Sunday, February 14, 2010

Troops Take Positions in Taliban Haven

The New York Times

American, Afghan and British troops occupied crucial positions across the Taliban stronghold of Marja on Saturday, encountering only sporadic fighting as they began the long and possibly bloody ordeal of house-to-house searches.

American Marines exchanged gunfire with Taliban insurgents throughout the day, and discovered several homemade bombs and other weapons. One American serviceman was reported killed in Marja on Saturday, and a British servicemen as well, officials said in Kabul. Three American soldiers were killed in neighboring Kandahar Province when the vehicle they were riding in struck a large explosive buried in the road.

American commanders said Saturday that the 6,000 American, Afghan and British troops who moved into the area earlier in the day had achieved every objective they had set for themselves. That included advancing into the city itself, seizing intersections, government buildings and one of the city’s two main bazaars in the center of town.

Some military units held meetings with local Afghans, to reassure them and to ask for help in finding Taliban fighters and hidden bombs.

Mohammed Dawood Ahmadi, a spokesman for Helmand Province’s governor, said Afghan and NATO forces had set up 11 posts across Marja and two in the neighboring town of Nad Ali. “We now occupy all the strategic points in the area,” he said.

The invasion of Marja is the largest military operation of its kind since the American-backed war began eight years ago. The area, about 77 square miles of farmland, villages and irrigation canals, is believed to be the largest Taliban sanctuary inside Afghanistan.

In the prelude to the attack, Afghan and Americans commanders said that the area contained hundreds of Taliban fighters, several hundred homemade bombs and a number of opium factories that the insurgents use to finance their operations.

On the first full day of operations, much of the expected Taliban resistance failed to materialize. Afghan and NATO troops discovered some bombs, narcotics and weapons caches, but the fighting itself was relatively desultory. There was certainly none of the eyeball-to-eyeball fighting that typified the battle for Falluja in Iraq in 2004, to which the invasion of Marja had been compared.

Abdul Rahim Wardak, the Afghan defense minister, said in a news conference in Kabul that the Afghan Army had suffered no dead at all and only a handful of wounded. He seemed a little surprised at the day’s events.

“Actually, the resistance is not there,” Mr. Wardak said. “Based on our intelligence reports, some of the Taliban have left the area. But we still expected there to be several hundred in the area. Just yesterday, we received reports that reinforcements had arrived from neighboring provinces.”

It seemed possible that many insurgents had just faded away, or at least were waiting to show themselves. American and Afghan commanders took the unusual step of broadcasting their intention to clear Marja several weeks ago, in hopes that Taliban fighters would leave the city and thus make it easier to take hold of the place.

Dangerous days may yet lie ahead, though, officials said. Military officers estimate that the American, Afghan and British troops will need several days to clear most of the buildings in the area of fighters and bombs.

In addition, what has been advertised as the most important, and novel, aspect of the Marja operation has yet to begin. After clearing Marja, American and Afghan officials say, they intend to import an entire Afghan civil administration, along with nearly 2,000 Afghan police officers, to help keep the Taliban from coming back in.

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