Jun 30, 2009
Marines, Taliban fight at Afghan ghost town
Limited by their numbers, Marines can hold out but not rout Taliban
The Associated Press
updated 2:55 p.m. ET, Tues., June 30, 2009
NOW ZAD, Afghanistan - U.S. Marines patrol slowly along streets laced with land mines and lined with abandoned shops, clinics and homes. As night falls over this Afghan ghost town, the only sounds are the howling of coyotes and the creaking of tin roofs in the wind.
Three years after its residents fled, the once bustling town of Now Zad is the scene of a stalemate between a company of newly arrived Marines and a band of Taliban fighters. The Americans have plenty of firepower. What they don't have is enough men to hold seized ground.
"We would just be mowing the weeds," said Capt. Zachary Martin of any move to drive out the Taliban.
The deadlock shows how a shortage of troops has hindered the Afghan war and points to the challenges for the Obama administration as it sends 21,000 extra Marines and soldiers to the south to try to turn around a bogged down, eight-year conflict. The influx will bring U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to about 68,000 by late summer — roughly half the current level in Iraq, a smaller country than Afghanistan.
It's unclear if more troops will be deployed to this town in Helmand province, the heart of the Taliban insurgency and the opium poppy trade that funds it. For the meantime at least, it appears Now Zad is too valuable to abandon to the insurgents — but not valuable enough for an all-out offensive.
The 300 or so Marines in Now Zad regularly patrol areas close to the Taliban front lines, skirmishing with them and risking attacks from the area's biggest killer — IEDs. Over the last month, improvised explosive devices have killed one Marine and wounded seven. Four of the men — including the fatality — suffered double leg amputations.
"Welcome to Hell," reads one message spray-painted on a wall in the town's main base by British troops whom the Marines replaced last year.
"Good Luck USA," reads another.
No locals to help, or have help
Along with the new troops and military aircraft, Washington plans a corresponding surge in development projects to convince the largely impoverished Afghan population that the central government — not the insurgents — offers the best hope for the future. The U.S. is also spending more on training the Afghan police and army so they can eventually take on the Taliban.
But with Now Zad's 10,000 to 35,000 residents long gone, there are no hearts and minds to woo here — even it were safe enough to build schools, clinics and roads. The town also has no local security forces, and no one can say when they will arrive.
"Even in our wildest dreams we are not going to have enough Marines and soldiers to be everywhere," said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the commander of the first wave of 10,000 new troops pouring into Helmand and surrounding provinces. "That is why it is important to have the locals taking more responsibility, saying, 'This is my neighborhood and I'm going to have to defend it.'"
Like much of Afghanistan, Now Zad was relatively peaceful in the years following the U.S.-led invasion. Water pumps installed by the U.N. World Food Program are dotted around the town, and there is at least one health clinic funded by the European Union.
But in 2006 and 2007 — just when Washington was focused on sectarian bloodshed in Iraq — the Afghan insurgency stepped up a gear and Now Zad became the scene of fierce battles between NATO troops and the Taliban.
Now Zad remains so dangerous that this is the only Marine unit in Afghanistan that brings along two trauma doctors, as well as two armored vehicles used as ambulances and supplies of fresh blood.
Apart from one small stretch of paved road, the Marines patrol only behind an engineer who sweeps the ground with a detector. The men who follow scratch out a path in the sand with their foot to ensure those trailing them do not stray off course. Each carries at least one tourniquet.
"It's a hell of ride," said Lance Cpl. Aenoi Luangxay, a 20-year-old engineer on his first deployment. "Every step you think this could be my last," said Aenoi, who has found six bombs in the company's four weeks in the town.
Just after midnight recently, the medics were wakened by a familiar report: A patrol had hit an IED in town. Within five minutes, they put on their flak jackets and helmets and were in their vehicles leaving the base.
The bomb blew the legs off Cpl. Matthew Lembke as he walked to a building. Lembke, from Tualatin, Ore., was loaded onto the ambulance. On the trip to the helicopter landing zone, the medics tightened his tourniquets and gave him two units of blood along with antibiotics.
At one point, he stopped breathing. The medical team used equipment on board to pump air into his lungs.
