LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — Six days into the battle for Marjah, the spin doctors in Kabul and Washington may be regretting all the advance hype. With 15,000 combined Afghan, American and British forces arrayed against what was thought to be a handful of insurgents, victory had seemed assured.
But instead of “breaking the back of the Taliban,” Operation Moshtarak is bogged down in a hostile landscape full of mines, snipers and increasingly frustrated residents.
“Since the foreign troops descended on Karoh Charahi, near our house, they have not been able to come up out of their trenches,” said Sher Agha, a resident of Marjah. “The resistance of the Taliban has increased a lot since the beginning. The foreign forces have not taken even 20 percent of Marjah.”
The glowing press reports of the first days have become a bit more somber of late; the latest release by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) simply said that “Combined forces have taken control of some key areas and efforts to control insurgent movement have been relatively successful.”
The Taliban were far less reserved in their public statements. Tariq Ghazniwal, another of the Taliban’s self-styled spokesmen, issued an open invitation to journalists to come to Marjah and see for themselves what is going on.
“Such a visit will … show who has the upper hand in the area,” he said. “In fact, the invading forces have made no spectacular advances since the beginning of the operations. They have descended from helicopters in limited areas of Marjah and are now under siege.”
The governor of Helmand Gulab Mangal, after a visit to Marjah where he raised the Afghan flag over the district center, told journalists in Lashkar Gah that Operation Moshtarak was on track.
“In the Loy Charahi area of Marjah the combined forces have advanced 3 kilometers [1.9 miles],” he said. “We will keep the operation going until Marjah is clear of Al Qaeda and the enemies of Afghanistan.”
He admitted that progress has been a bit disappointing.
“There are two reasons for this,” he said. “One, there are a lot of civilians around, so we are being careful. Secondly, there are a lot of mines planted, and it slows us down. But it doesn’t mean that the Taliban are able to resist or that we cannot advance.”
Afghan Army officials dismiss reports that the attackers are having difficulty.
“There is no resistance in Marjah,” said her Mohammad Zazai, commander of the 205th Atal Corps, which is taking part in the battle.
But casualties are starting to mount on both sides of the struggle, making Zazai’s claims sound a bit hollow.
One U.S. Marine was killed and three wounded on Wednesday by sniper fire; the Taliban have been deploying expert marksmen to deadly effect.
In all, the foreign forces have lost five soldiers; the Afghan army has lost one. Tallies for the insurgents are difficult to come by, but at least 27 have been reported killed; some put the total as high as 100.
The slow pace of the fighting has put a strain on the local population, holed up in their compounds and slowly starving. They say they have not been able to leave their homes since Saturday, since foreign forces cannot distinguish between ordinary residents and the Taliban.
“There are four families living in my house,” said Kefayatullah, a resident of Marjah. “We slaughtered three sheep over the past week. And now my children are crying for food. We come out of our houses because of hunger and thirst. But the foreign forces shoot us.”
Ahmadullah, who has unruly black hair and a small black hat, has brought his father’s body to the Bost Hospital in Lashkar Gah.
“My father tried to go out and get some food for us,” he said, his face dark with anger. “The foreigners shot him. His dead body was in our house for two days because we could not get out to bury him. We were afraid the foreigners would kill us, too. They are savages. Infidels will never treat us well.”
Abdullah is now the elder of the family. He is 12.
This is not a strategy that will make the post-operation battle for hearts and minds any easier. There have been at least 20 civilians killed since the beginning of the operation — 12 in the second day, when a rocket supposedly veered off track and hit the wrong compound in the Qari Saday area.
But the heartfelt regrets tendered by U.S. Commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal to the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, failed to win over grieving relatives.
“I will not rest until I have taken revenge on these infidels for my two sisters,” said a man who identified himself as Jan Gul, whose family was in the compound that was hit. “They say that this is an Afghan-led operation. But are Afghans this savage? They say that they are not using heavy weapons. But then they drop bombs on us.”
The use of HIMARs (High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems) was temporarily suspended after the 12 civilians were killed. But the military resumed their use after Interior Minister Hanif Atmar told reporters in Helmand on Monday that the decision to hit the civilian compound had been taken consciously.
“We made the decision to hit the [fort] but we did not know they had civilian hostages,” he said. He insisted that two insurgents were also killed in the attack.
Even McChrystal, speaking at the same press conference, backtracked a bit from his earlier apology.
“We are really sorry about the loss of life, but the enemy was using these people as shields. That is why they died,” he said.
With the operation limping along, the people of Helmand are puzzled and angry. Most cannot understand why the U.S. forces gave the Taliban so much advance notice of the fight — going so far as to drop leaflets warning of the upcoming attack. The thousands of explosive devices that are now retarding military progress and claiming civilian lives are a direct result of the long lead-in to the battle, they say.
“If the foreign forces had not shouted ‘We are coming! We are coming!’ the Taliban would not have planted so many mines,” said Delawar Khan, a military analyst in Helmand. “Now the Taliban are taking credit, saying ‘We are so brave and strong that we have managed to tie down 15,000 soldiers.'”
Few doubt that the combined forces will ultimately triumph; there are just too many of them against too few Taliban. But every day that the operation drags on is a defeat of sorts in the eyes of many Afghans.
“We cannot understand why the foreigners are not making more progress,” said Abdul Hai, a Marjah resident who lives near the Mullah Dost Mohd Charahi area. “On this sixth day they did not advance at all. They even retreated in some places. But the Taliban are not resisting very fiercely. They cannot.”
Still, the insurgents are holding out a lot longer than most people had thought they would.
Baryalai Rahmani, a journalist and analyst in Helmand, explains that the local Taliban are being reinforced from across the border.
“At the beginning there was not much resistance,” he said. “They were all local Taliban. But after a few days new fighters started coming in from Pakistan.”
Daoud Ahmady, spokesman for the Helmand governor, acknowledged that this was a problem.
“We are working on a plan to block the border,” he said.
Not all the wrath is directed at the foreign and government forces, of course. Many blame the Taliban for the destruction that has been brought upon them.
“My son stepped on a mine,” said Sher Mohammad, a resident of Marjah. “I had to collect his body myself. The Taliban had planted the mine right in front of our house. They are not Muslim. I want them to be humiliated.”