Nightly News   |  February 14, 2010

Fighting intensifies as Afghan assault progresses

Coalition troops are coming under heavy fire in the battle for Marjah, the last Taliban stronghold in the heart of Helmand province. NBC’s Jim Maceda reports.

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>>> but first we move quickly to afghanistan , where u.s. and allied forces encountered stiff resistance on what is now day two of the biggest offensive in years against the taliban . and in the course of the fighting today a dozen afghan civilians were killed when two nato rockets struck a house there. the target of this offensive, the southern city of marjah, as we've been reporting, considered to be a taliban stronghold. our report tonight from nbc's jim maceda.

>> reporter: fighting has intensified in the battle for marjah the last taliban stronghold in the heart of helmand province , afghanistan 's drug trafficking capital.

>> it's an opium, heroin production place. marjah was free key to freeing helmand province from the grip of the taliban .

>> reporter: thousands of u.s. marines , british, and afghan troops are under fire but moving forward, many house to house.

>> right next to you on the side.

>> which side in right side or left side?

>> the side right there.

>> reporter: facing taliban snipers on rooftops and massive numbers of mines and i.e.d.s, underground or in booby traps. two coalition troops and dozens of insurgents have been killed. cameraman sebastian rich is embedded with the marines for nbc news.

>> reporter: we've also come under heavy mortar and small arms fire through the day while the units have been trying to detonate the i.e.d.s.

>> reporter: many of the 1,000 or so taliban who from the hub of marjah control the flow of fighters, drugs, and weapons have already fled, possibly melting in with displaced families seeking shelter further north. those who stay behind, especially foreign fighters, could fight to the death. still, u.s. commanders say so far so good.

>> we're optimistic that we're on timeline, maybe even a little ahead of timeline. we've been surprised by the number of i.e.d.s we've found. there's been no shortage of i.e.d.s, probably even more than we thought.

>> reporter: marjah, once a town of 100,000, is the first critical test of president obama 's strategy. clear, hold with the help of u.s. trained afghan security forces , then bring in aid, a kind of civilian surge of schools, clin sxikz roads. many villagers say they've seen none of that yet.

>> translator: now is the time to work and build just like they've promised, sa epromised," says th is afghan. meanwhile u.s. commanders have apologized for that deadly rocket incident, but the mistake could be costly in the larger battle to win over the afghan people . brian?

>> and jim , here you are taking a battlefield break covering the olympics for a few weeks. but you've spent so much of your professional life in and around afghanistan . you and i were talking yesterday. you said this battle could be the alamo for them.

>> reporter: it could be the alamo because there are probably dozens maybe even hundreds of foreign fighters who have nowhere to go. they've got nowhere to hide. it could be their last stand. marjah is so important to so many people there in the taliban . it is a choke point. it's an area along a very important artery that moves drugs and drug money and weapons and fighters. and the taliban simply has nowhere else to go now in helmand province . that's the status quo. u.s. and coalition forces largely control the rest of the province. so if you win marjah, you win helmand province , and that's what's at stake.

>> jim maceda, a veteran combat correspondent, here with us in vancouver reporting on the fighting overseas. jim , thanks.

>>> viewers of the sunday talk