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Once Touted As Major NATO Victory, Afghan District Is Contested Again

Members of the Afghan security forces stand around a lightly armored vehicle during an operation against Taliban fighters in Helmand, December 2015.
Members of the Afghan security forces stand around a lightly armored vehicle during an operation against Taliban fighters in Helmand, December 2015.

MARJAH, Afghanistan -- The narrow road to Marjah, a remote agricultural town in southern Afghanistan, is littered with bullet casings and empty rocket shells.

Most civilians have left the region amid intense fighting. The Taliban have blown up dozens of bridges on the 20-kilometer road to Marjah from Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.

Marjah is one of Helmand's 14 districts. It encapsulates the difficulties faced by overstretched Afghan forces as they deal with resurgent Taliban. The insurgents, emboldened by the drawdown of international forces in late 2014, conducted one of their bloodiest offensives last year.

Marjah town, a cluster of shops and low-slung mud compounds, is now in the hands of Afghan forces. The agricultural region was at the center of a large-scale military assault in 2010, when more than 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops snatched it from the Taliban and attempted to transform it into a model of stability and prosperity.

But after international troops left, the region relapsed into instability. Last year, Helmand became a major battleground between government forces and the Taliban, who had ditched their hit-and-run tactics for a more conventional offensive marked by a quest to grab territory.

A large number of insurgent fighters overran Marjah late last year. Aided by U.S. airpower and military advisors, Afghan forces launched an offensive this week to reclaim it.

Abdul Rahman Sarjang, a senior police commander in Helmand, says their forces were able to reclaim most of Marjah this week after intense fighting.

"The police are not firmly in charge of all Marjah. We have opened all roads in the area, and have now established 10 new checkpoints to prevent the enemy from returning," he said. "They suffered a debilitating defeat here and have lost more than 120 fighters."

However, intense firing from Taliban fighters, hiding in orchards and irrigation ditches, defies such claims.

While Afghan losses are not known, the U.S. military said one of its soldiers was killed and two more injured during fighting in Marjah on January 5. They were members of the U.S. special operations forces still mentoring Afghan security forces.

While NATO troops are not leading the fight on the ground, U.S. jets and NATO reconnaissance planes still hover in Marjah's skies.

A local policeman, who requested anonymity, says that in addition to more reconnaissance and improved ground intelligence, they need more boots on the ground.

"The government needs to move fast. We need more soldiers and better air support," he said. "This is the only way we can establish and strengthen security here."

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Marjah, Helmand.