NEAR MARJAH, Afghanistan – U.S. Marines seized key positions in the Taliban sanctuary of Marjah on Saturday, as thousands of coalition troops picked their way through a dense tangle of homemade bombs to consolidate their hold on a swath of desert and farm territory surrounding the southern Afghan city.
U.S. and Afghan commanders reported only scattered resistance from Taliban fighters, who boasted that they were holding off the massive coalition assault, despite evidence that they were retreating instead – most likely to fight another day.
Western military officials said that some insurgents had fled the town before the offensive, and that others appeared to have fallen back to parts of the town not yet secured by the Marines.
At least 20 insurgents were killed in the fighting, military commanders said.
Two members of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force were killed on the first full day of the offensive, meant to establish security and governance in what had been a particularly chaotic corner of Helmand province. Their nationalities were not immediately disclosed.
Three U.S. service members were killed in an explosion elsewhere in the south Saturday, the military reported.
The Marines, who pushed into the Helmand River Valley seven months ago, had described Marjah as the last main Taliban stronghold in their theater of operations.
The offensive is the first major operation involving U.S. forces since President Barack Obama decided late last year to deploy an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in a bid to turn the tide of the war.
About 5,000 Marines are spearheading the Marjah offensive, but a total of about 15,000 coalition forces are involved in combat and support roles, including British troops and U.S. Army units that pushed in from the northeast, linking up with the Marines to encircle the town.
The offensive began with the thunder of helicopters filling the dark sky. More than 60 choppers took part in what British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, described as a “successful insertion” by air of thousands of coalition and Afghan troops into the town, as well as surrounding farmlands.
The ground advance into the main population center was slower, delayed by the painstaking task of clearing away one of the thickest layers of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that Western commanders had yet encountered.