- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 16, 2010

MARJAH, Afghanistan | Taliban insurgents appear to be using the cover of darkness to slip behind U.S. lines in this southern Afghanistan town that is the key objective of a major U.S.-led military offensive.

Marines and Afghan soldiers came under repeated counterattacks in the Taliban’s Helmand province stronghold on Monday. Small, mobile teams of insurgents fired rifles, rockets and grenades at the joint force from the cover of compounds already deemed free of weapons and explosives.

The insurgent resistance is slowing the allied advance to a crawl despite Afghan government claims that the insurgents are broken and on the run.

By midday, at least six large gunbattles were being fought across the town, too many for helicopter gunships to cover them all. Troops say the strict rules of engagement aimed at protecting civilians are making it difficult to use enough firepower to stop the attacks.

Still, allied officials have reported only two coalition deaths so far, an American and a Briton killed Saturday, and there have been no reports of wounds.

Afghan officials say at least 27 insurgents have been killed in the three-day-old offensive.

Afghan assault targets Taliban drug trade

Also Monday, NATO said five civilians were accidentally killed and two wounded by an air strike when they were mistakenly thought to have been planting roadside bombs in Kandahar province, east of the Marjah offensive.

The air strike happened one day after 12 people, half of them children, were killed by two U.S. missiles that struck a house on the outskirts of Marjah. Afghan officials said Monday that three Taliban fighters were in the house at the time of the attack.

On the third day of the main attack on Marjah, Afghan commanders spoke optimistically about progress in the town of about 80,000 people, the linchpin of the Taliban logistical and opium poppy smuggling network in the militant-influenced south.

Brig. Gen. Sher Mohammad Zazai, commander of Afghan troops in the south, told reporters in nearby Lashkar Gah that there had been “low resistance” in the town, adding “soon we will have Marjah cleared of enemies.”

Interior Minister Hanif Atmar said many insurgent fighters had already fled Marjah, possibly heading for Pakistan.

As long as the town remains unstable, NATO officials cannot move to the second phase — restoring Afghan government control and rushing in aid and public services to win over inhabitants who have been living under Taliban rule for years.

About 15,000 U.S., Afghan and British troops are taking part in the massive offensive around Marjah area — the largest southern town under Taliban control. The offensive is the biggest joint operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.

The main attack began before dawn Saturday when dozens of helicopters dropped hundreds of Marines and Afghan soldiers into the heart of the city. Ground troops began moving just before sunrise, using makeshift bridges to cross the irrigation canals ringing the town because the main bridge was so heavily mined.

Although there was only scattered resistance on the first day, Taliban fighters seem to have regrouped, using hit-and-run tactics to try to prevent the Americans and their Afghan allies from gaining full control of the area.

The Taliban snipers appeared highly skilled at concealing themselves.

“I haven’t seen anything, not one person, not a muzzle flash,” said Richard Knie, of Hudson, Iowa, a former Marine and retired police officer embedded with the Marines as a law enforcement professional. “And I’ve been looking a lot.”

Troops complained that strict rules to protect civilians made it difficult to use enough firepower to stop the attacks.

“I understand the reason behind it, but it’s so hard to fight a war like this,” said Lance Cpl. Travis Anderson, 20, from Altoona, Iowa. “They’re using our rules of engagement against us,” he said, adding that his platoon had repeatedly seen men dropping their guns into ditches before walking away to melt among civilians.

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