Squads of US Marines and Afghan soldiers slowly pressed deeper into the Taliban stronghold of Marjah today, painstakingly clearing out booby-trapped houses one by one.
Homemade bombs and mines slowed the advance of thousands of US, British and Afghan soldiers moving through the Taliban-held area – Operation Moshtarak is Nato’s most ambitious effort yet to break the militants’ grip over their southern heartland.
Nato said it hoped to secure Marjah, the largest town under Taliban control and a key opium smuggling hub, within days.
Nato said two meetings have been held with local Afghan residents and more are planned as part of a strategy to enlist community support for the mission.
Afghan officials said today at least 27 insurgents had been killed in the operation. Helmand government spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said troops found a large cache of bomb-making materials in one compound in Marjah.
Most of the Taliban appeared to have scattered in the face of overwhelming force, possibly waiting to regroup and stage attacks later to foil the alliance’s plan to stabilise the area and expand Afghan government control in the volatile south.
Two Nato soldiers were killed on the first day of the operation – one American and one Briton, according to military officials.
More than 30 transport helicopters ferried troops into the heart of Marjah before dawn on Saturday, while British, Afghan and US troops fanned out across the Nad Ali district to the north of the mud-brick town, long a stronghold of the Taliban.
Major General Gordon Messenger told reporters in London that British forces “have successfully secured the area militarily” with only sporadic resistance from Taliban forces. A Taliban spokesman insisted their fighters still controlled the town.
US President Barack Obama was keeping a close watch on combat operations, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
The president will get an update from his national security adviser, General Jim Jones. Mr Vietor said Defence Secretary Robert Gates will also have the top US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, brief Mr Obama later this morning.
In Marjah, Marines and Afghan troops faced little armed resistance. But their advance through the town was impeded by countless land mines, home-made bombs and booby-traps littering the area.
Marine ordnance teams blew up several dozen bombs, setting off huge explosions that reverberated through the dusty streets.
Most of the Marines said they would have preferred a straight-up gunbattle to the “death at every corner” crawl they faced, though they continued to advance slowly through the town.
The bridge over the canal into Marjah from the north was rigged with so many explosives that Marines erected temporary bridges to cross into the town.
Marine commanders had said they expected between 400 and 1,000 insurgents - including more than 100 foreign fighters – to be holed up in Marjah, a town of 80,000 people that is the linchpin of the militants’ logistical and opium-smuggling network in the south.
The offensive, code-named Moshtarak, or Together, was described as the biggest joint operation of the Afghan war, with 15,000 troops involved, including some 7,500 in Marjah itself. The government says Afghan soldiers make up at least half of the offensive’s force.
Once Marjah is secured, Nato hopes to quickly deliver aid and provide public services in a bid to win support among the estimated 125,000 people who live in the town and surrounding villages. The Afghans’ ability to restore those services is crucial to the success of the operation and in preventing the Taliban from returning.