MARJAH, Afghanistan – A Marine general says U.S.-led forces control the main roads and markets in the besieged Taliban stronghold of Marjah, but fighting has raged on elsewhere in the southern farming town.
Marines and Afghan soldiers encountered better-fortified Taliban positions and more skilled marksmen on Thursday, the sixth day of the assault, indicating Taliban resistance in their logistics and opium-smuggling center was far from crushed. A British general said he expected it would take another month to secure the town.
NATO said six international service members died Thursday, bringing the number of allied troops killed in the offensive to 11 NATO troops and one Afghan soldier. The international coalition did not disclose their nationalities, but Britain's Defense Ministry said two British soldiers were among the dead.
No precise figures on Taliban deaths have been released, but senior Marine officers say intelligence reports suggest more than 120 have died. The officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to release the information.
Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of U.S. Marines in Marjah, told The Associated Press that allied forces have taken control of the main roads, bridges and government centers in Marjah, a town of about 80,000 people located 360 miles southwest of Kabul.
"I'd say we control the spine" of the town, he said as he inspected the Marines' front line in the north of the dusty, mud-brick town. "We're where we want to be."
As Nicholson spoke, bursts of heavy machine-gun fire in the near distance showed that insurgents still hold terrain about a half-mile away.
"Every day, there's not a dramatic change, it's steady," he said, noting that fighting continues to erupt.
The offensive in Marjah is the biggest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and a test of President Barack Obama's strategy for reversing the rise of the Taliban while protecting civilians.
Plans call for NATO to rush in a civilian 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. The NATO commander of troops in southern Afghanistan, British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, told reporters in Washington via a video hookup 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. 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 criticized the use of airstrikes and other long-range weaponry because of the risk to civilians. Twelve of the 15 deaths reported by NATO happened when two rockets hit a home on Sunday.
The troops have to go to great lengths to distinguish insurgents from civilians. Marines detained one man Thursday as he left a compound they had taken fire from. He had no weapon but a quick test found gunpowder residue on his hands — sufficient grounds to arrest him.
Soldiers tied the suspect's hands behind his back and covered his face with a shawl while he sat cross-legged on the ground waiting to be hauled away.
Throughout Thursday, U.S. Marines pummeled 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 Marines have faced in other Afghan battles.
The increasingly accurate sniper fire — and strong intelligence on possible suicide bomb threats — indicate that insurgents from outside Marjah are still operating within the town, Nicholson said.
There were also pockets of calm Thursday. Some families returned to their homes, their donkeys laden with their belongings. Several stores reopened in the bullet-riddled bazaar in the north of town, and customers lined up to buy goods for the first time in nearly a week.
One Marjah farmer said the Taliban broke into his home and used it to fire on the troops.
"We couldn't do anything when one of them was forcing his way into our house. What could we do?" said Sayed Wakhan, a sunburned, middle-aged opium poppy farmer in northern Marjah.
But Wakhan, who spoke to reporters as he mixed mud to make repairs on his house, also said he didn't trust the government forces who now occupy his neighborhood.
"I have suffered at the hands of police, and I don't like the international forces coming into our area," he snapped. His remarks were a reminder of the tough job ahead for NATO and Afghan authorities in winning over locals used to an uneasy peace under the Taliban.
Also Thursday, a NATO airstrike in northern Afghanistan missed a group of insurgents and killed seven Afghan policemen, the Afghan Interior Ministry said.
A NATO statement acknowledged the report and said it and the ministry were investigating.
In eastern Afghanistan, eight Afghan policemen defected to the Taliban, according to Mirza Khan, the deputy provincial police chief.
The policemen abandoned their posts in central Wardak province's Chak district and joined the militants there, he said. One of them had previous ties to the Taliban, he said, but would not elaborate.
"These policemen came on their own and told us they want to join with the Taliban. Now they are with us," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Muhajid said.