DESPITE the military claims of US and NATO-led occupation troops, progress remains slow because of the stiff resistance and homemade bombs ‘everywhere’.
However, the US-UK propaganda line is that they are now in control of crucial areas in Marjah in Helmand province – as part of a major offensive in Afghanistan against the Taleban now into its fifth day.
A Taleban spokesman disputed the US military’s claims, saying fighters have NATO forces under siege.
General Larry Nicholson, the commander of US marines in the province, avoided sounding upbeat about the operation, while cautioning that ‘there are tough days ahead’.
Lieutenant Josh Diddams, of Taskforce Leatherneck said: ‘we are definitely finding more than we expected,’ adding: ‘It’s a slow process.’
Meanwhile, an occupation soldier was killed in southern Afghanistan, taking the number of occupation soldiers killed to ten, since the assault on the Taleban in one area of Helmand province.
The offensive began last Wednesday.
The soldier, whose nationality was not disclosed, was killed by ‘small arms fire’, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) confirmed.
‘This is an Operation Mushtarak-related casualty,’ a brief statement said.
The death brings to 78 the number of foreign troops to have been killed in Afghanistan so far this year.
Military officials have said the 15,000 US-led troops involved in Mushtarak are facing resistance in pockets of the targeted area, including arms fire and guerrilla-style hit-and-run tactics.
The offensive is expected to last some weeks, and according to the chief of the British defence staff in NATO, Jock Stirrup, the assault is a long term offensive that ‘could not be judged for about a year’.
Improvised bombs have become the main threat, Afghan and NATO military officials have said, and are impeding progress in the assault on what is essentially a cluster of villages in a poppy-growing river valley.
Before the launch of the offensive, the Taleban movement vowed to launch a guerilla war against NATO forces; a different tactic from the movement’s previous battles with US-led occupation forces.
Apparently, civilian casualties are not avoided in this assault.
The British commander of international forces in southern Afghanistan said on Tuesday that a NATO strike that killed at least nine Afghan civilians during the assault, was not a ‘rogue missile, and hit where it was intended’.
NATO forces have resumed using the type of rocket involved, after ‘probing what went wrong’, he said.
‘We know now that the missile arrived at the target that it was supposed to arrive at,’ Major General Nick Carter told reporters in London via video link from Lashkar Gah, in the southern Afghan province of Helmand.
A military spokesman in Afghanistan said the strike had been aimed at the Taleban and it ‘was not unusual for them to operate from civilian-populated areas’.
NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) originally said that 12 civilians were killed after two rockets from a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) had landed about 300 meters off their intended target.
More than 100,000 NATO and US troops are in Afghanistan, with another 40,000 being deployed through to August, most of whom will be sent to the troubled south as part of the ‘counter-insurgency effort.’
For his part, US President Barack Obama will convene a meeting of his Afghan war cabinet on Wednesday to assess the offensive.
The meeting, in the White House Situation Room, also comes after the reported capture by US and Pakistani spies of the Taleban’s top military commander.
US and other media reported on Tuesday that Taleban military commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was arrested in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi several days ago.
The White House refused to confirm the arrest, as the Taleban denied that Baradar is in Afghanistan.
Obama will meet top officials including Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and General David Petraeus, head of US Central Command.
War commander General Stanley McChrystal and US ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry are due to take part in the meeting by video conference, the White House said.
The meeting is similar to the long series of high-level consultations Obama initiated before deciding on the strategy to surge 30,000 extra troops into the Afghan war late last year.
• Afghan troops raised their flag over a badly damaged market in Marjah on Wednesday during a major offensive on the Taleban in the southern province of Helmand, as Washington claimed the offensive to take control of the town was ‘going well’.
As provincial governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal toured the battle-scarred terrain, an Afghan soldier raised the red, black and green Afghan flag over the battered market.
But Mangal joined Afghan commanders in saying it was too early to declare Marjah ‘cleared’ completely of militants or their mines.
‘From the military point of view, one cannot set an exact timeline but work to clear mines continues,’ he said.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs quoted an up-beat assessment by General Stanley McChrystal after the US military chief briefed President Barack Obama’s war cabinet via video link.
‘The response that we got from General McChrystal today was that the operation was going well. . .
because of the time that had been taken to shape it with local authorities,’ Gibbs said, adding that ‘extra caution’ was being taken to avoid civilian casualties.
For its part, NATO said two more of its soldiers had been killed in Operation Mushtarak ‘Together’, bringing to six the total number of occupation soldiers killed in the offensive since it started on Saturday.
Both soldiers died in combat with the Taleban, one of them on Wednesday and the other on Tuesday, the International Security Assistance Force said.
The soldiers’ nationalities were not disclosed, in line with NATO practice.
In all, 78 occupation soldiers have died in Afghanistan since the start of 2010.
The bazaar in Marjah was a forlorn sight – shops and buildings were badly damaged from fighting and barbed wire sealed off roads believed to be heavily mined.
‘People have come out of their homes and into a desert, without any food or water. We are living in very hard conditions,’ resident Abdul Rashid said.
On the other hand, Afghan interior ministry spokesmen, Zemerai Bashari, said about 1,100 Afghan police were deployed in Marjah as part of plans to set up a civilian administration.
Amnesty International says up to 10,000 people have fled the conflict area and thousands more remain trapped by the fighting.