"Our aim and intent is to give the guys the optimum chance of survival from the first minute," said the commander of the Shock Trauma Platoon, Sean Barbabella, of Chesapeake, Va. "If it was my son or brother out there, that is what I would want."
Lembke was in stable condition Monday at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland.
Enemy hides in maze
The men of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines in Now Zad know where to find their enemy — to the north of town, in a maze of compounds and tunnels that back onto lush pomegranate orchards.
The Marines are garrisoned in a base that occupies the town's former administrative center. They also have fortified observations posts on two hills. In one of them, named ANP hill after the Afghan police who presumably once had a post there, the men sleep in "hobbit holes" dug into the earth. The underground briefing room is partly held up by an aging Russian Howitzer gun.
Each day, the Marines aggressively patrol to limit the Taliban's freedom of movement. They keep a 24-hour watch on the battlefield using high-tech surveillance equipment and are able to fire mortar rounds at insurgents spotted planting bombs or gathering in numbers.
A recent daylong battle showed the massive difference in firepower between the two sides, as well as the tenacity of the Taliban. It took place close to "Pakistani Alley," so named because of one-time reports that fighters from across the border were deployed along the road.
The insurgents opened fire from behind high-walled compounds with automatic weapons, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades against five armored vehicles; the Marines responded with machine gunfire and frequently called in airstrikes.
Reaching out to nearby village
Mindful of the need to engage with what few locals remain in the area, every couple of days a small group of Marines and translators leave the base and walk a mile to a village south of Now Zad where some families who fled the town now stay.
They try to convince them that the Marines are there to help, remind them that Taliban militants plant bombs that kill innocents and discreetly try to gather intelligence. Many of the locals are suspicious and worried about Taliban retribution for talking with the visitors, who are besieged by children demanding candy and notebooks.
Capt. Martin got some encouraging news. One villager said he was a former soldier in the Afghan army and would be willing to fight the Taliban; another said he would like to vote in August elections, though with no local government in place that looks unlikely.
But later, one man accused coalition forces of killing 10 women and children in a bombing last year.
"I take it as a sign of success they are willing to talk to us," Zachary said. "Before, if you said the word Taliban, they ran away."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.
Jun 25, 2009
June 22, 2009
Marines Train To Conquer Taliban, Their Own Fears
All Things Considered (NPR), 4:10 PM
ROBERT SIEGEL: At a desert camp in southern Afghanistan, Marines are preparing for war. Many of them have never fought in a real battle and so they train over and over and over.
We’ve been following the Marines of the 2nd Battalion 8th Regiment from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. They call themselves America’s Battalion.
NPR’s Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman spent time with them as they trained.
TOM BOWMAN: The Marine squad dashes toward the trench line, rifles high. Sergeant Joe Garrison leads the way. They flop on their bellies, take careful aim and let loose a barrage of fire, well, not really firing, pretend firing because an invisible Taliban force in the trench cut into a landfill at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province.
These Marines from Fox Company are in full battle gear, carrying an extra 70 pounds of armor and ammo in the 104-degree heat. They’re practicing to face the real Taliban. Every one, the youngest privates, their junior officers and old sergeants, even the commanding general, they’re all doing what they have to do to get ready and stay focused.
UNIDENTIFIED U.S. MARINE: Once we get in a real situation, it’s going to be a lot different. We’re not going to be running targets, everyone‘s going to be hitting the deck when rounds are cracking around.
BOWMAN: Watching it all is the platoon leader, First Lieutenant Steven Lind of Long Island.
You’ve been doing this how long?
FIRST LIEUTENANT STEVEN LIND (U.S. Marine Corps): About three weeks now since I’ve been here.
BOWMAN: Every single day?
BOWMAN: You have it down by now.
LIND: We do. We’re ready.
BOWMAN: Some of them are probably more ready than others. The Marines could be divided into two groups, those who have seen combat before and those who haven’t. Lieutenant Lind has been there before. He saw action last year in Iraq in the city of Ramadi, though by the time he got there, Ramadi was mostly pacified. Still, this gives you a sense of how bad it is in Afghanistan now. Iraq was easy compared to what these Marines are about to face in Helmand Province.
