Taliban defences tested before attack

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.

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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Bloc Québécois MP Sebastien Lemire rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, March 12, 2021. A Bloc Québécois MP has apologized for taking a screen shot of a Liberal MP who inadvertently appeared nude during virtual proceedings in the House of Commons last week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Bloc Québécois MP apologizes for taking nude photo of Liberal MP William Amos

‘I have no idea how that photo made its way into the media’

FILE - This Sunday, June 25, 2017, file photo shows TK Holdings Inc. headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich. A driver in South Carolina is the latest person to be killed by an exploding Takata air bag inflator. Honda says that a faulty driver’s air bag blew apart in a crash involving a 2002 Honda Accord in Lancaster County, South Carolina. The company wouldn’t give details of the Jan. 9, 2021, crash near Charlotte, North Carolina, nor would it identify the person who was killed. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)
South Carolina driver killed by exploding air bag inflator

Drivers can check to see if their vehicles have been recalled

Hospital staff shift the body of a COVID-19 patient on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance at a specialized COVID-19 hospital in Noida, a suburb of New Delhi, India, Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
Low on beds, oxygen, India adds global high 314K virus cases

Government rushing oxygen tankers to replenish hospital supplies

A traveler wearing a protective mask, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, walks through the nearly empty JetBlue terminal at Logan Airport in Boston, Friday, May 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Charles Krupa
JetBlue expanding wings with service to Vancouver from New York and Boston

JetBlue will have to compete with Canadian airlines

Green Party MP Elizabeth May arrives on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. An emergency parliamentary debate that was supposed to be a forum for cross-party collaboration on better ways to combat the COVID-19 pandemic has devolved into another round of partisan finger-pointing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Emergency parliamentary debate on pandemic devolves into partisan finger-pointing

‘Let’s work together instead of playing terrible politics in this debate’

Westerner Park’s Exhibition Hall was used as a vaccination clinic on Wednesday. A steady stream of people came to get their COVID-19 shots either by appointment or as walk-ins. Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
No long lineups at walk-in vaccination site in Red Deer

A steady stream of people walked into Westerner Park on Wednesday to… Continue reading

FILE - In this March 19, 2021, file photo, people take pictures of the Olympic rings installed by the Japan Olympic Museum in Tokyo. The vaccine rollout in Japan has been very slow with less than 1% vaccinated. This of course is spilling over to concerns about the postponed Tokyo Olympics that open in just over three months.(AP Photo/Hiro Komae, File)
Olympic bodies launch competitive series in virtual sports

Olympic body hopes to reach more young people

Linda Tomlinson
Gardening: Leave the lawn until the soil is dry

Spring is arriving, Alberta style with warm days, cold days and snow.… Continue reading

Silent protests were held recently in response to Red Deer Public Schools’ decision to reject a Pride Week in favour of a Diversity Week. Some former employees at Red Deer Public are saying the decision is misguided. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Letter: School board silencing Pride Week concern

While it has been our practice to not comment on matters arising… Continue reading

Anderson scores twice as Canadiens down Oilers 4-3

Anderson scores twice as Canadiens down Oilers 4-3

New York Liberty guard Kia Nurse (5) shoots next to Indiana Fever's Kamiah Smalls during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla. Nurse isn't just one of Canada's finest female basketball players, she's becoming a popular voice of the game as well. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP -Phelan M. Ebenhack
Canadian basketball star Nurse is carving out space in sports broadcasting at just 25

Canadian basketball star Nurse is carving out space in sports broadcasting at just 25

Most Read