- The Washington Times - Friday, February 19, 2010

MARJAH, Afghanistan | U.S.-led forces control the main roads and markets in the besieged Taliban stronghold of Marjah, a Marine general said Thursday, even as fighting raged elsewhere in the southern farming town.

Marines and Afghan soldiers encountered better-fortified Taliban positions and more-skilled marksmen on the sixth day of the assault, indicating Taliban resistance in their logistics and opium-smuggling center was far from crushed. A British general said he expected it would take another month to secure the town.

NATO said four service members died Thursday, bringing the number of allied troops killed in the offensive to nine 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 said intelligence reports suggest more than 120 have died. The officers spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of U.S. Marines in Marjah, said allied forces have taken control of the main roads, bridges and government centers in Marjah, a town of about 80,000 people located 360 miles southwest of Kabul.

“I’d say we control the spine” of the town, 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 Brig. Gen. Nicholson spoke, bursts of heavy machine-gun fire in the near distance showed that insurgents still hold terrain about a half-mile away.

The offensive in Marjah is the biggest 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 Taliban resistance, coupled with restrictive rules on allies’ use of heavy weaponry when civilians may be at risk, have slowed the advance through the town. The NATO commander of troops in southern Afghanistan, British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, told reporters in Washington via a video hookup that he expects it could take another 30 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.

Also Thursday, a NATO air strike in northern Afghanistan missed a group of insurgents and killed seven Afghan policemen, the Afghan Interior Ministry said. A NATO statement acknowledged the report and said it and the ministry were investigating.

In eastern Afghanistan, eight Afghan policemen defected to the Taliban, according to Mirza Khan, the deputy provincial police chief.

The policemen abandoned their posts in central Wardak province’s Chak district and joined the militants there, he said.


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