LIND: They know it’s not going to be in Ramadi, so they know they’re going to be tired and they’re going to see things that people should not see and have to do things that people shouldn’t have to do.
BOWMAN: Lind is all of 25, considered an old man among the young Marines in his platoon. He says many Marines will be turning to Sergeant Garrison, the squad leader who guided them through the afternoon’s make-believe combat lesson. Garrison is another Marine who has seen combat before. He served two tours in Afghanistan and he knows most of his Marines have never faced enemy fire.
Garrison’s first contact with the Taliban left a searing imprint like a job loss or the death of a parent.
SERGEANT JOE GARRISON (U.S. Marine Corps): It was December 24th, 2004 up in Korengal Valley.
BOWMAN: A Marine unit was attacked. Garrison’s squad went to help.
GARRISON: They ambushed us, actually, it’s kind of ironic in a little town called Taliban, there’s like nine or ten houses
BOWMAN: Sergeant Garrison, a short, stocky Marine from Pittsburgh, says they ended up killing some, but capturing more. Nine Taliban were rolled up.
GARRISON: Honestly, probably the biggest adrenaline rush I ever had in my life, from that point on, I mean, it’s something you can’t really explain. It’s something that you’ve got to kind of experience yourself.
BOWMAN: His job though is to explain it, to help all the young Marines in his unit who haven’t experienced it yet, but are likely to soon.
GARRISON: It scares you at first, but after that, you know, you kind of get used to it and then it comes to you where you’re not afraid of it anymore. You expect it to happen more often, I guess.
BOWMAN: He’s not sure if he shot anybody in that first firefight, but there are others.
What about the other contacts you had? Did you ever shoot anyone here?
GARRISON: I really don’t want to talk about that too much, sir, if that’s all right.
BOWMAN: They train to shoot at a range about a mile from Camp Leatherneck. The desert stretches unbroken to the hazy mountains in the distance. Marines from the 2-8 set up paper targets, concentric circles stapled to plywood. They lay on their stomachs and pump rounds into the target.
Dozens of Marines take turns shooting. For the battalion’s senior Marines, Lieutenant Colonel Christian Cabaniss and Sergeant Major Bob Breeden, it turns into a friendly competition. Several months ago on the range at Camp Lejeune, the sergeant major beat the colonel by one point.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL CHRISTIAN CABANISS (U.S. Marine Corps): We’re going to have to go over here and watch the CO give him a hard time.
BOWMAN: Colonel Cabaniss shoots well this day. His final four rounds closely grouped in the black at the center of the target, the size of a quarter. The Marines will tell you that shooting that paper target; a make-believe enemy isn’t the same as shooting a person frozen in your crosshairs.
Have you shot and killed anyone?
BOWMAN: Do you think about it?
CABANISS: Yeah. And I don’t want the first time that the thought has ever crossed their mind is the first time the weapon comes up.
BOWMAN: Colonel Cabaniss wants to train the Marines to handle, not just the enemy, but their own fears and doubts, so does the battalion’s top commander. He’s Brigadier General Larry Nicholson and his message is simple: It’s us or them. Just before dinner, most of the battalion, hundreds of men, gather outside their tents to listen.
GENERAL LARRY NICHOLSON (U.S. Marine Corps): Get in there very, very quickly. We’ve got a lot of Ramadi vets in here and we have guys who’ve had multiple tours in Iraq.
BOWMAN: Some sit on the ground, others gather around in a semi-circle, he grips a microphone and sends them off to war.
NICHOLSON: All right. I know America’s Battalion is going to kick ass in there and you’re going to do well. You find an enemy, you hang onto them, you don’t let them get away. You pursue ruthlessly this enemy because by letting them get away, he has another day to fight. He has another chance to come back at you.
BOWMAN: The general finishes his speech. The Marines slowly head back to their tents. The training is over. They are ready. Soon they’ll head out to fight for real.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.
SIEGEL: And you can see a photo gallery of the Marines’ training in the Afghan desert at npr.org.
