By Jon Hemming
KABUL, July 9 (Reuters) - U.S. Marines have killed more than 400 Taliban since they began an operation to seize a district in southern Afghanistan in May, their commander said on Wednesday.
A fighting force of some 2,200 U.S. Marines deployed to Afghanistan earlier this year to make up for shortfalls in troops that Washington failed to persuade other NATO allies to fill.
The Marines moved into Garmsir district, in the southern province of Helmand, in late April, taking up positions east of the river that cuts through the desert region, and in early May began a fierce fight to push Taliban militants west and south.
"The Taliban proved that they wanted to fight for Garmsir and we took the fight to them and inflicted very serious casualties," Colonel Peter Petronzio, the U.S. Marine commander in Afghanistan, told a news conference.
Petronzio said his force was "a little too busy to count" Taliban dead, but the Afghan governor of Helmand, he said "believes the number is somewhere beyond 400 and I’m confident that his number is a fairly correct".
"As a military commander," Petronzio said, "the number which is most important to me is the civilian casualties and we believe and are confident that that number is zero."
Garmsir, at the southern end of the inhabited green strip along the Helmand River, had been a transit and logistics hub for Taliban fighters moving in from the south, Petronzio said.
Though the commander did not mention it by name, there is little but desert south of Garmsir until the Pakistan border.
"NOT SECURE, BUT STABLE"
The Marines were sent to Garmsir as the more than 8,000 mainly British forces in Helmand, holding a string of bases to the north, did not have the manpower to take the town alone.
Direct clashes have died down, Petronzio said, and now for the most part the only contact the Marines had with the Taliban was the weapons caches and roadside bombs they left behind.
"I wouldn’t say that Garmsir is secure but it is stable," he said. "The insurgents are still there but they are not engaging us as they once did."
The U.S. Marines, with their own air support and dedicated air-lift capacity, had been intended as a mobile force to "kick in the door" of a number of Taliban areas, allowing other foreign and Afghan troops to move in and hold ground in their wake.
But instead of moving on to another target, the Marines have for now become immobilised in Garmsir due to the lack of other forces to take their place, security experts said.
The Marines last week had their tour of duty in Afghanistan extended by 30 days, shifting their leaving date from October to November.
That came despite previous repeated pledges by the Pentagon that the Marines would not be kept any longer than their original seven-month tour and there would not be any further U.S. troops to replace them at the end of the summer fighting season.
Both the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan Defence Ministry are keen to have an Afghan army unit in Garmsir, an ISAF spokesman said.
The Afghan army, backed by British troops, will most likely replace the Marines once they leave Garmsir, either to be deployed elsewhere in Afghanistan, or leave the country altogether. (Editing by Alex Richardson)