Taliban fighters are increasingly using civilians as human shields in the assault on the southern town of Marjah, an Afghan official said on Wednesday as military squads resumed painstaking house-to-house searches in the Taliban stronghold.
About 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops are taking part in the offensive around Marjah, which has an estimated 80,000 inhabitants and was the largest town in southern Helmand province under Taliban control.
NATO hopes to rush in aid and public services as soon as the town is secured to try to win the loyalty of the population.
With the assault in its fifth day, insurgents are firing at Afghan troops from inside or next to compounds where women and children appear to have been ordered to stand on a roof or in a window, said Gen. Mohiudin Ghori, the brigade commander for Afghan troops in Marjah.
“Especially in the south of Marjah, the enemy is fighting from compounds where soldiers can very clearly see women or children on the roof or in a second-floor or third-floor window,’’ Ghori said. “They are trying to get us to fire on them and kill the civilians.’’
The Marjah offensive is the biggest joint operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and is a major test of a retooled NATO strategy to focus on protecting civilians, rather than killing insurgents.
Ghori said troops have made choices either not to fire at the insurgents with civilians nearby or had to target and advance much more slowly in order to distinguish between militants and civilians as they go.
Even with such caution on both the NATO and Afghan side, civilians have been killed. NATO has confirmed 15 civilian deaths in the operation. Afghan rights groups say at least 19 have been killed.
In northern Marjah on Wednesday, U.S. Marines fanned out through poppy fields, dirt roads and side alleys to take control of a broader stretch of area from insurgents as machine gun fire rattled in the distance.