Jul 25, 2009
On Patrol: With Fox Co, 2/ 8 in Helmand
Patrolling The Challenging Landscape Of Afghanistan With US Marines
By Tom Coghlan
July 25, 2009
Twenty heavily armed American Marines, five to ten Taleban fighters, a maze of canals and a game of cat and mouse in the long grass of southern Helmand.
In this fight the odds shift from minute to minute. The Marines pack an awesome punch, but they are on unfamiliar terrain and they are being studied for their weaknesses by a hidden enemy.
Two weeks into Operation Khanjar, their largest offensive of the Afghan war, American troops have grabbed a swath of territory in the southernmost districts of Helmand. But, as their commanders acknowledge, that is the easy part.
In the opening days, the Taleban largely disappeared from view in the face of massed American firepower. But they did not cease to exist. And as anticipated they are watching, learning and starting to probe for the weaknesses of their new enemy.
When the Taleban feel the moment is right they will try to suck the Marines into a terrain of their choosing, where firepower doesn?t count, where the Americans are off guard, off balance and momentarily vulnerable.
And so it was on Thursday morning.
By 10am the patrol from 1st Platoon, Fox Company of 2nd Battalion 8th Marines had been moving south for an hour, warily and methodically, strung out in a loose column to limit casualties in the event of sudden fire or bomb blast. The thermometer was already pushing 90C and climbing towards an energy-sapping 125F.
Chest-high reeds and grasses, well-watered fields, walled compounds and a maze of canals and irrigation channels that have lifted this area out of the desert, define the terrain south of the town of Garmsir.
It is scenic but it is hard to conceive of country more perfect for an insurgent.
As the Marines passed, farmers with turbans squatted in their fields, gaunt and inscrutable.
Most, but not all, were what they seemed. The Marines had received intelligence reports from their base at Hassan Abad suggesting that they were being observed from front and rear, roadside bombs were being laid ahead of them and an ambush was being planned.
“Maybe we gonna get some today,” mused a Marine, hawking and spitting the quid of black tobacco that forms a bulge behind the lower lip of most Marines.
Their squad commander, Sergeant Richard Lacey, 23, soft-spoken in private but an assertive figure in the field, made a tactical decision.
From their position in column he shifted his men to a broad front and a bounding formation that moves the unit forward by parts so that one element is always covering the other?s advance.
Later, Marine officers would tell The Times, they estimate that only 30 or so regular Taleban fighters are operating in the area immediately south of Hassan Abad, but they enjoy the co-operation of perhaps 80 per cent of local people. How much of that support is coerced or willingly given is much harder to estimate.
“They are cunning but their command and control is limited and their teams are sparse,” said one officer. “They are usually four or five men strong, but they can reinforce those within 20 to 30 minutes.” Units of hardcore Pakistani Taleban fighters who used to own the area have been pushed a few kilometres south by the American offensive.
As the Marines continued south, the farmers in the fields around them became noticeably fewer and then disappeared entirely. As is so often the case in Helmand, they knew of impending violence long before it arrived. The only movement was flights of swallows wheeling above the canals.
As the Marines approached a village a small boy appeared at a compound door and waved uncertainly in response to the greeting of the Marines. A commanding voice sounded behind him and the boy disappeared abruptly, the door slamming behind him.
The patrol pushed on. Then another intelligence report: the Taleban had set a command-wire bomb on a bridge we had crossed earlier. It had failed to detonate.
As they passed, a local man hissed at the Marines from the shadow of a house. With apparent nervousness he whispered to the unit?s interpreter for several minutes and then disappeared inside again.
“He says that the Taleban pose as farmers and come and lay mines in the fields. There are mines in the field you have just crossed. They have been laid near the banks at the edges so that when the Taleban ambush you the Marines will lie down on them.” But still the Taleban were not showing themselves. Perhaps they had decided to save their attack for another day.
The Marines turned for home and moved back into a column to cover an anticipated threat from a canal to their west, a common Taleban firing point on patrols by the unit preceding them. Things began to seem a little more relaxed. But it was an illusion.
The first shots of the Taleban ambush were well timed and close. The hollow crack of two aimed shots was quickly followed by longer bursts of small-arms fire.
Most of the squad were already back across a canal and lost in a swaying sea of long grass. Only three men remained exposed in a ploughed field. It was a well-chosen moment to cut the tail off the patrol and cause death or injury before American firepower could be brought to bear.
“The first round was real close,” said Corporal Andrew Swoveland, dripping sweat in the aftermath of the fight. On the band holding his helmet cover in place was stencilled the legend “White Trash Workhorse”. From only 40m away, he estimated, the Taleban had failed to hit the Marines as they sprinted for cover, an exposed dash of 50m.
Suddenly rushing with adrenalin, the Marines were wired and shouting, scanning for the attackers and firing back, some from waist deep in the canal.
The Taleban fire came through the long grass close around them, a crack and angry whirr of large lumps of metal rifling through the air at tremendous speed.
“Four men moving left to right at the corner of the compound,” a voice shouted. As the Marines? weight of suppressive fire grew they were wreathed in smoke from their own guns, while the compound ahead of them, the source of the firing, danced with small explosions of dust.
The Marines? forward air controller, Captain Brian Hill, 32, asked for permission to call in fire suppression from mortars at their nearby base. It was denied, the risk to nearby civilians deemed too great.
Instead permission was given for Lance-Corporals Zachary Rash and Brad Stys, so-called “Marine Assaultman” with a 66-millimetre rocket launcher, to open fire.
An ear-bursting thud was followed by spontaneous cheering as it blew out a plume of dust and smoke close to the Taleban firing point.
“I?d like the readers of your newspaper to know that not only are we some of the best-looking gentlemen you?ve ever seen, but we are also very experienced in war fighting,” Lance-Corporal Stys told The Times, basking in the adulation of his peers after the firefight.
The fighting did not last long. As the Taleban fire slackened after five minutes, the Marines began to advance. Pushing up to the wall of the compound ahead of them, some men claimed that they could hear the attackers shouting to each other inside.
But intuition and earlier intelligence reports suggested that they were being suckered into a trap and their commanders called a halt to the advance. Another large roadside bomb lay close in front of them, a further follow-up ambush to follow once it detonated.
The Marines cursed, grumbled at being denied a decisive encounter and set their sights for home. They were unscathed and they expected that the Taleban might have casualties.
But asymmetric cunning and roadside bombs lie ahead, and so, in all likelihood, do casualties; and the Taleban have not gone away.