A top NATO commander in southern Afghanistan said Thursday that allied troops will need another 25 to 30 days to overcome tough resistance from Taliban fighters to secure the town of Marjah, six days after international forces launched a major offensive there. At least five NATO soldiers, 15 civilians and 40 Taliban militants have been killed since the start of the operation on Saturday.
About 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops have secured key parts of Marjah, but continue to face attacks from skilled snipers and numerous hidden bombs.
The military move on the town is the biggest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in response to the al-Qaida terrorist attacks on the United States.
Stubborn Taliban resistance, coupled with restrictive rules on the use of heavy weaponry to protect civilians, have slowed the advance.
Briefing reporters at the Pentagon via satellite from southern Afghanistan, British Army Major General Nick Carter said Afghan and NATO soldiers continue to face major opposition from Taliban militants. "In Marjah itself, there remains stiff resistance from the insurgents, and U.S. Marines, in partnership with Afghan security forces, are still fighting intense series of actions in the process of clearing Marjah as a whole," he said.
Carter predicted it could take another month to secure Marjah, and more time to convince the local population to trust the Afghan government.
The general said plans call for NATO to rush in a civilian administration, restore public services and pour in aid to try to win the loyalty of the population and prevent the Taliban from returning. "So I guess, looking downstream, in three-month's time or thereabouts, we should have a pretty fair idea about whether we've been successful. But I would be very cautious about any triumphalism just yet."
Carter said soldiers are moving slowly through Marjah and generally are using light weapons in an effort to protect the tens of thousands of civilians who live in the town. "There is a significant threat from improvised explosive devices, and these have to be cleared very systemically and very meticulously, particularly, as the civilian population is still on the ground in the area of Marjah itself. And what we don't want are civilians running into these mines and improvised explosive devices," he said.
The fighting came as Afghan officials reported two senior Taliban commanders acting as so-called "shadow governors" in northern Afghanistan have been arrested in Pakistan.
In addition, Pakistani officials say several al-Qaida linked militants have been arrested in the southern port town of Karachi - just days after U.S. and Pakistani officials revealed they have been interrogating the Taliban's top operational commander, after capturing him in Karachi.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell says the Taliban is being "squeezed" in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "Our hope is clearly that this is creating a certain amount of discontent, worry, turmoil within the organization, such that it is, that Taliban fighters are going to think twice about remaining loyal to this cause, and that this will ultimately adversely impact the momentum that they have enjoyed over the past several months," he said.
Marjah has long been controlled by drug traffickers and the Taliban.
The offensive by allied forces is considered a key test of U.S. President Barack Obama's strategy for reversing the rise of the militant group, while protecting the civilian Afghan population.