MARJAH, Afghanistan, (AP) – Marines and Afghan units converged on a dangerous western quarter of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah on Sunday, with NATO forces facing “determined resistance” as their assault on the southern town entered its second week.
Fighter jets, drones and attack helicopters hovered overhead, as Marine and Afghan companies moved on a 2-square-mile (5.2-sq. kilometer) area of the town where more than 40 insurgents have apparently holed up.
“They are squeezed,” said Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, commander of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. “It looks like they want to stay and fight but they can always drop their weapons and slip away. That’s the nature of this war.”
Insurgents are putting up a “determined resistance” in various parts of Marjah, though the overall offensive is “on track,” NATO said Sunday, eight days after thousands of Afghan and international forces launched their largest joint operation since the Taliban regime’s ouster in 2001.
Late last week, Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, head of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, said he believed it would take at least 30 days to complete securing the Nad Ali district and Marjah in Helmand province, a hub for a lucrative opium trade that profits militants.
The Marjah operation is a major test of a new NATO strategy that stresses protecting civilians over routing insurgents as quickly as possible. It’s also the first major ground operation since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 reinforcements to Afghanistan to curb the rise of the Taliban.
Once the town is secure, NATO plans to 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.
Twelve NATO troops and one Afghan soldier have died so far in the offensive. Senior Marine officers say intelligence reports suggest more than 120 insurgents have died.
NATO reported two more service member deaths suffered on Saturday — one by rocket or mortar fire in eastern Afghanistan and another in a bombing in southern Afghanistan. Neither was related to the Marjah area fighting, NATO said Sunday without identifying the victims by nationality.
On Sunday, Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said that they had been more prepared for large numbers of planted bombs than for the sniper shooting and sustained firefights that have characterized the last few days of the Marjah operation.
“We predicted it would take many days. But our prediction was that the insurgency would not resist that way. Maybe they would use more mines, or roadside bombs or these things,” Azimi said.
Even so, he said the operation has always been planned to last a month and noted some aspects are ahead of schedule, including the deployment of Afghan police units to the town.
He said progress through the contested areas is intentionally slow so that troops can clear bombs and take the most care possible to prevent civilian casualties as they fight the insurgents.
On Saturday, President Hamid Karzai had urged NATO to do more to protect civilians during combat operations to secure Marjah.
NATO forces have repeatedly said they want to prevent civilian casualties but acknowledged that it is not always possible. On Saturday, the alliance said its troops killed another civilian in the Marjah area, bringing the civilian death toll from the operation to at least 16.
Though NATO had made progress in reducing civilian casualties — mainly by reducing airstrikes and restricting combat rules — more needed to be done, Karzai said.
“We need to reach the point where there are no civilian casualties,” he said. “Our effort and our criticism will continue until we reach that goal.”
Karzai had also reached out to Taliban fighters, urging them to renounce al-Qaeda and join with the government.
But the process of reconciliation and reintegration is likely to prove difficult.
On Sunday, Mohammad Jan Rasool Yar, spokesman for Zabul province, said authorities arrested 14 police in the Shar-e Safa district on Saturday who had defected to the Taliban’s side last week and were found on a bus heading to Pakistan.