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 pre-dawn 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 at the edge of town.
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 of the Afghan war.
British troops have been responsible for Helmand the last three years, but never had enough forces to take and hold Dahaneh.
The Marines are part of the 21,000 additional forces President Barack Obama deployed to Afghanistan this year to stop the Taliban's violent momentum.
By their operations, 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 had 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 and site of a large opium market.
The goal is to cut off the Taliban from other communities in the valley, making civilians in the area more willing to cooperate with NATO forces. The Taliban levy taxes and maintain checkpoints in Dahaneh. The town serves as a main trading route through northern Helmand, which produces 60 percent of the world's opium.
During the first day of fighting, Marines said they killed between seven and 10 militants and seized about 66 pounds of opium, which the Taliban use to finance their insurgency. The U.S. military said an American soldier was killed by a bomb Wednesday in southern Afghanistan, but the statement did not say whether the blast was part of the fighting around Dahaneh.
A first assault wave in Humvees and MRAPs left a Marine base at 1 a.m. in the town of Naw Zad, about five miles north of Dahaneh. Three CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters then picked up a platoon of Marines and dropped them behind Taliban lines in Dahaneh. These troops blasted their way into a suspected militant compound, where they arrested five men and took over the compound as a base.
Just before morning light, militants unleashed their weapons.
Marines cried out "Incoming!" as the whistles of Taliban rockets approached. A heavy rocket targeted a Marine outpost but flew over the small base, while a mortar round landed just 20 yards from a Humvee on the town's outskirts.
"Just a few meters farther and I'd be dead," said Cpl. Joshua Jackson, 23, of Copley, Ohio, after one round landed nearby.
Short bursts of fire punctuated the desert air over the next eight hours, a response so fierce that troops suspected the Taliban knew they were coming.
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.
A heavy machine gun the Taliban were firing from one of the streets slowed the Marines' progress into the town. Militants also brought in a truck to fire heavy missiles. Marines said the Taliban's reputation for firing poorly aimed shots and fleeing had not proved true here.
"This is a Taliban home down here, so for once they're not running," said Lance Cpl. Garett Davidson, 24, of West Des Moines, Iowa.
Complicating the fight, insurgents were shooting from house rooftops and courtyards, potentially putting civilians in danger. But civilians — perhaps 100 — were seen running away in the early morning, leaving the Marines confident that those left in the town were mostly militants.
Martin, the company commander, said the Marines would strictly limit the type of weapons they use and would stick to a "proportional response" when under fire to limit civilian casualties, an issue that the U.S. and NATO commander here, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has emphasized with troops.
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 crossfire. The Marines launched white phosphorus smoke grenades to obscure the rescue of the five Afghan children and five adults, including one man on crutches. The villagers were then hurried into the Marine outpost.
After militants fired volleys of rockets from a mud-wall compound, the Marines called in a missile strike, and Martin said seven to 10 militants inside were killed. No civilians were inside, he said.
"We were tracking these individuals, they were there ... and then boom, and they weren't there," Martin said.
After the noon sun sent temperatures close to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, fighting subsided. It picked up again around 4 p.m., when a Marine unit launching one of NATO's first patrols in Dahaneh was ambushed within yards of the outpost.
Insurgents appeared to try to encircle the Marine position. Sniper and RPG fire landed near the compound, but there were no U.S. or Afghan casualties. Cobra attack helicopters circled overhead, adjusting their targets in the mountains where some of the Taliban forces were hiding out.
Militants typically avoid large confrontations with U.S. troops. Martin said the Taliban may have been tipped off about the operation, a suspicion shared by many of his troops.
"I'd say we've gained a foothold for now, and it's a substantial one that we're not going to let go of," Martin said as RPG fire landed nearby.
Other Marines units met heavy resistance as they fought to seize control of the mountains surrounding Dahaneh. A convoy of Marines in Humvees and MRAPS sat on the town's outskirts, where militants attacked them with mortar fire.
The offensive follows Eastern Resolve 1, the Marines' initial push out of Naw Zad in early spring. This first move was of limited effect, because U.S. troops were too thinly spread to control areas they managed to claim from insurgents.