MARJAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - It’s only been six days since NATO launched a major assault against the Taliban and some Afghans are already asking Marines when they can reopen their shops.
But it’s hard to say whether that’s a sign the Taliban had faded away, or just a false sense of security in Marjah, the heart of the last Taliban stronghold in Helmand, Afghanistan’s most violent province.
Bravo Company of the First Battalion, Sixth Marines, has not had it easy since they were ferried in by helicopter on Saturday to launch one of the biggest NATO missions designed to help stabilize Afghanistan.
They have come under repeated heavy gunfire and faced highly skilled Taliban snipers. The fear of being blown up by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) -- some of the biggest killers in the conflict in Afghanistan -- has also bogged them down.
One Marine was killed on the first day of the operation with a single bullet to his heart. Another survived a close call when a bullet struck his helmet.
“We’ve secured the area of Koru Chareh (village) and are now working to open the bazaar back up. Today we’ve had local nationals requesting to know when they can open their shops again,” said Marine Lieutenant Mark Greenlief.
NATO’s largest assault in Afghanistan since the start of the war is aimed at driving the Taliban from their stronghold to make way for Afghan authorities to take over.
NATO said in a statement that a number of enemy fighters remaining in Marjah were engaging in direct combat, although combined forces have taken key areas.
Much of the success of the operation depends on winning the trust of civilians, by not only avoiding civilian casualties but by also listening to their every complaint.
Some have requested medical assistance. Those whose homes were damaged by bombs have been compensated, Marines say.
But the Taliban are not far away. And they have only one objective -- killing foreign forces to hold on to what Western countries say is a poppy cultivation center that funds their insurgency.
“We know the Taliban have pushed out of the village and are still operating around the area to our south, northeast and west,” said Greenlief.
“But our main focus still remains on the people, improving their way of life and assisting them with their problems.”
Marines are now comfortable enough to mount foot patrols. But the Taliban are unpredictable.
Marines have come across bullet casings from M-16 rifles -- a NATO weapon unlike the usual AK-47s the Taliban usually use -- suggesting the group has more sophisticated weaponry than previously thought.
“We still face a significant indirect fire and IED threat outside the pork chop,” said Greenlief, referring to the area around Karu Chareh, shaped like a pork chop.
“As our company continues to increase its security in one area we will work to secure the rest of our battlespace.”
Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Bryson Hull and Ron Popeski