MARJAH, Afghanistan – Taliban fighters stepped up counterattacks against Marines and Afghan soldiers in the militant stronghold of Marjah, slowing the allied advance to a crawl despite Afghan government claims that the insurgents are broken and on the run.
Taliban fighters appeared to be slipping under cover of darkness into compounds already deemed free of weapons and explosives, then opening fire on the Marines from behind U.S. lines.
On Monday, NATO said five civilians were accidentally killed and two wounded by an airstrike when they were mistakenly believed to have been planting roadside bombs in Kandahar province, east of the Marjah offensive.
On the third day of the main attack on Marjah, Afghan commanders spoke optimistically Monday about progress in the town of about 80,000 people.
Brig. Gen. Sher Mohammad Zazai, commander of Afghan troops in the south, told reporters that there had been “low resistance” in the town, adding “soon we will have Marjah cleared of enemies.”
Interior Minister Hanif Atmar said many insurgent fighters had already fled Marjah, possibly heading for Pakistan.
In Marjah, however, there was little sign the Taliban were broken. Instead, small, mobile teams of insurgents repeatedly attacked U.S. and Afghan troops with rocket, rifle and rocket-propelled grenade fire. Insurgents moved close enough to the main road to fire repeatedly at columns of mine-clearing vehicles.
At midday at least six large gunbattles were raging across the town, and helicopter gunships couldn’t cover all the different fighting locations.
Allied officials have reported only two coalition deaths so far – one American and one Briton killed Saturday. There have been no reports of wounded. Afghan officials said at least 27 insurgents have been killed so far in the offensive.
Nonetheless, the harassment tactics and the huge number of roadside bombs, mines and booby traps planted throughout Marjah have succeeded in slowing the movement of allied forces through the town. After daylong skirmishes, some Marine units had barely advanced at all by sundown.