“We are currently moving to seize our objective. We have been in contact for five hours from the southwest, north and east and we are moving to push to finish securing the areas of insurgents still,” Lieutenant Mark Greenlief told Reuters.
The Marines’ first objective was to take over the town center, a large cluster of dwellings, and they called in two Harrier jets which flew over a Taliban position at the edge of the town center and fired on the militants with machineguns.
Like civilians in the district of up to 100,000 people, the U.S., British and Afghan troops risk being blown up by booby traps the Taliban are believed to have rigged in the hundreds to try to slow the advance.
A local Taliban commander, Qari Fazluddin, told Reuters earlier about 2,000 fighters were ready to fight.
Also in southern Afghanistan, five NATO troops, including three Americans, died after roadside bomb strikes, and a shooting in southern Afghanistan on Saturday, NATO said in a statement.
It was not clear whether they were killed during the offensive but the violence illustrated how vulnerable they still were after eight years of fighting the Taliban.
15,000 TROOPS IN OPERATION
NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal’s counter-insurgency strategy emphasizes seizing population centers and avoiding combat in built-up areas whenever possible.
McChrystal has stressed precautions to avoid killing civilians, and the number of civilians killed by NATO troops has declined since he took command in mid-2009.
Heavy casualties may ruin the government’s chance of gaining more support from Afghans. NATO forces advised civilians not to leave their homes. Some have already fled Marjah.
“The international forces must adopt certain procedures and mechanisms during operation in Marjah to protect civilians,” Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in a statement.
In Marjah, resident Abdel Aziz, 16, told the Marines through a translator, “All the walls between the streets and houses are surrounded by bombs. Most people have gone to Lashkar Gah. That’s where we want to go today.”
An elderly neighbor emerged from her house and asked Marines not to fire at it. “This is just my house,” she said.
After helicopters began ferrying U.S. Marines into Marjah, British troops flew into the northern part of Nad Ali district, and tanks and combat engineering units followed.
“The first phase of the operation is proceeding very successfully. The Taliban have heavily booby-trapped the area, but there has not been any fierce fighting yet,” Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal told a news conference.
“We have seized 11 key locations in the district and the resistance from the insurgents has been subdued.”
The 15,000-troop operation was named Mushtarak, or “together,” perhaps to highlight that NATO and Afghan forces were determined to work closely to restore stability to Afghanistan.
Whether the apparent early success can translate into a more permanent end to the insurgency may depend on the government’s ability to ensure long-term political and economic stability.
“Our aim is not the elimination of the insurgents, the goal is developing the influence of central government, safeguarding the civilians and providing long-term security and stability,” Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told reporters in Kabul.