Insurgent sniper teams battled U.S. Marines and Afghan troops across the Taliban haven of Marjah, as several major gunbattles erupted across the town Monday on the third day of a major offensive to reclaim the extremist southern heartland.
Multiple firefights in different locations were taxing the ability of the coalition forces to provide enough air support to help cover the advance as NATO forces forged deeper through town, moving through suspected insurgent neighborhoods, the U.S. Marines said.
In the northern part of Marjah, an armored column came under fire from at least three separate sniper teams, slowing down its progress. One of the teams came within 154 feet (50 meters) and started firing.
Troops braced for the estimated 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) march to link up with U.S. and Afghan troops who had been airdropped into town. A day earlier, small squads of Taliban snipers initiated several gunbattles throughout the day in an attempt to draw coalition forces into a larger ambush.
The massive offensive involving some 15,000 U.S., Afghan, British troops is the biggest joint operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
However, the mission faced a setback on Sunday when two U.S. rockets slammed into a home outside Marjah, killing 12 civilians. NATO said Monday that the rockets missed their target by about 600 meters (yards), or about a third of a mile. NATO had earlier said the rockets missed their target by just 300 meters (yards).
Afghan Internior Minister Atmar told reporters at a briefing Sunday in Lashkar Gar that nine civilians and two or three insurgents were among those killed.
The civilian deaths were a major blow to NATO and Afghan efforts to win the support of residents in the Marjah area, a Taliban logistical center and a base for their lucrative opium trade that finances the insurgency. Before the offensive began Saturday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai had pleaded for the Afghan and foreign commanders to be “seriously careful for the safety of civilians.”
The top NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, apologized to President Hamid Karzai for “this tragic loss of life” and suspended use of the sophisticated HIMARS system pending “a thorough review of this incident,” NATO said.
The rockets were fired by a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, at insurgents who attacked U.S. and Afghan forces, wounding one American and one Afghan, NATO said in a statement. Instead, the projectiles veered 300 yards (meters) off target and blasted a house in the Nad Ali district, which includes Marjah, NATO added.
Karzai’s spokesman Waheed Omar said the president “is very upset about what happened” and has been “very seriously conveying his message” of restraint “again and again.”
Inside Marjah, sporadic firefights increased by midday as small sniper teams engaged U.S. Marines in heavy gunfire.
“Literally every time we stand up, we take rounds,” warned one Marine over the radio.
Marines said their ability to fight back has been tightly constrained by strict new rules of engagement that make their job more difficult and dangerous. Under the rules, troops cannot fire at people unless they commit a hostile act or show hostile intent.
“I understand the reason behind it, but it’s so hard to fight a war like this,” said Lance Corp. Travis Anderson, 20, from Altoona, Iowa. “They’re using our rules of engagement against us,” he said, stating that his platoon had repeatedly seen men dropping their guns into ditches before walking away to melt among civilians.
Allied officials have reported two coalition deaths so far — one American and one Briton, who were both killed Saturday. Afghan officials said at least 27 insurgents have been killed in the offensive.
In unrelated incidents in southern Afghanistan, NATO said two service members died Sunday — one from small-arms fire and the other from a roadside bomb explosion. The international force did not disclose their nationalities, but the British defense ministry reported that a British soldier died Sunday of wounds suffered in an explosion.