SANGIN, Afghanistan — Locals in this southern Afghan valley have accused U.S. Marines of regularly killing civilians since they launched an aggressive campaign against the Taliban here over a month ago — claims the Marines say are untrue and fueled by insurgent propaganda.
But the Marines acknowledge that unless they can change people's minds, they stand little chance of winning the local support necessary to tame a key area of Afghanistan that has been the deadliest place for coalition troops this year.
The dilemma highlights the difficulty of waging war in Afghanistan. If troops use too little force, they may be ineffective in fighting the Taliban. If they use too much, they increase the risk of causing civilian casualties — or being blamed for them by villagers already wary of the foreigners in their midst.
The Marines in Helmand province's Sangin district are taking the fight to the enemy, using a strategy that relies heavily on airstrikes, mortars and intense gunbattles. They are trying to dislodge well-entrenched insurgents who survived four years of fighting with British troops.
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Dozens, if not hundreds, of civilians have been killed in Sangin over the years in fighting between the Taliban and coalition forces, leaving the Marines needing to show their operations are not doing the same. But carrying out damage assessments in such a dangerous environment can be very difficult.
While villagers frequently claim innocent civilians have been killed, the U.S. considered just one of the allegations credible enough to warrant an official investigation, said Lt. Col. Jason Morris, the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment that arrived in Sangin in October.
The inquiry was conducted with government representatives and determined the Marines were not at fault, he said.
"Since we have been here, there have been civilians wounded in the crossfire, but as far as I know, every single instance has been caused by Taliban firing," said Morris. "The number one tool the Taliban have to politically and strategically hamper our operations is to accuse us of civilian casualties."