« Marathon registration opens to public today | Main | VA trial ends with differing views of care »

Marines sweep Taliban refuge

U.S. force rooting out insurgents, but expects brief effect

GARMSIR, Afghanistan - More than a thousand Marines, backed by artillery and helicopter gunships, stormed into this Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan before dawn yesterday.

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/nation/bal-te.afghan30apr30,0,1646505.story?page=1

By David Wood | Sun reporter
April 30, 2008

The operation, mounted by the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, opens a new American combat sweep across the region where the Taliban, ousted from power in 2001, have made a strong comeback.

As of last night, there were no reported Marine casualties. The assault was launched in stages from a base near Kandahar, where the Sept. 11 attacks were plotted.

Thundering in low over the desert in CH-53 and twin-bladed CH-46 helicopters, the battalion's Alpha and Bravo companies landed just before a half moon rose to flood the desert with light. Each of the U.S. troops carried 100 to 150 pounds of weapons, ammunition and other supplies.

Simultaneously, a convoy of Marines in light armored vehicles attacked Taliban fortifications in a former agricultural school that U.S. intelligence officers said was being used as a major Taliban command post. An intense firefight lasted most of the day, until the Marines pushed the insurgents back into one area where an airstrike finished them off, military commanders said.

By midmorning, Alpha and Bravo company Marines had seized several mud-walled compounds set amid lush poppy fields.

Outside one compound, Marines were just starting to push through a poppy field on a combat patrol when a rocket-propelled grenade whooshed past and exploded, accompanied by a rattle of small arms fire. Two young men were seen fleeing on a motorbike, but the Marines did not return fire because it was not clear they were the attackers.

Later, two insurgents fired on a pair of Marine scout helicopters. As cheering Marines watched, one of the Kiowa Warrior helicopters wheeled and killed the attackers with rockets.

Military officers said it was possible that the Taliban would simply melt away and return when the Marines are gone. But the Marines were prepared - and some eager - for the Taliban to come out in strength.

The operation is taking place in Afghanistan's rich poppy-growing region along the Helmand River, an area that produces more than 90 percent of the world's opium and is a major source of money for the Taliban. The roughly 8,000 British troops in this part of southern Afghanistan have been unable to extend their reach beyond these fields and south toward the Pakistan border some 75 miles south of Garmsir.

U.S. intelligence officers said the Taliban had seized this area and dug in to protect its smuggling routes for opium going south and for weapons, explosives and Islamist fighters coming north from Pakistan. Estimates of enemy numbers ranged from 150 to 300, with more Taliban reinforcements expected, U.S. officers said.

"They know we're coming - but it's at a time and place of our own choosing," said a Marine officer just before the operation.

Facing the Marines were a mixture of what intelligence officers described as hard-core foreign fighters, local Afghans hired to be soldiers and younger trainees at a Taliban training camp.

The intelligence officer said there is a "substantial" flow of non-Afghan fighters into Garmsir from Pakistan.

The Marines' operation originally was opposed by some British commanders and reportedly by the Helmand provincial governor. The British officers said local villagers were beginning to resist the Taliban's harsh rule, and they feared that fighting in Garmsir would cause the villagers to flee.

The British eventually agreed to the operation, but only after days of delay that underscored the awkward multinational military command and a lack of a clear consensus on strategy.

Brig. Mark Carleton-Smith, the commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, the senior British commander in Afghanistan, told The Times of London in mid-April that the main effort in southern Afghanistan should be on reconstruction.

The 24th MEU commander, Col. Peter Petronzio, said his goals for the mission are to kill insurgents, establish security for reconstruction, and disrupt the flow of weapons and fighters from the Pakistan border through this region, where the radical Islamic Taliban have re-established control over the past year.

The Marines intend this week to clear Taliban fighters and improvised explosive devices from the strategic roads along the Helmand River and to seize the village called Madrassa, after the local school, where Taliban forces were reported to be occupying a series of defensive trenches and fortifications.

Underscoring the complex nature of a counterinsurgency war waged among the civilian population, Lt. Col. Anthony Henderson, the battalion commander, told his men that the Marines should be "no better friend, no worse enemy."

"First, do no harm," he said. But he left no doubt that the point of the operation was to kill enemy fighters.

Initially, at least, Marines intend to prevent reinforcements from reaching Taliban forces fighting the British in northern Helmand province, roughly 120 miles from here.

But despite the effort and long planning behind the Marines' operation, it was designed to be short with few lasting effects. Overall, the U.S. and allied command in Afghanistan is short of troops and in most cases cannot establish a security presence in areas they have cleared of insurgents.

British forces based just north of here will establish positions in Madrassa but do not have enough men to extend their reach south into areas cleared by the Marines, British officers said.

There are few Afghan police and Afghan army units to move into areas cleared of insurgents, and scant reconstruction teams available to establish government services, intelligence officers said.

"The effect you'll be having will be great but short term, because we can't backfill you," a British officer told the Marines before the operation.

For Marines steeped in the lessons of counterinsurgency warfare, the limitations of this operation are frustrating. Some officers have privately compared it to bloody but inconclusive operations during the Vietnam War, when troops were often directed to seize ground and then abandon it to the enemy.

"There's a huge potential we could cede [back to insurgents] a lot of what we've done," Petronzio said.

He and his troops are scheduled to return to Camp Lejeune, N.C., this fall after a seven-month deployment.

In an interview before the operation, he expressed his frustration that the effort would have little long-term effect.

"As heavy as we are, we're going to go in there and there will be a couple of days of fighting and [the insurgents] will throw down their guns and melt away," he said. "And when we're gone, they'll come back.

"The biggest advantage the insurgents have against us is time. He's not going anywhere. Everybody else moves in and out," Petronzio said.

david.wood@baltsun.com