Marines and Afghan units converged Sunday on a dangerous western quarter of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, with NATO forces facing "determined resistance" as their assault on the southern town entered its second week.
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.
In a setback to that strategy, the Dutch prime minister said Sunday that his country's 1,600 troops would probably leave Afghanistan this year. Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende spoke a day after his government collapsed when a coalition partner insisted the Dutch troops leave in August as planned.
Fighter jets, drones and attack helicopters flew over Marjah, 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.
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.
NATO said one service member involved in the Marjah offensive was killed Sunday in a roadside bombing in southern Afghanistan, bringing the number of allied soldiers killed in the operation to 13. One Afghan soldier also has been killed. Senior Marine officers say intelligence reports suggest more than 120 insurgents have died.
NATO also said two service members were killed Saturday — one by rocket or mortar fire in eastern Afghanistan and another in a bombing in the south. Those fatalities was not related to the Marjah area fighting, NATO said. Their nationalities were not given.
Marine spokesman Lt. Josh Diddams said that the Marines and Afghan troops are continuing to run into "pockets of stiff resistance" though they are making progress. "We've established a presence," he said.
Diddams said no area is completely calm yet although three markets in town are at least partially open.
"Everywhere we've got Marines, we're running into insurgents," Diddams said. In many cases, the militants are fighting out of bunkers fortified with sandbags and other materials.
On Sunday, Marine squads in the western section of Marjah used missiles to destroy a large, abandoned school compound that had been booby-trapped with explosives in Marjah. The school had been shut down two years earlier by the Taliban, residents told Marines.
"They said they would kill the father of any child that went to school," said farmer Maman Jan, deploring that his six children were illiterate.
Marines also found several abandoned Kalashnikov rifles along with ammunition hidden in homes. Sporadic volleys of insurgent machine-gun fire rang out through the day.
"They shoot from right here in front of a house, they don't care that there are children around," said Abdel Rahim, a Kuchi nomad.
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," he said. Azimi said progress through the contested areas is slow so that troops can clear bombs and take care to prevent civilian casualties.
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.
On Saturday, President Hamid Karzai urged NATO to do more to protect civilians during combat operations to secure Marjah, although he noted the military alliance had made progress in doing that — mainly by reducing airstrikes and adopting more restrictive combat rules.
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.
Karzai also reached out to Taliban fighters, urging them to renounce al-Qaida 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.
NATO said two insurgents, including a suspected Taliban commander, were captured Friday in northern Helmand province. The men are believed to be involved in making roadside bombs. They, along with three others earlier in the week, had been caught as part of an operation to break up the Taliban's weapons supply line.
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