Jun 23, 2009
Army bars Stars and Stripes reporter from covering 1st Cav unit in Mosul
Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Asserting that Stars and Stripes “refused to highlight” good news in Iraq that the U.S. military wanted to emphasize, Army officials have barred a Stripes reporter from embedding with a unit of the 1st Cavalry Division that is attempting to secure the violent city of Mosul.
Officials said Stripes reporter Heath Druzin, who covered operations of the division’s 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team in February and March, would not be permitted to rejoin the unit for another reporting tour because, among other things, he wrote in a March 8 story that many Iraqi residents of Mosul would like the American soldiers to leave and hand over security tasks to Iraqi forces.
“Despite the opportunity to visit areas of the city where Iraqi Army leaders, soldiers, national police and Iraqi police displayed commitment to partnership, Mr. Druzin refused to highlight any of this news,” Major Ramona Bellard, a public affairs officer, wrote in denying Druzin’s embed request.
Bellard also alleged that Druzin used quotes out of context, “behaved unprofessionally” and persisted in asking Army officials for permission to use a computer to file a story during a communications-blackout period.
Additionally, Col. Gary Volesky, the 3rd Brigade’s commander, asserted that Druzin “would not answer questions about stories he was writing.”
Terry Leonard, editorial director of Stars and Stripes, said Druzin’s reporting in Mosul had been consistently accurate and fair and he denied all of the Army’s allegations. Leonard noted, for example, that reporters are not required to answer a commander’s questions about their plans for future stories.
He said the newspaper had spent more than three weeks appealing Druzin’s banishment to senior commanders in Iraq as well as public affairs officials at the Pentagon, but had been repeatedly rebuffed.
Instead, Army officials offered to allow a different Stripes reporter to embed with the 3rd Brigade, or in the alternative, to allow Druzin to embed with a different Army unit in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. Leonard rejected those offers on the grounds that the military has no right to try to deflect coverage away from Mosul or choose which Stripes reporters will be allowed to cover its operations.
“To deny Mr. Druzin an embed under the reasons stated by Maj. Bellard is a direct challenge to the editorial independence of this newspaper,” Leonard wrote in his appeal. “That independence is mandated by Congress. The denial of the embed constitutes an attempt at censorship and it is also an illegal prior restraint under federal law. … The military cannot tell us what stories to write or not write.”
Leonard also noted that, although Stars and Stripes receives some federal funding through the Defense Department to offset the extraordinary costs of distributing the newspaper to U.S. troops in war zones, the newspaper’s reporting is not subject to Pentagon authority.
The Army’s denial of Druzin’s embed request appears to violate the Pentagon’s established ground rules regarding embedded reporters, which state: “These ground rules recognize the inherent right of the media to cover combat operations and are in no way intended to prevent release of embarrassing, negative or derogatory information.”
Among its specific complaints against Druzin, the Army alleged:
That Druzin used a quote from Volesky about improving the capabilities of the Iraqi police “out of context in an unrelated article weeks later.” Leonard said the quote was entirely relevant to the story and that Stars and Stripes, like any newspaper, reserves the right to use quotes and information in multiple stories that may appear after the interview occurred.
That Druzin overheard a private conversation between a chief warrant officer and another person and then quoted the chief warrant officer in a story. Leonard said the quote was actually obtained during an on-the-record conversation with the chief warrant officer; that the chief warrant officer checked with his superior to clear the conversation; and that Druzin took the extra step of verifying the quote with the chief warrant officer before it was published.
That Druzin attended a brigade memorial service for four U.S. soldiers killed in a Feb. 9 car bomb attack and then insisted on publishing the names of the dead soldiers before their families had been notified and their identities had been officially released by the Pentagon. In fact, Leonard said, Druzin had been invited by Bellard to attend the memorial service and the newspaper, following its normal policy, did not publish the names of the dead until they had been announced by the Pentagon.
Leonard said the newspaper would not tolerate the Army’s attempts to control it.
“Under the embed rules and the congressional mandate of editorial independence for this newspaper, it does not fall under the authority or competence of the command to decide if we do a story, what story we do, or what angle we take in writing the story,” Leonard wrote in his appeal.
© 2009 Stars and Stripes. All Rights Reserved.
