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Afghanistan war: Marjah battle as tough as Fallujah, say US troops

US and Afghan troops moved towards the center of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah today despite encountering fierce sniper fire and mine fields. Sixty percent of the front-line forces are Afghan troops.

By Julius CavendishCorrespondent / February 14, 2010

A Marine from from the 6th Marines runs during a gunfight in Marjah, Afghanistan on Sunday. NATO forces are in the midst of an operation to clear the Taliban from the city, their largest stronghold in Helmand Province.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

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Kabul, Afghanistan

Thousands of US and Afghan troops ground their way towards the center of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah today despite encountering fierce sniper fire and even greater numbers of home-made bombs, booby traps, and minefields than anticipated.

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US Marines raised an Afghan flag inside the town limits but pockets of Taliban militants dug in, with some veterans comparing the intensity of the fighting to that encountered when they stormed the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2005.

"In Fallujah, it was just as intense. But there, we started from the north and worked down to the south. In Marjah, we're coming in from different locations and working toward the centre, so we're taking fire from all angles," Captain Ryan Sparks told Reuters.

The operation to clear Taliban insurgency from their biggest stronghold in Helmand province looks increasingly like an acid test of Western military and political strategy in Afghanistan, with the outcome likely to deal a powerful propaganda blow one way or the other.

With US General Stanley McChrystal’s reinvigorated counter-insurgency campaign placing the emphasis on protecting communities rather than killing militants, the first measure of success for the thousands of US, NATO, and Afghan troops involved in Operation Moshtarak (the Dari word for ‘together’) will be avoiding civilian casualties.

The vast majority of Marjah’s civilian inhabitants, of whom there are somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000, have stayed put after a NATO information campaign entreated them to “keep your heads down” and the Taliban mined all approaches to the town.

Afghan officials say the involvement of Afghan forces in unprecedented numbers – 60 percent of the front-line forces are said to be Afghan – will help alleviate the threat because Afghan soldiers are better able to distinguish between “terrorists and farmers.”

Civilian casualties a key metric

So far this advantage and the coalition’s tactics of attacking in overwhelming numbers but with a restrained use of its overwhelming firepower has largely worked, with civilian casualties limited to 12 killed when a rocket landed 300 meters (nearly 1,000 feet) from its target, and seven wounded in separate incidents.

In an indication of how important the issue of civilian casualties may prove to be, General McChrystal promptly offered his apologies to President Hamid Karzai and launched an investigation into the incident. Mr. Karzai only signed off on the operation hours before it began and senior members of his administration reportedly had reservations about advising inhabitants to shelter in their homes rather than fleeing Marjah.

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