U.S. and Afghan commanders braced for stiffer Taliban resistance and ramped up the public-relations effort as U.S.-led forces pushed ahead with a major offensive into the southern Afghan town of Marjah.
The coalition said at least 15 Afghan civilians have been killed since the operation kicking off the U.S. surge began Saturday, but U.S. commanders said that toll hasn't cost them the ability to win local support.
At a briefing with field commanders Monday, top allied commander U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal stressed the importance of getting the word out that a rocket that killed 12 civilians on Sunday hadn't missed its target, as previously reported, but hit a house from which coalition soldiers were taking fire. Unknown to the men who called the strike, there were civilians inside, officials said
"We know the truth in this room right now and we need to make sure it gets out," he said.
It was the type of incident Gen. McChrystal has sought to avoid by tightening the rules of engagement, a move that has sharply reduced the overall level of civilian casualties. Adding to the challenge, insurgent fighters in at least one incident Monday used women and children to carry weapons and shield their attacks on coalition forces.
Marjah, with 75,000 residents, is the last Taliban bastion in the central Helmand River Valley. The alliance has committed some 15,000 Afghan, U.S. and British troops to an effort to oust the Taliban from Marjah and surrounding areas, with an eye to bringing the Afghan government back to the town.
The strategy publicly puts protecting Afghans first and emphasizes the role of governance and effective civilian administration, while special forces work to pick off hard-core Taliban insurgents. The strategy also plays up the role of Afghanistan's fledgling armed forces and of the government in Kabul.
In the battle for control of Marjah—the biggest coalition offensive since the Taliban government fell in2001—insurgents appeared to be making their fiercest stand at the central Koru Chareh bazaar and a dense residential area the Marines dubbed the Pork Chop, for its shape.
While in much of the town insurgents used hidden explosives and hit-and-run attacks to try to slow the coalition's advance, in the Koru Chareh area the insurgents launched coordinated attacks that last several hours.
NATO forces move further into Helmand province, Afghanistan, in a bid to remove Taliban forces from the area.
"We didn't know if they'd leave or stay and contest this a little bit," said Capt. Ryan Sparks, the company commander. "It looks like they want to contest this."
Taliban fighters rained rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire onto the outpost. The fighters had at least one skilled sniper, who hit several Marines and used a rifle with muzzle suppressor to make his hiding place harder to detect.
"He's bringing his A-game because this is his last stand," Lt. Col. Calvin Worth, commander of 1st Battalion, 6th Marines said of the Taliban insurgents.
The coalition advance has been plodding, slowed by mines and hidden bombs. The infantrymen and engineers who moved in vehicles on Monday to support Company B, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, took close to five hours to travel a little more than a mile, due to the threat of buried explosives.
Company B has faced determined opposition. "We're fighting an offense from a defense," said 1st Lt. Mark Greenlief, the company's executive officer. The tough slog was delaying plans to roll out a ready-made civilian administration that will start pouring in millions of dollars in aid to the area.
"They're going to start poking back at us to prove it won't work," said Gen. McChrystal on a visit to an outpost manned by British and Afghan soldiersnorth of where the heaviest fighting is taking place.
How long the Taliban might be able to slow the offensive remained unclear. Intelligence reports indicate the few hundred insurgents who are still fighting the thousands of U.S, Afghan and British troops in and around Marjah are low on food and ammunition.
Marines in the city also reported that a midlevel Taliban commander had arrived in recent days with orders from Taliban elders in Pakistan to evacuate fighters who could escape. To evade the allied cordon around the town, some insurgents were donning the head-to-toe burkhas worn by Afghan women, the reports said.
A Marine leaps a ditch during a firefight with Taliban in Marjah on Monday. The coalition advance has been slowed by mines and hidden bombs.
MARJAH Coalition and Afghan officials redoubled their efforts to win over the town's population. Allied forces set up radio towers on either side of Marjah so they can explain in broadcasts what they are doing, and decry the evils of the TalibThe "Taliban are savages…their behavior is not based on any principles" began one broadcast, according to people in town. "Once the government reestablishes its institutions, people will realize there is a responsible administration," the broadcast continued.
The conflict in Afghanistan "is not purely a military problem," Gen. McChrystal said between stops and briefings Monday. "It is about getting people to believe."
The approach stands in stark contrast to the straightforward search-and-destroy mission that the war in Afghanistan often resembled in the past nine years. Instead of simply clearing out the Taliban and leaving, in Marjah and future operations, coalition forces are to stay in place and give Afghan authorities time to reassert their control.
One of the most publicized initiatives to win over the local population has been the convening of a "shura"—a traditional Afghan council—of Marjah tribal elders since just before the shooting began.
That effort appeared to be yielding a return Monday when 10 men offered up by the shura began working as guides to help allied forces find bombs planted by the insurgents and to find Taliban fighters who have melted back into the population.
The insurgents appeared to be trying to take advantage of the allied rules of engagement. On Monday, Marines spotted 10 or so fighters approaching the Pork Chop area, with women and children carrying their weapons in bundles.
"They have weapons caches in mosques," said Lt. Greenlief.
The Marines requested an airstrike to hit them after the women and children had left. They were first denied permission by their commanders because of the Taliban fighters' proximity to structures that might contain civilians. When the Marines did get permission, the first attack plane malfunctioned and had to call off the strike.
Finally, the Marines sent out a unit to try to ambush the insurgents as they moved. The tactic forced the fighters into the open, and a Marine jet strafed them, apparently killing nine.
By MATTHEW ROSENBERG in Nad Ali District, Afghanistan and MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS in Marjah
Wall Street Journal via Jornal.us