Civilian deaths mounting in Marjah offensive

NATO forces said Tuesday that three more civilians had been killed in separate incidents, bringing the total number of Afghan civilians killed since the coalition assault on Marjah began four days ago to at least 15.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
An Afghan soldier speaks during a flag raising ceremony in the town of Marjah in Nad Ali district of Helmand province Sunday.

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The civilian death toll has risen to at least 15 in the NATO coalition assault on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, the largest offensive since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and one governed by new rules of engagement intended to strengthen Afghan support by limiting civilian casualties.

The NATO and Afghan Army troops appeared to be making slower progress than commanders had hoped. But the new strategy was apparent in their efforts to work with the local population and win their support.

NATO forces said Tuesday that three civilians had been killed in separate incidents – two when they were shot as they approached NATO soldiers after ignoring warnings to stop, while a third was caught in crossfire between NATO forces and insurgents – reports the Associated Press. The three are in addition to 12 civilians who died Sunday in a US airstrike in a house outside of Marjah.

An Afghan human rights organization has claimed that 19 civilians have been killed, though the report could not be verified and it was unknown who was to blame for the deaths, reports the AP, while The Guardian reports there have been 20 civilian deaths.

The number of civilian casualties, while relatively low after four days of fighting between 10,000 NATO coalition and Afghan troops and an estimated 400 Taliban fighters, is drawing attention because the Marjah offensive is the first test of the new NATO strategy, outlined by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, that focuses on protecting civilians, even if it comes at the expense of killing insurgents. The Wall Street Journal reports that insurgents have taken advantage of the new rules of engagement by using women and children to ferry their supplies.

The Christian Science Monitor reported Monday that this offensive also marks a departure from previous battles because of the high number of Afghan soldiers taking part – they outnumber international troops by 3 to 2 in this assault. In the US offensive in Helmand last year, American troops outnumbered Afghans 6 to 1.

(Here is the BBC's interactive map of the offensive.)

Accounts have differed on the intensity of the battle, which began on Saturday. The Afghan government claimed the Taliban insurgents were on the run, and US Army statements focused on positive gains made by the NATO troops. But progress appeared to be slow, and the AP reports that Taliban attacks have increased in intensity, with “small, mobile teams” of fighters frustrating US troops with repeated attacks.

The New York Times also noted that the small number of fighters left appeared to be inflicting maximum damage by employing hit-and-run tactics. The Times reports that fighting was heavy Tuesday, though American and Afghan commanders said that the number of Taliban fighters in the area had dropped by half. About 100 of the estimated 400 fighters in Marjah before the battle began had been killed, while another quarter had reportedly fled the area. The Wall Street Journal reports that insurgents launched coordinated attacks for hours in the Koru Chareh bazaar area in central Marjah Tuesday. At least 27 Taliban insurgents have been killed, Afghan officials told the BCC.

In a small victory for General McChrystal’s new strategy, the Times also reports that a group of tribal elders in the area agreed to directly assist the American and Afghan troops, assigning ten local men to the effort.

“They are here to help us, and it’s our duty to help them,” a tribal elder said in a telephone interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “They might kill me for telling you this.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, those ten men are now working as guides to help coalition forces find bombs and identify insurgents. The gesture grew out of a tribal council convened just before the battle began, reports the Journal. The AP reports, in a first-hand account, that American and Afghan troops also convened a council with elders north of Marjah, where they asked for support and offered compensation for a child killed in an airstrike.

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