US, Afghan troops encircle Taliban stronghold

Several Americans wounded in blast at Paktia outpost

By Alfred de Montesquiou and Christopher Torchia
Associated Press / February 12, 2010

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NEAR MARJAH, Afghanistan - US and Afghan forces ringed the Taliban stronghold of Marjah yesterday, sealing off escape routes and setting the stage for what is being described as the biggest offensive of the nine-year war.

Taliban defenders repeatedly fired rockets and mortars at units poised in foxholes along the edge of the town, apparently trying to lure NATO forces into skirmishes before the big attack.

“They’re trying to draw us in,’’ said Captain Joshua Winfrey, 30, of Tulsa, Okla., commander of Lima Company, Third Battalion, Sixth Marines.

Meanwhile, in eastern Afghanistan, the spokesman for Paktia Province, Roullah Samoun, said five Americans were wounded when a suicide attacker wearing a border police uniform blew himself up at a US base near the Pakistan border. A US statement said “several’’ US service members were injured in an explosion at a joint US-Afghan outpost in Paktia, but gave no further details.

Up to 1,000 militants are believed holed up in Marjah, a key Taliban logistics base and center of the lucrative opium poppy trade. But the biggest threats are likely to be the land mines and bombs hidden in the roads and fields of the farming community, 380 miles southwest of Kabul.

The precise date for the attack has been kept secret. US officials have signaled for weeks they planned to seize Marjah, a town of about 80,000 people in Helmand Province and the biggest community in southern Afghanistan under Taliban control.

NATO officials say the goal is to seize the town quickly and reestablish Afghan government authority, bringing public services in hopes of winning support of the townspeople once the Taliban are gone.

Hundreds of Afghan soldiers were to join US Marines in the attack to emphasize the Afghan role in the operation.

A Taliban spokesman dismissed the significance of Marjah, saying the NATO operation was “more propaganda than military necessity.’’

Nevertheless, the spokesman, Mohammed Yusuf, said in a dialogue on the Taliban website that the insurgents would strike the attackers with explosives and hit-and-run tactics, according to a summary by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors militant Internet traffic.

In preparation for the offensive, a US-Afghan force led by the US Army’s Fifth Stryker Brigade moved south from Lashkar Gah and linked up yesterday with Marines on the northern edge of Marjah, closing off a main Taliban escape route. Marines and Army soldiers fired colored smoke grenades to show each other they were friendly forces.

US and Afghan forces have now finished their deployment along the main road in and out of Marjah, leaving the Taliban no way out except across open desert.