MARJAH, Afghanistan (AP) – U.S. Marines and Afghan squads engaged in sustained gunfights with insurgents shooting from residential compounds where families huddled Saturday, as President Hamid Karzai called on coalition troops to do more to prevent civilian deaths during their offensive on a key Taliban stronghold.
During a speech at the opening session of the Afghan parliament in Kabul, Karzai said NATO’s efforts to prevent civilian deaths during its operations were insufficient because innocent people keep dying.
He also repeated his call to Taliban fighters to renounce Al Qaeda and join with the government, an appeal that may resonate more after recent arrests of Taliban leaders in Pakistan.
Karzai held up a picture of an 8-year-old girl who he said was the only one left to recover the bodies of her 12 relatives, all killed when two NATO rockets struck their home during the offensive in the southern town of Marjah. He called the incident a tragedy for all Afghanistan. But he also acknowledged that NATO has made progress in reducing civilian casualties and airstrikes, which have been responsible for some of the largest incidents of civilian deaths. And he thanked NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who attended the speech, for “standing with us honestly in this effort.” However, Karzai stressed that the effort is not sufficient.
“We need to reach the point where there are no civilian casualties,” Karzai said. “Our effort and our criticism will continue until we reach that goal.”
NATO forces have repeatedly said they want to prevent civilian casualties, but acknowledged that it is not always possible. NATO and Afghan troops “remain committed to reducing the possibilities of civilian and combined force casualties,” the coalition said in a statement Saturday.
Karzai’s comments came as NATO reported that its troops killed another civilian in Marjah, bringing the civilian death toll from the operation to at least 16.
NATO troops fired on the man after he dropped a box that they believed held a bomb and started running toward them, NATO said. Afterward, they found the box contained materials that could have been used to make a bomb, but no explosive.
Despite the presence of the suspicious materials, NATO categorized the dead man as a civilian.
The week-old operation in Marjah is a major test of a new NATO strategy that stresses protecting civilians over routing insurgents as quickly as possible.
Speaking at Princeton University on Saturday, Army Gen. David Petraeus said the policy shift took away the Taliban’s use of civilian deaths as propaganda. “We’re going to be able to beat the enemy around the head with civilian casualties that he is causing,” Petraeus said.
But in Marjah, the painstaking process of separating out innocent people from militants has also slowed troops’ progress in gaining control of the town. “Fighting remains difficult in the northeast and west of Marjah, but insurgent activity is not limited to those
areas,” NATO said in a statement.
Marine spokesman Capt. Abe Sipe, said U.S. and Afghan forces are continuing to see “pockets throughout the city where we’re meeting stiffer resistance.”
“There are some indications that the insurgents inside the city don’t have all the supplies they need, but at the same time we do expect them to be putting up resistance for some time,” Sipe said.
On Saturday, Marines and Afghan soldiers faced hours of sporadic but intense gunfights from insurgent snipers often shooting from compounds where families could be seen huddling. Troops kneeling for cover in muddy ditches were returning fire with machine guns and grenades.
“We’ve been hurling lead all day,” said Lt. Carl Quist, who headed a front-line platoon.
The massive operation in Marjah, a major southern Taliban stronghold and drug hub, is the biggest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. Twelve NATO troops have died so far in the offensive in Helmand province, and senior Marine officers say intelligence reports suggest more than 120 insurgents have died.
The plan is to secure the area and then rush in a civilian Afghan administration, restore public services and pour in aid to try to win the loyalty of the population and prevent the Taliban from returning.
Outside of town, government workers are already signing up people for jobs working on rebuilding the area, NATO said. Compounds are being identified for schools, and the district governor has recorded a radio message urging insurgents to call the government if they want to switch sides.
But residents are also still dealing with the toll of the fighting. In a cemetery marked by green and white flags in Helmand’s provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, men buried one Marjah resident who died of injuries sustained in what his brother said was a coalition bombing three days ago. “I buried him here, because I couldn’t take him back to my village,” the brother, Sayed Wali, told Associated Press Television.
In his speech, Karzai pressed Taliban fighters once again to put down their guns and join with the Afghan government, saying “Stop the war. Come back to your home and help with the reconstruction.”
He said he was confident the appeal he has been making for years has more chance of succeeding now that the international community is supporting the idea. Saudi Arabia has long been involved in trying to broker talks with the Taliban, and other nations also backed the idea at a recent conference in London.
Meanwhile, in Pakistan, a number of high-profile Taliban arrests have been made in recent weeks and a CIA missile strike there killed the brother of a Taliban commander. Elsewhere in Afghanistan, the Interior Ministry said six people had been killed by roadside bombs in two separate incidents in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces. Insurgents also attacked police clearing a poppy field in
Helmand’s Nari Saraj district, killing six officers, provincial spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said.