3:30 PM ET -- More civilian casualties. Following on the heels of yesterday's incident, in which two stray U.S. rockets killed 12 Afghan civilians, are reports that 5 civilians were accidentally killed today in an airstrike in Kandahar province. From the Guardian:
A Nato statement said a joint patrol of Nato and Afghan troops saw individuals digging along a path in the Zhari district of Kandahar province today and mistakenly concluded that they were planting an improvised explosive device. Two civilians were also wounded in the strike.
3:00 PM ET -- Marjah just another 'hyped-up' offensive? Simon Tisdall over at the Guardian offers a skeptical take on the media coverage of the Marjah offensive, as well as the current strategy's chances for success:
Assuming they don't get bogged down (and that's a big assumption), just how long US and British elements can and will stay in the field before moving to other fronts is unclear. Some reports say the Taliban are regrouping in Uruzgan, north of Helmand. The question thus arises: is the allied offensive merely displacing the problem? And what about the war's hinterlands: the Talib and al-Qaida bases in Waziristan - where Pakistan perpetually prevaricates - hostile Baluchistan, and the northern borders, where a spreading war threatens fragile Uzbek supply routes?.
Tisdall goes on to write that:
For all the media ballyhoo, the Marjah offensive is thus the starting gun in a race against time; a chance for Obama to escape his "war of necessity" with something approaching honour. But it is a race that the US and Nato, following current policy, appear doomed to lose.
2:30 PM ET -- Soldiers complain about strict rules of engagement. The AP has an interesting piece about soldiers involved in the current offensive complaining about the strict war rules they are being made to operate under. Both U.S. and Afghan troops, the AP suggests, see the rules, which often cause them to have to hold their fire, as a hindrance in their fight with the Taliban. Just what are these restrictions? Here's the AP:
If a man emerges from a Taliban hideout after shooting erupts, U.S. troops say they cannot fire at him if he is not seen carrying a weapon -- or if they did not personally watch him drop one.
What this means, some contend, is that a militant can fire at them, then set aside his weapon and walk freely out of a compound, possibly toward a weapons cache in another location. It was unclear how often this has happened. In another example, Marines pinned down by a barrage of insurgent bullets say they can't count on quick air support because it takes time to positively identify shooters.
One U.S. soldier tells the AP with regard to the rules, "I understand the reason behind it, but it's so hard to fight a war like this. They're using our rules of engagement against us."
Some helpful background on the current rules of engagement, from the AP:
Under the current rules of engagement, troops retain the right to use lethal force in self defense, said U.S. Col. Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for the international force.
The rules seek to put the troops in the "right frame of mind to exercise that right," Shanks said. They require troops to ask a few fundamental questions:
• Even if someone has shot in my general direction, am I still in danger?
• Will I make more enemies than I'll kill by destroying property, or harming innocent civilians?
• What are my other options to resolve this without escalating the violence?
2:00 PM ET -- Marjah as a key test of Obama's strategy. The Washington Post this morning looked at how the Marjah offensive is a "a crucial test for President Obama's strategy of more troops, more civilians and more money." The Post's article points to such aspects of the strategy as having the number of Afghan troops outnumber those of US and NATO forces, as well as its plans to hold Marjah until an effective governmental structure can be established.
In addition to Obama's strategy being tested in Marjah, Gen. Stanley McChrystal will also see his new war guidelines tested in the offensive. From the Post:
The first conducted since Obama authorized deployment of 30,000 additional troops, it is being waged under new guidelines McChrystal put in place for forging better ties with the local Afghan population.
U.S. troops have been told to end the "night raids," in which they barged into Afghan homes in search of insurgents, and to send in Afghan forces first. Meetings were held with tribal leaders from the Marja region before the well-advertised offensive began, and news reports from the battlefield indicate that commanders are wary of disrupting the lives of civilians.
12:00 PM ET -- Video from Marjah. CNN's Afghanistan Crossroads blog posted video late last night from the second day of Operation Moshtarak.
9:20 AM ET -- War photos. The Times' front page story this morning on the Marjah was accompanied by a photo which captured something that hasn't appeared all that often in coverage of the fighting in Afghanistan: a soldier wounded during combat. The photo, by embedded photographer Tyler Hicks, shows an unnamed Marine who was wounded in his left arm during a gun battle. In the photo, which doesn't accompany the online version of the article but which you can view as part of a slideshow here, the Marine's wound is being treated by one of his fellow soldiers.
Here's a fascinating description of the scene from the Times story:
By early afternoon, the first Marine was hit. The wounded infantryman, a lance corporal who carried a squad automatic weapon, was struck as he crouched behind a wall, returning fire during a sustained fight in which incoming bullets were whistling and snapping just overhead, or striking the walls. He dropped to the ground.
"Corpsman up!" the Marines beside him shouted, calling for a trauma medic.
The Marine was on his back, blood flowing down his left arm. "Put a tourniquet on him!" someone shouted.
After being treated by a corpsman, the Marine told his sergeant he could still fire his weapon, and so returned to battle.
9:00 AM ET -- Taliban fighters flee Marjah. The New York Times is reporting on its website this morning that a significant number of Taliban fighters have now fled from Marjah on what is the third day of the coalition's offensive on the Taliban stronghold in Helmand. Those that remained were largely in the southern part of the city, officials said at a news conference this morning.
"Today there is no major movement of the enemy. South of Marjah they are very weak. There has been low resistance. Soon we will have Marjah cleared of enemies," the Afghan National Army commander in Helmand, Brig. Gen. Sher Mohammad Zazai, said at the briefing, the AP reports.
The current AP report also details from the frontline of the offensive, where U.S. Marines are engaged in gun battles with Taliban snipers.
Sniper teams attacked U.S. Marines and Afghan troops across the Taliban haven of Marjah, as several gun battles erupted Monday on the third day of a major offensive to seize the extremists' southern heartland.
Multiple firefights in different locations taxed the ability of coalition forces to provide enough air support as NATO forces forged deeper into the town, moving through suspected insurgent neighborhoods, the U.S. Marines said.
In northern Marjah, an armored column came under fire from at least three separate sniper teams, slowing its progress. One of the teams came within 155 feet (50 meters) and started firing.