DAHANEH, Afghanistan — U.S. Marines battled Taliban fighters Wednesday for control of a strategic southern town in a new operation to cut militant supply lines and allow Afghan residents to vote in next week's presidential election.
Insurgents appeared to dig in for a fight, firing volleys of rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds and even missiles from the back of a truck at the Marines, who were surprised at the intense resistance. By sunset, Marines had made little progress into Dahaneh beyond the gains of the initial predawn assault.
Fighting accelerated after sundown, and officers predicted a couple of days of intense combat before the town could be secured.
"Based on the violence with which they've been fighting back against us, I think it indicates the Taliban are trying to make a stand here," said Capt. Zachary Martin, commander of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines.
The operation, Eastern Resolve 2, was launched early Wednesday with 400 Marines and 100 Afghan troops, who leapfrogged over Taliban lines in helicopters to attack militant positions in mud-brick compounds.
It was the third major push by U.S. and British forces this summer into Taliban-controlled areas of Helmand province, center of Afghanistan's lucrative opium business and scene of some of the heaviest fighting.
The Marines are part of the 21,000 additional forces President Barack Obama ordered deployed to Afghanistan this year to stop the Taliban's momentum.
U.S. and British troops hope to break the Taliban grip on the province, sever smuggling routes from Pakistan and protect the civilian population from Taliban reprisals so Afghans can vote here during the Aug. 20 election. The Taliban have called for a boycott of the ballot and threatened to ruin the election.
It was the first time U.S. or NATO troops entered Dahaneh, a squalid town of about 2,000 people, in years. Marines say the town is key to controlling the Naw Zad valley — a major Taliban staging area.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman said the operation was "going as planned."
"They are engaged in a fight. They are meeting some resistance," he said. He would not say how long the offensive will last.
The Marines appeared to take great care to help villagers. About a dozen Marines and Afghan troops dashed 50 yards out of their compound to help people caught in cross fire. The Marines launched white phosphorus smoke grenades to obscure the rescue of the five Afghan children and five adults, including one man on crutches.
Wednesday's offensive follows Eastern Resolve 1, the Marines' initial push out of Naw Zad in early spring. The first move was of limited effect, because U.S. troops were too thinly spread to control areas they managed to claim from insurgents.