coupled with restrictive rules on allies' use of heavy weaponry when civilians may be at risk, have slowed the advance. The NATO commander of troops in southern Afghanistan, British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, told reporters in Washington via video hookup that he expected it could take 30 more days to secure Marjah.

NATO has given no figures on civilian deaths since a count of 15 earlier in the offensive. Afghan rights groups have reported 19 dead. Since those figures were given, much of the fighting has shifted away from the area where most civilians live.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly criticized the use of air strikes because of the risk to civilians. Twelve of the 15 deaths reported by NATO happened when two rockets hit a home Sunday.

Throughout yesterday, U.S. Marines pummeled insurgents with mortars, sniper fire, and missiles as gun battles intensified. Taliban fighters fired back with rocket-propelled grenades and rifles, some of the fire far more accurate than Marines have faced in other Afghan battles.

The increasingly accurate sniper fire - and strong intelligence on possible suicide bomb threats - indicates that insurgents from outside Marjah are still operating within the town, Nicholson said.

There were also pockets of calm yesterday. Several stores reopened in the bullet-riddled bazaar, and customers lined up to buy goods for the first time in nearly a week.

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