Six Western troops, including three Americans, killed in Afghanistan

By Joshua Partlow
Tuesday, January 12, 2010

DELARAM, AFGHANISTAN -- U.S. Marines came under attack by Taliban fighters Monday at the start of an operation intended to push insurgents from a volatile town in southern Afghanistan, while across the country six Western service members, including at least three Americans, were killed in battle.

The toll amounted to the deadliest day in more than two months for international forces, at a time when thousands of additional Marines are arriving as part of President Obama's troop buildup in Afghanistan. U.S. military officials have said they expect more attacks, particularly in the Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan, where most of the 30,000 new troops will deploy.

Three American service members were killed in a firefight in southern Afghanistan, the U.S. military said in a statement, without providing further details. A French officer was killed, and another seriously wounded, while on patrol in the Alasay valley, northeast of Kabul. A second NATO service member died in that attack, but authorities did not confirm the nationality. The sixth death came in a bombing in southern Afghanistan.

The Marine operation, known as Cobra's Anger II, started in the early morning in Bar Now Zad, an area of Helmand province that has been a Taliban stronghold for the past few years, according to U.S. military officials. Two companies of Marines landed in helicopters in the darkness to begin clearing the area. They encountered sporadic fighting throughout the day by insurgents with machine guns and rifles, said 1st Lt. Joshua Clark, assistant operations officer with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, which is conducting the operation.

"It's one of the last enemy areas up in this region," Clark said.

Clark said the Taliban put up "light resistance all throughout the day." The fighting prompted reinforcements to be flown in by helicopter to bolster the Marine presence.

The operation follows a larger effort, called Cobra's Anger, last month in neighboring Now Zad, where more than 1,000 Marines moved into what had once been the province's second-largest municipality but had deteriorated to essentially a ghost town after the Taliban takeover. U.S. military officials have hailed the progress in that city, as residents have returned to their homes and reopened shops. But in Bar Now Zad, the Taliban still caused problems for the Marines.

Some of the most treacherous territory for Americans in Afghanistan is in Helmand province, a bastion of opium poppy farming, which has been a financial boon for the insurgency.

The commander of the Marine expeditionary brigade in Helmand, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, said additional troops allow him to send his Marines into areas where the Taliban has moved freely in the past. He also plans to take on another area of Helmand, the town of Marja, which is under Taliban control, riddled with buried bombs, and devoid of Afghan government presence or security forces.

"Right now the enemy claims that it's his own, it's his sanctuary," Nicholson said. "That won't last much longer. The Marines will in fact be going in there."

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