MARJA, Afghanistan — Outnumbered and outgunned, Taliban fighters are mounting a tougher fight than expected, Afghan officials said Sunday, as U.S.-led forces converged on a pocket of militants in a western section of the town.
Despite ongoing fighting, the newly appointed civilian chief for Marja said he plans to fly into the town today for the first time since the attack to begin restoring Afghan government control and winning over the population after years of Taliban rule.
With fighter jets, drones and attack helicopters roaring overhead, Marine and Afghan companies advanced Sunday on a 2-square-mile area where more than 40 insurgents were believed holed up.
"They are squeezed," said Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, commander of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. "It looks like they want to stay and fight, but they can always drop their weapons and slip away. That's the nature of this war."
U.S. officials signaled their intention to attack Marja, a major Taliban supply and opium-smuggling center, months ago, apparently in hopes the insurgents would flee and allow the U.S.-led force to take over quickly and restore an Afghan government presence.
Instead, the insurgents rigged Marja with bombs and booby traps to slow the allied attack, which began Feb. 13. Teams of Taliban gunmen stayed in the town, delivering sometimes intense volleys of gunfire on Marine and Afghan units slogging through the rutted streets and poppy fields.
Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, an Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman, said the United States and its allies had expected the Taliban to leave behind thousands of hidden explosives, which they did. But they were surprised to find that so many militants stayed to fight.
"We predicted it would take many days. But our prediction was that the insurgency would not resist that way," Azimi told the Associated Press in Kabul.
In a statement Sunday, NATO acknowledged that insurgents were putting up a "determined resistance" in various parts of Marja, although the overall offensive is "on track."
Lt. Josh Diddams, a Marine spokesman, said Sunday that Marines and Afghan troops were continuing to run into "pockets of stiff resistance" though they were making progress. Diddams said no area is completely calm although three markets in town — which covers about 80 square miles — are at least partly open.
"Everywhere we've got Marines, we're running into insurgents," Diddams said. In many cases, the militants are fighting out of bunkers fortified with sandbags.
Before the assault, U.S. officers said they thought 400 to 1,000 insurgents were in Marja, 360 miles southwest of Kabul. About 7,500 U.S. and Afghan troops attacked the town, while thousands more NATO soldiers moved into other Taliban strongholds in surrounding Helmand province.
It was the largest joint NATO-Afghan operation since the Taliban regime was ousted from power in 2001.
NATO said one service member died in a roadside bombing Sunday, bringing the number of international troops killed in the operation to 13. At least one Afghan soldier has been confirmed dead. Senior Marine officers say intelligence reports suggest more than 120 insurgents have died.
The Marja operation is a major test of a new NATO strategy that stresses protecting civilians over routing insurgents quickly. It's also the first major ground operation since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 reinforcements to Afghanistan.
Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, said on NBC's Meet the Press that Marja was the opening salvo in a campaign to turn back the Taliban that could last 12-18 months.
In a setback to that strategy, the Dutch prime minister said Sunday that his country's 1,600 troops would probably leave Afghanistan this year. Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende spoke a day after his government collapsed when a coalition partner insisted the Dutch troops leave in August as planned.