LASHKAR GAR, Afghanistan — U.S. Marines and Afghan forces airlifted over the Taliban-laid minefields into the center of Marjah town Saturday, apparently surprising the insurgents and taking strategic positions from them, according to military officials.
Although billed as a major confrontation between the international coalition and Afghan forces and the Taliban, the first day of the offensive in the southern Helmand province saw only sporadic fighting. Two coalition soldiers were killed, along with about 20 insurgents. It was the biggest assault since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.
The helicopter airlift into the heart of the city of 80,000 started around 2 a.m. and allowed the troops to quickly establish 11 posts throughout Marjah, while the bulk of the 15,000-man force carefully picked its way overland.
The operation had been deliberately telegraphed in advance for weeks but the military tactics still seem to have surprised the enemy.
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"We appear to have caught the insurgents on the hop. He appears to be completely dislocated," Major General Nick Carter, the British officer who is in charge of operations in south Afghanistan, told reporters at his base in Kandahar. "I'm much encouraged by the way things are going but I'm also conscious that this is only the end of the beginning."
Marjah is the last Taliban stronghold in Helmand and also the hub for a thriving heroin business in the province, which fuels the insurgents.
The U.S.-led NATO offensive, called Moshtarak, which means "together," is a joint operation between the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan army. It is designed to showcase both Afghan capability and the coalition's new approach to the war.
The extra manpower for Afghanistan announced by President Barack Obama is designed to allow the coalition to not only take territory from the insurgents but now to hold it, while Afghan police and government services come in to make the population feel secure and encourage their interest in the benefits of a stable state presence there.
The majority of Marjah's residents have not evacuated so the coalition warned remaining residents to stay inside their homes. Locals interviewed by McClatchy claimed that the Taliban were preventing residents from leaving town. The Taliban seemed intent on using homes as firing positions.
As the military attacks against the Taliban have increased in recent months, civilian causalities also have risen.
The Taliban strategy for defending Marjah seemed designed to heighten civilian casualties thereby undermining the new U.S. strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan, which is focused on "protecting the population".
Hajji Naimat made it from Marjah Saturday morning only by taking a circuitous route, first diverting south to Nawa, before heading north to the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, where several hundred families have taken refuge.
"The area is surrounded by ISAF and ANA (Afghan National Army)," Naimat told McClatchy. "The Taliban are not allowing us to go out (of Marjah). It was only with great difficulty that we made it here."
"Our situation is very bad. The center (of Marjah) is in the hands of ANA and ISAF. We are not allowed to come out of our houses. When the Taliban came to enter our house, we told them: 'For God's sake, to leave us alone,'" said Hajji Sakhidad, speaking by phone from Marjah.
Sakhidad said that, as they were turning the Taliban away from their door, gunfire some distance away injured his cousin.
One British soldier was killed by a roadside bomb while patrolling in a vehicle. The other ISAF casualty, whose nationality was not released, was killed by small arms fire. Initial reports are that he is American.
Separately, a roadside bomb killed three U.S. soldiers in the neighboring province of Kandahar, another violent area, which may be next for a concerted offensive.
In Kabul, Afghanistan's defense minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said the offensive is going according to plan.
"(Marjah) is mined heavily so we have to be slow. We have to be slow in the process of clearing that area. But so far our advance is as per schedule. There has been sporadic resistance and firing from here and there," Wardak told reporters in Kabul.
The Taliban were given weeks of warning of the operation, in an apparent deliberate attempt to pressure them into simply leaving the town. That provided plenty of time for them to mine and booby-trap the city and the surrounding villages. It is unclear how many of the estimated 2,000 Taliban fighters in Marjah stuck around to confront the Afghan and coalition armies but, if they followed their typical guerrilla tactics, most would have fled.
Wardak said: "Some of them (Taliban) have already left, there might be several hundred still." The defense minister said troops found burnt copies of the Koran strewn about in Marjah, seemingly in an attempt to malign the foreign soldiers. The desecration of the Muslim holy book caused recent riots in Afghanistan.
"The enemy is playing with people's emotions," Wardak said.
Some 15,000 soldiers are involved in the Marjah operation, with the British soldiers focused on the surrounding villages of Nad-e Ali district. A civilian effort, including Afghans and others from the international community, is supposed to follow just behind the troops.
(Shah and Zerak are McClatchy special correspondents. Shah reported from Kabul and Zerak from Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province.)
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