Jun 18, 2009
Foreign Fighters Flood In To Join Afghanistan's Arab Insurgents
June 17, 2009
By Tom Coghlan
The al-Qaeda network is recruiting an increasing number of foreign fighters to mount a “counter surge” against Western troops arriving in time for the August elections in Afghanistan.
Uzbeks and European Turks are particularly prominent among foreign fighters joining significant numbers of Arab recruits to fight alongside the Taleban, according to Western officials and sources in the Afghan insurgency.
There are even reports of British Muslims on the battlefield, with one dead Taleban fighter in Helmand found recently sporting an Aston Villa football club tattoo. There have long been reports of English-speaking voices with identifiable British regional accents being monitored by military eavesdroppers in the province.
A Taleban commander in Helmand, who asked not to be identified, told The Times: “We have seen a 40 per cent increase in the number of foreign fighters this year in Helmand. They are mostly Pakistanis and Arabs but also Uzbek and Chechen.” Helmand has averaged more than ten attacks a day in the first half of the year, making it nearly two and a half times more violent than the next most Taleban affected province of the country.
Western officials have reported attacks on Taleban formations that included many Arabs, particularly in the province of Paktika, in south eastern Afghanistan, where 34 Arab militants died in a US bomb attack on May 28.
Significant numbers of Turkish militants have also been monitored in Farah Province and Uzbeks reported in numbers in Zabul, and Faryab and Badghis provinces in the north.
Jun 8, 2009
US Marines fan out across dangerous Afghan south
By CHRIS BRUMMITT, Associated Press Writer
2 hrs 42 mins ago
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan – Teams of builders worked through dust storms Monday to expand a base for a brigade of U.S. Marines now fanning out across southern Afghanistan to change the course of a war claiming American lives faster than ever before.
Some 10,000 Marines have poured into Afghanistan in the last six weeks, the military said Monday, transforming this once small base in the heart of the country's most violent province, Helmand, into a desert fortress.
The statement to embedded journalists, including a team from The Associated Press, was the first confirmation that the military has fully deployed the first wave of 21,000 additional troops President Barack Obama ordered to Afghanistan this year to help stanch an increasingly violent Taliban insurgency.
The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, normally based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., will battle the Taliban as well as train and fight alongside Afghan security forces.
"This is where the fight is, in Afghanistan," said 1st Sgt. Christopher Watson, who like many of the troops was most recently deployed in Iraq. "We are here to get the job done."
The United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 because the country's extremist Taliban leaders were sheltering Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, the Islamic terrorist group behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
The forces quickly defeated the Taliban, pushing the militants out of Kabul and their southern base in Kandahar. But a guerrilla war, which turned dangerously violent in 2006, has bedeviled the international coalition and Afghan government.
While the insurgency is active across much of the country, its stronghold remains in Helmand. The province is home to the world's largest opium-poppy growing region and borders Pakistan, where commanders say the Taliban leadership supplies money and recruits.
The Taliban has become entrenched in Helmand because of a lack of international and Afghan troops. Several thousand British forces have engaged in heavy fighting in Helmand for much of the past three years. Last year, a much smaller U.S. Marine force joined them, helping to clear the town of Garmser of insurgents.
"We are not under the impression that is going to be easy," said Capt. Bill Pelletier, a Marine spokesman. "They are an adaptive enemy."
A dust storm whipped across Camp Leatherneck early Monday but did little to stop the pace of construction. Hard-hatted workers put up wooden structures to house command centers and dining facilities, while cranes dropped blast walls close to the rows of air-conditioned tents housing troops.
The Marines are slowly spreading out to smaller bases in an area of operations about 7,000 square miles, said Pelletier, adding there already have been several engagements with insurgents. The military has yet to announce any losses in combat suffered by the brigade.
An Army brigade of some 7,000 troops will follow this summer along with 4,000 forces to train Afghan security forces.
The surge will bring American troop levels from about 55,000 now to more than 68,000 by the end of 2009 — about half of the nearly 140,000 troops currently in Iraq.
The buildup has led to comparisons with Iraq, where an influx of troops in 2007 is credited with helping to reduce violence.
