Senior defense and military officials said Monday that the U.S. and allied military offensive in southern Afghanistan is making steady progress although it has been slowed by resistance from insurgents.
The offensive near the town of Marjah in Helmand province, led by U.S. Marines and now 10 days old, is encountering moderate resistance, mainly in the form of Taliban snipers and hidden roadside bombs.
The next phase of the operation will be for the 15,000 U.S. and allied forces to try to hold the Marjah region and move on to the nearby Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in the coming days.
“This is the second week of this operation,” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon. “It’s well-planned. The Afghans are in the lead. … But it’s going to take some time. There have been some successes, and there have also been some tougher spots. I just think it’s early.”
Adm. Mullen said at a press briefing that “as you’ve all been seeing, we’re making steady, if perhaps a bit slower than anticipated, progress.”
“By all accounts, the Taliban’s resistance has been, at best, disjointed,” Adm. Mullen said. “But we have experienced difficulties. In some places, the enemy fights harder than expected. The IEDs he has planted along the roads and at intersections, though crude, are still deadly,” he said, referring to improvised explosive devices.
A NATO air strike in central Afghanistan killed some 27 Afghan civilians, in the third coalition raid this month that hit civilians.
Adm. Mullen said the tragic bombing “reminds us of just how fragile and how tragic any move we can make can ultimately be.”
The four-star admiral declined to go into details noting that the air strike is under investigation. However, he stated: “I would remind everyone of an essential truth: War is bloody and uneven. It’s messy and ugly and incredibly wasteful, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the cost.”
Also Monday, a suicide bomber detonated explosives at a community meeting in eastern Afghanistan, killing 15 civilians including a prominent tribal leader widely criticized for failing to prevent Osama bin Laden’s escape at Tora Bora after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Associated Press reported.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Michele A. Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy, said the campaign to retake control of Marjah is the first step in a larger campaign to break the control of the Taliban throughout the country. The next phase will be to move into Kandahar.
“Marjah is an opening salvo. It is a first step. It is designed to begin to create that shift in momentum,” she said. “And I think once we have that in Helmand the focus will shift to Kandahar province.”
Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John M. Paxton Jr. told the Senate hearing that the strategy of the current military offensive is to first break the Taliban’s grip on Marjah and surrounding towns that he said were “sanctuary and safe haven” for the insurgents.
The offensive is designed to “crack the insurgent stronghold there, to open the freedom of movement” on the way to Kandahar, Gen. Paxton said.
The strategy calls for Afghan and coalition forces to hold Marjah and surrounding areas with troops and then move into Kandahar. Gen. Paxton said the offensive has driven many insurgents “north and east” of Marjah.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, appearing with Adm. Mullen, said steps are being taken to minimize civilian casualties.
Asked about the recent capture of the Taliban’s military commander, Mr. Gates, said “what we’re seeing is the importance of operations on both side of the border.”
U.S. and allied security forces earlier this month arrested the No. 2 Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Karachi, in what U.S. officials said was a major strike against the Islamist militia.
Gen. Paxton said a number of Taliban leaders and fighters have been captured during recent operations but the number was not significant.
Adm. Mullen stated there are mixed reports on the performance of Afghan military forces in the offensive, which number around 4,500 troops. “They are in the lead. There have been Afghan security forces that have performed exceptionally well. There’s certainly no frequency of reports that they’re not doing that,” he said.