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US Military: Marjah Battle Progressing Steadily but Slowly

Top U.S. military officials said Monday that progress in the battle to rid the southern Afghan town of Marjah of Taliban fighters is progressing steadily, but more slowly than expected. The evaluation came the same day that Afghan officials condemned a NATO strike that Afghan authorities say killed 27 civilians in Uruzgan province.

The offensive to reclaim the Taliban stronghold of Marjah is in its second week.

The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Admiral Michael Mullen, said the Taliban has fought harder than expected in some instances. But he says Afghan and coalition forces are making gains.

"As you have all been seeing, we are making steady, if perhaps a bit slower than anticipated, progress," said Admiral Mullen.

It is an evaluation that was shared by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as the two men appeared at a joint news briefing at the Pentagon.

Mullen said booby traps and crude bombs planted by Taliban fighters have presented a real challenge.

Mullen offered his condolences for Sunday's NATO air strike that resulted in civilian deaths. The incident, he said, is a sad reminder about the nature of war.

"I would remind everyone of an essential truth: war is bloody and uneven," he said. "It is messy and ugly and incredibly wasteful. But that does not mean it is not worth the cost. We must steel ourselves, no matter how successful we are on any given day, for harder days yet to come."

NATO says its forces were targeting insurgents when an air strike accidentally killed and wounded the civilians. Afghanistan's Council of Ministers has called the incident "unjustifiable."

Defense Secretary Gates said the commander of coalition and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Army General Stanley McChrystal, is doing "everything humanly possible" to avoid civilian casualties.

"But it is also a fact that the Taliban mingle with civilians," said Robert Gates. "They use them for cover, which obviously complicates any decision process by a commander on the ground, in knowing whether he is dealing with the Taliban or innocent civilians or a combination of the two."

At least 16 civilians, about 120 insurgents and 13 NATO troops have been killed in the week-long Marjah offensive.

Gates emphasized that McChrystal is balancing concerns for Afghan civilians and military forces.

"My thought is that I am not going to try and second-guess Stan McChrystal from 9,000 miles [about 14,500 kilometers] away," he said. "He is the commander. I have confidence in his judgment. I will leave it to him to make those decisions about the right balance."

International forces announced the February 13 offensive weeks in advance. General Mullen says this advance notice was not a mistake because it gave tribal leaders the opportunity to support the military campaign.

Secretary Gates says it is far too early to begin evaluating the strategy in Marjah. Mullen says the military will succeed, but that patience is required.