But unlike Iraq, where the U.S. plans to phase out its role by 2012, the military envisions a long-term presence in Afghanistan.
Adding troops in a country with a history of resistance to foreign forces risks increasing Afghans' resentment, which in turn fuels the insurgency.
There are also fears that the surge will push the Taliban to other parts of the country — or even across the border to Pakistan, where they could further destabilize that nuclear-armed country.
The bulk of the Marines, about 7,300, remain at Leatherneck and are training for missions — or "sharpening the sword" as one young Marine put it. Several said Marine commanders have drilled into them the need to respect the local culture and not barge into villages, kicking down doors and alienating residents whose support they need to win the war.
"They have told us to be more friendly with the locals," said Lance Cpl. John McCall, who was marching in full battle gear around the base with two buddies to get in shape. "We are not to shoot first and ask questions later."
Commanders warn that U.S. deaths are likely to increase this summer, the traditional fighting season in Afghanistan.
At least 70 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year, according to an AP count, a 75 percent increase over the 40 U.S. troop deaths through the first week in June last year. A record 151 American forces died in Afghanistan in 2008.
Joanna Nathan, an Afghanistan specialist at the International Crisis Group, said more troops were needed to improve security so that the task of building Afghan government structures and other infrastructure projects could happen more quickly.
"There needs to be a lot of work in the background," she said. "You are never going to shoot the last insurgent and then leave. The will in Western capitals to remain in Afghanistan will not last forever, so there is a need for urgency."
Jun 6, 2009
Sacrifice And The Greatest Generation
These are the young Americans who went thousands of miles and defeated the mightiest military empires ever unleashed against us.
By Tom Brokaw
Wall Street Journal
June 6, 2009
When asked how I came to write "The Greatest Generation," I recount a trip to Normandy in 1984. I went there to produce a documentary on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. I had looked forward to a week of stirring stories, evenings of oysters and Calvados, and long runs through the countryside.
Instead, from the moment I stepped onto Omaha Beach with two veterans of the First Division I had an out-of-body experience. Geno Merli, who earned the Medal of Honor, and Harry Garton, who lost both legs in combat, landed in the first wave at Omaha. Working-class products from Pennsylvania, they were soft-spoken and matter-of-fact as they described for me the horrors of that day and all the fighting that was yet to come.
Listening to them I was transported back to my childhood in the Great Plains during the '40s and '50s. In the heartland, men like Geno and Harry were always on call to help a neighbor overhaul a car, build a fence, sponsor a baseball team or Boy Scout troop.
Along with their wives they were always volunteering, organizing potluck suppers and bake sales to support community projects. They knew the price of every piece of produce and every cut of meat in the local supermarket. And most families I knew had war bonds tucked away to go with the savings account at the hometown bank.
As I began to write the wartime accounts of that generation, I realized how much they were formed by the deprivations and lessons of the Great Depression. During that period life was about common sacrifice and going without the most ordinary items, such as enough food or new clothes.
So many veterans told me they got their first new pairs of shoes and boots when they enlisted. When I recently interviewed Walt Ehlers -- a poor Kansas farm boy who received the Medal of Honor for his heroism at Normandy -- he lit up when he described the breakfasts during basic training. "Every kind of cereal you could imagine!" he said. "And pancakes and bacon and eggs."
As for basic training, he said putting up hay on his uncle's farm in August was much tougher.
If you look at the old black-and- white photographs of the physicals conducted during induction, there's no obesity in that crowd of young men. In fact, some look malnourished.
These are the same young Americans who went thousands of miles across the Atlantic and thousands of miles across the Pacific and defeated the mightiest military empires ever unleashed against us. Their sacrifices at home and on the frontlines make our current difficulties look like a walk on the beach in comparison.
The surviving members of that generation -- now in their 80s and 90s -- are living reminders of the good that can come from hard times. They can teach us that if we're to get through this time of crisis a better nation with a fundamentally stronger economy, we'd better learn how to work together and organize our lives around what we need -- not just what we want.
Mr. Brokaw, special correspondent for NBC News, is the author of "The Greatest Generation" (Random House, 1998).