By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Sunday, February 14, 2010; A17
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN -- U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers encountered pockets of stiff resistance and extensive minefields as they sought to press into this Taliban sanctuary in southern Afghanistan on Saturday.
Numerous gunfights with insurgents and painstaking efforts to clear roads of makeshift bombs slowed the advance of many coalition units and delayed them from reaching some key destinations in this farming area of 80,000 people. The operation was further complicated by the challenge of fording irrigation canals that ring the area and traversing a landscape covered in knee-deep mud.
"We've had some pretty tough fights," said Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. "It's been a tough slog for some of our companies."
The effort to flush the Taliban out of Marja, which involves 5,000 Marines and Afghan security forces, is part of the largest coalition operation since the start of the Afghanistan war to combat the insurgency and assert government control over lawless areas of the country. British and Afghan troops are conducting a related operation in Nad Ali, a Taliban stronghold 30 miles to the northeast.
One Marine from the brigade was killed Saturday and several suffered injuries, most of them minor. It was not clear how many insurgents were killed by Marine ground units and by a series of Hellfire missile strikes from unmanned Predator and Reaper aircraft that commanders employed to pursue fighters shooting at coalition forces.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who U.S. officials said had authorized the operation, issued a statement Saturday calling on "all Afghan and international troops to exercise absolute caution to avoid harming civilians." He also urged the Taliban "to renounce violence and reintegrate into civilian life."
The danger and complexity of the mission became evident as soon as Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, approached the southeastern border of Marja at sunrise. To clear a path from the battalion command post to the outer canal, the Marines employed a tank equipped with metal fangs and a plow -- it looked like something from a post-apocalyptic science-fiction movie -- to lead the way.
The Marines also sought to detonate any bombs by firing rockets that lay a ribbon of explosives ahead of them. But even with those measures, the troops encountered 15 roadside bombs on a three-quarter-mile route from the command post to the canal. Each had to be defused or destroyed.
"It's painstaking," said Lt. Col. Cal Worth, the battalion commander.
U.S. military officials deem Marja the most-mined part of Afghanistan. Taliban operatives set up numerous laboratories in the area over the past three years to manufacture makeshift explosives, which they have placed in plastic jugs -- to avoid U.S. metal detection gear -- and buried underground. The bombs are equipped with detonators that are set off in a variety of ways: simple pressure plates, remote-control devices or wires connected to switches that are triggered by insurgents lying in wait.
Once they reached the canal, the Marines had to wait until a mobile bridge, which was carried atop a tank chassis, was extended and placed over an irrigation trench. Even with the bridge, a wide band of dense clay muck on both sides of the canal bogged down resupply trucks and other logistics vehicles. And insurgents repeatedly targeted the Marines with small-arms fire and mortar shells. As a consequence, the company made less headway into Marja than it had hoped.
"It's going to be slow," Worth said. "We have to do this in a deliberate way."
Even so, Worth said he aims to establish a "security bubble" over the next few days that will allow Afghan government officials and U.S. reconstruction personnel to operate in Marja.
Worth's other two companies -- Alpha and Bravo -- were inserted into central Marja by helicopter early Saturday. Each company, which consists of about 300 Marines and Afghan soldiers, proceeded slowly on foot, seeking to confront insurgents and reassure civilians that they had come to restore security. They, too, came under regular fire from Taliban fighters holed up in adobe housing compounds.
Worth's battalion has been designated as the "main effort" of the operation. Another unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment, is operating in the northern part of Marja. Two other Marine battalions and one battalion of U.S. Army Stryker vehicles are ringing the area to prevent fighters from fleeing to neighboring communities.
"We have accomplished what we wanted to do today: get the forces into Marja," Nicholson said. "It went very well in terms of the complexity of what we attempted to do in an unknown environment. We'll attempt to expand our positions tomorrow."
But he cautioned that the task ahead remains daunting. Taliban fighters, he said, do not seem to have deserted the area in droves or thrown down their weapons to blend into the civilian population.
"There's still a lot of work to do," he said. "There are enormous areas that haven't been cleared yet."