DAHANEH, Afghanistan — U.S. aircraft and missiles pounded Taliban mountainside positions around Dahaneh on Thursday as Marines pushed through mudbrick compounds searching for militants in the second day of fighting to seize this strategic southern town.
Also in the south, four NATO service members — three British and one American — were killed in separate explosions Thursday, military officials said.
August's casualty count is likely to surpass the record 75 deaths U.S. and NATO troops suffered in July, the deadliest month for the international force in the nearly eight-year war. The violence comes as Afghans prepare to vote in Aug. 20 presidential elections.
U.S. Marines launched a major assault Wednesday against Taliban forces in Dahaneh, a town of 2,000 people that controls major trade routes in the northern part of Helmand, the southern province that has become center stage in the war.
By Thursday evening, the Marines and Afghan troops had managed to take about half the town, with Taliban resistance tougher than expected.
As sporadic clashes continued in Dahaneh, Marine Cobra attack helicopters fired rockets at Taliban positions in the nearby mountains where militants were believed firing at troops in the town.
Later, U.S. A-10 fighter-bombers fired multiple rounds into the barren, rocky cliffs overlooking what the Marines call "Hell's Pass," the entrance into the Now Zad valley, and U.S. surface-to-surface missiles, fired from the main Marine base, pounded the hillsides.
Meanwhile in the town, Marines came under heavy machine gun fire as they moved through the streets and alleyways.
"It's coming at us 360 degrees, but we knew they'd try to surround us," said Cpl. Kilani Garber of Middleville, Mich., as the troops ducked for cover.
As they moved through parts of the town abandoned by the Taliban, Marines kicked down or detonated the doors of several compounds from where insurgents were seen firing during the opening day of the assault. In one compound, troops found numerous empty Kalashnikov bullet casings and a few used heroin syringes.
"They want to fight, then they don't want to fight; we're getting mixed signals from these guys," said Cpl. Mack Williams, 22, from Spruce Pine, N.C., as his unit met yet another outburst of light arms fire in the late afternoon.
At sunset, a Humvee mounted with a loudspeaker drove through neighborhoods the Marines had cleared, broadcasting to residents in their Pashto language that they could register complaints and get compensation for damage suffered in the fighting.
Most residents appeared to have fled those neighborhoods. Most of those remained were elderly.
"The people here are hostile to outsiders. Even if they're not all with the Taliban, they're against us," said Sgt. Hazibullah, who led an Afghan national army unit with the Marines. He gave only one name.
Ousting the Taliban
About 400 Marines and 100 Afghan troops are taking part in the operation to capture Dahaneh — the third major push by U.S. and British forces this summer into Taliban-controlled areas of Helmand. The province is the center of Afghanistan's lucrative opium business and scene of some of the heaviest fighting of the Afghan war.
The main goals of the latest operation are to oust the Taliban from the area, cut off smuggling routes from neighboring Pakistan, and offer enough security to civilians so that they can vote during the elections next Thursday. The Marines hope to secure Dahaneh fast enough to set up a voting site, which would be the only one in this district.
Sgt. Hazibullah said a voting center could probably be established here by next week but it was unlikely anyone would vote out of fear of Taliban reprisals.
In London, the British Ministry of Defense said the three British soldiers died when their foot patrol was hit by a bomb near the Helmand town of Sangin, south of Dahaneh. The U.S. statement gave no details of where the American was killed.
Gates: Fight will take 'a few years'
The Pentagon presented a grim portrait of the Afghanistan war Thursday, offering no assurances about how long Americans will be fighting there or how many U.S. combat troops it will take to win.
Defeating the Taliban and al-Qaida will take "a few years," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, with success on a larger scale in the desperately poor country a much longer proposition. He acknowledged that the Taliban has a firm hold on parts of the country President Barack Obama has called vital to U.S. security.
"In the intelligence business, we always used to categorize information in two ways, secrets and mysteries," Gates, a former CIA director, told a Pentagon news conference.
He added: "Mysteries were those where there were too many variables to predict. And I think that how long U.S. forces will be in Afghanistan is in that area."
With 62,000 U.S. troops already in the country, and another 6,000 headed there by the end of the year, Gates suggested there is little appetite in Washington to add many more.
No exit date
He said his top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is free to ask for whatever he needs, but Gates said when the general submits a revised war plan in the coming weeks it will not contain a request to expand the U.S. fighting force.
Appearing alongside Gates, the nation's second-highest ranking military officer agreed there is no date certain for an exit.
Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Marine Gen. James Cartwright said he is looking for evidence of U.S. and NATO troops increasingly turning security missions over to Afghan forces as a sign of when Americans might ramp down their presence.
"When you start to see that attitude change, then you start to have a sense that things are going to move in a direction that would be towards the end of the violence side of this equation," Cartwright said.
Meanwhile, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he's says ordering Afghan security forces to observe a cease-fire on election day. He also demanded Taliban fighters not carry out violence during the vote.
Karzai faces a field of around three dozen competitors for the presidency.
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