, OUTSKIRTS OF MARJAH, Afghanistan, Feb 19 – A British commander warned it could be weeks before a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan is under control, as NATO said Friday six more soldiers were killed in the operation.
Combined forces of 15,000 US, NATO and Afghan troops are facing stiff resistance in pockets of Helmand province where they are battling to eradicate Taliban fighters who have controlled the area with drug lords for years.
As the commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, Major General Nick Carter, cautioned against "triumphalism," a NATO report described the situation as "positive" though hidden bombs are a huge threat to soldiers.
The troops engaged in Operation Mushtarak (Together) focusing on the Marjah and Nad Ali areas of Helmand would need another 25 to 30 days just to secure the Taliban stronghold, said Carter.
"In three months\’ time or thereabouts we should have a pretty fair idea about whether we\’ve been successful. But I would be very cautious about any triumphalism just yet," he said.
Afghan commanders and NATO described Taliban resistance as stiff though confined to pockets within the target area, an agricultural plain that is the source of most of the world\’s opium.
The BBC said NATO believed the militants were running low on ammunition and had called for back-up, citing intercepted Taliban communications.
The offensive is being keenly watched as a showcase of US President Barack Obama\’s strategy to end eight years of war by driving out the hardline militia and reasserting government control.
Obama has ordered more than 50,000 extra troops into Afghanistan since taking office. Fresh pledges from NATO allies will raise to 150,000 the overall number of foreign troops by August.
NATO said six of its soldiers were killed on Thursday in the deadliest day of the operation, three of them by mines and three by gunfire. It did not give their nationalities, but London said it had lost two of its soldiers during the day.
Since the offensive was launched on Saturday, 19 foreign soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, more than half of them in Mushtarak.
Mushtarak has been billed as the biggest assault since the 2001 US-led invasion that toppled the Taliban\’s 1996-2001 regime.
General Mohaidin Ghori, commander of the estimated 4,400 Afghan troops taking part in the operation, said this week that Marjah and Nad Ali were almost under control.
But he painted a bleak picture for civilians, saying the militants put "women and children on the roofs of homes and are firing from behind them".
In a battlefield assessment Friday, NATO said most of the resistance was in Marjah, rather than Nad Ali, and improvised explosive devises, or IEDs, were the main threat.
"The combined force is meeting determined pockets of resistance in both the north and east of Marjah city," NATO\’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was almost impossible for people wounded in fighting and crossfire to leave the area for treatment in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah because roads were heavily mined.
"The 40-kilometre road between Marjah and Lashkah Gah is littered with… IEDs and is closed to traffic.
"Alternative routes exist but they are also contaminated with IEDs and require long detours, severely delaying the transfer of patients," it said.
Nevertheless, ISAF said work was getting underway to bring the promised development and services to the area once the Taliban threat is eradicated.
Some roads had been opened, irrigation systems were being repaired, "power generation and road conditions are being assessed in central Marjah, and a cash-for-work programme in Nad Ali "is attracting applicants," it said.
The Pentagon was upbeat, with spokesman Geoff Morrell saying the United States was "pleased with the rate of progress".
Thousands of people have fled the stricken area for Lashkar Gah and neighbouring provinces including Nimroz, where the UN\’s World Food Programme handed out food to hundreds of hungry families.
The area is home to around 80,000 people and although Amnesty International has said about 10,000 civilians have fled, the rights group warned that thousands were trapped in the conflict zone.