Elite US Marine reconnaissance teams were dropped behind Taliban lines by helicopter today as coalition forces stepped up operations in Afghanistan to break resistance in the besieged insurgent stronghold of Marjah.
About two dozen US Marines were inserted before dawn into an area where skilled Taliban marksmen are known to operate, an officer said.
Other squads of US Marines and Afghan forces began marching south in a bid to link up with US outposts there, meticulously searching compounds on the way.
The seven-day-old Marjah offensive is the biggest since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and a test of US President Barack Obama’s strategy for reversing the rise of the Taliban while protecting civilians.
A Nato statement said troops are still meeting “some resistance” by insurgents who engage them in firefights, but homemade bombs remain the key threat to allied and Afghan forces.
Two British troops and four other coalition soldiers were killed yesterday, Nato said, making it the deadliest day since the offensive began. The death toll so far is 11 Nato troops and one Afghan soldier.
No precise figures on Taliban deaths have been released, but senior US officers say intelligence reports suggest more than 120 have died.
US and Afghan troops encountered skilled sharp-shooters and better-fortified Taliban positions on Thursday, indicating that insurgent resistance in their logistics and opium-smuggling centre was far from crushed.
A US Marine general said allied forces control the main roads and markets in Marjah, but fighting has raged elsewhere in the southern farming town.
Brig Gen Larry Nicholson, commander of US Marines in Marjah, said allied forces have taken control of the main roads, bridges and government centres in the town of 80,000 people.
“I’d say we control the spine” of the town, Mr Nicholson said as he inspected the US Marines’ front line in the north of Marjah. “We’re where we want to be.”
Throughout yesterday, US Marines targeted insurgents with mortars, sniper fire and missiles as gunbattles intensified. Taliban fighters fired back with rocket-propelled grenades and rifles, some of the fire far more accurate than coalition soldiers have faced in other Afghan battles.
The increasingly accurate sniper fire – and strong intelligence on possible suicide bomb threats – indicated that insurgents from outside Marjah are still operating within the town, Mr Nicholson said.
Under Nato’s “clear, hold, build” strategy, the allies plan to secure the area and then rush in a civilian Afghan administration, restore public services and pour in aid to try to win the loyalty of the population in preventing the Taliban from returning.
But stubborn 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.
British Maj Gen Nick Carter, Nato commander in southern Afghanistan, told reporters in Washington via videolink 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, but Afghan rights groups have reported 19 dead. Since those figures were given, much of the fighting has shifted away from the heavily built-up area where most civilians live.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly criticised the use of air strikes and other long-range weaponry because of the risk to civilians. Twelve of the 15 deaths reported by Nato occurred when two rockets hit a home on Sunday.