NEAR MARJAH, Afghanistan — U.S. Marines fired smoke rounds Wednesday and armoured vehicles manoeuvred close to Taliban positions to test insurgent defences ahead of an anticipated attack on the biggest militant-controlled town in southern Afghanistan.
A NATO spokesman in Brussels called on Taliban militants holding Marjah to surrender. But a Taliban spokesman boasted that the militants were prepared to “sacrifice their lives” to defend the town against the biggest NATO-Afghan offensive of the eight-year war.
The date for the main attack by thousands of Marines and Afghan soldiers has not been announced for security reasons. However, preparations have accelerated in recent days, and it appeared the assault would come soon.
U.S. mortar crews fired two dozen smoke rounds Wednesday at Taliban positions on the outskirts of the farming community, a centre of the opium poppy trade about 610 kilometres southwest of Kabul in Helmand province. Marine armoured vehicles also drove closer to Taliban positions. Both moves are designed to lure the militants into shooting back and thus reveal their positions. The Marines did draw small arms fire but suffered no casualties.
“Deception is pretty important because it allows us to test the enemy’s resistance,” said Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, the commander of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines Regiment. “There’s a strategy to all this show of muscle.”
The U.S. goal is to quickly retake control of Marjah to enable the Afghan government to re-establish a presence. Plans call for civilian workers move quickly to restore electricity, clean water and other public services in hopes of weaning the inhabitants away from the Taliban.
Civilians could be seen fleeing their mud brick farming compounds on the outskirts of Marjah as soon as the American and Afghan forces appeared, though vast numbers do not seem to be leaving. The moves did not draw much of a response from the fighters, who appeared to be waiting behind defensive lines for the Marines to come closer to the town.
To the north, a joint U.S.-Afghan force, led by the U.S. Army’s 5th Stryker Brigade, pushed into the Badula Qulp region of Helmand province to restrict Taliban movement in support the Marjah offensive.
But bombs planted along a canal road slowed progress of a convoy Wednesday, damaging two mine-clearing vehicles and delaying the Stryker infantry carriers and Afghan vehicles from advancing for hours. There were no casualties.
“It’s a little slower than I had hoped,” said Lt. Col. Burton Shields, commanding officer of the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment.
Shields said the joint force was facing “harassing attacks” by groups of seven to nine insurgents.
“They’re trying to buy time to move their leaders out of the area,” he said.
U.S. officers estimate between 400 and 1,000 Taliban and up to 150 foreign fighters are holding Marjah, which is believed to have a population of about 80,000. It’s unclear how many of them will defend the town to the end and how many will give up once the main assault begins.
In Brussels, a NATO spokesman James Appathurai said the Taliban garrison in Marjah had the options of surrendering, leaving or fighting, adding they “are well advised to take up options one or two.”
“The area which is the focus of this operation has been known for years as an insurgent stronghold. It is actively defended and will require a large military operation to clear,” he said.
Marjah is key to Taliban control of vast areas of Helmand province, which borders Pakistan and is major centre for Afghanistan’s illicit poppy cultivation, which NATO believes helps finance the insurgency.
Officials said Afghan soldiers and police would join the operation in greater numbers than in any previous one. Appathurai said the offensive was designed to show that the Afghan government can establish its authority anywhere in the country and “will establish a better life to the people who are there.”
But Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi scoffed at NATO threats, saying American and Afghan forces would face a hard fight to take Marjah.
“The Taliban are ready to fight, to do jihad, to sacrifice their lives. American forces cannot scare the Taliban with big tanks and big warplanes,” Ahmadi told The Associated Press by telephone. “American forces are here in Afghanistan just to create problems for Afghan people. This operation is to create problems for the villagers in winter weather.”
So far, there are few signs of a major exodus of civilians from Marjah, although U.S. aircraft have been dropping leaflets in the town for days warning of the offensive. Some residents contacted by telephone said the Taliban were preventing people from leaving, telling them it was unsafe because the roads had been mined.
Helmand provincial spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said about 300 families — or an estimated 1,800 people — have already moved out of Marjah in recent weeks to the capital of Lashkar Gah, about 20 miles (30 kilometres) northeast.
Most moved in with relatives but about 60 families are sheltering in a school, where the government provides them with tents, blankets, food and other items. Ahmadi said preparations have been made to receive more refugees if necessary.
Associated Press Writers Noor Khan in Kandahar, Rahim Faiez and Tini Tran in Kabul and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.