Feb 28, 2010
Normalcy Takes Root In Marja After Allied Offensive
A bazaar has come back to life and residents are returning home. But if the U.S.-led fight against insurgents is over in Marja, the battle to win the support of locals has just begun.
Los Angeles Times
By Tony Perry
Reporting from Marja, Afghanistan--Just a few dozen yards from the bullet-riddled government building, Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson found more proof Saturday that the battle for Marja was over.
"A popcorn vendor on the streets of Marja," Nicholson said in a gleeful voice as he found some coins in his pocket and bought a bag of freshly popped corn.
"None of those tourist prices now," Nicholson joked as the vendor, understanding not a word of English, nodded in agreement.
Two weeks ago, the same government building was the hub of fighting as Marines and Afghan soldiers battled Taliban insurgents who held sway in this town in southern Afghanistan. Residents hid in their homes; businesses were shuttered, fields were untended. Thousands fled.
Now popcorn is being sold, an adjacent bazaar has come back to life, and the main road into Marja was packed with vehicles bringing residents back to their homes and farms on Saturday, the fifth consecutive day with no battles.
The insurgents have either been killed, are in hiding or have fled to other areas of Helmand province, which have seen an increase in the number of U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization military personnel killed in recent days.
Eight Marines, two Afghan soldiers and an Afghan police officer were killed in the battle of Marja. No official tally of Taliban dead has been kept; the number is thought to be in the hundreds.
But if the fighting has ended, the battle to win the support of Marja residents has only begun. Time is crucial.
"We have only a small window," said Col. Burke Whitman, the Marines' liaison to the Afghan police and army.
In the years before the Taliban reign in Marja, the city's government and particularly its police force had a reputation for corruption and brutality. U.S. officials say that made it easier for the residents to accept rule by the Taliban, which had its own cruel streak.
As an initial step in the reconstruction plan, a cadre of police officers from outside Marja has been put in place while a permanent police force is in training. That formula has worked well in other Helmand communities. No former Marja police officers are being allowed to return to the force.
"What we can't do is bring back in the same government or police," Nicholson said. "The people of Marja need a fresh start."
A district governor, Haji Abdul Zahir, has been called back from self-imposed exile. On Saturday, he met Nicholson and a group that included Marine Gen. James Mattis and American novelist Steven Pressfield (author of "The Afghan Campaign," a fictional account of the battles of Alexander the Great).
"The Taliban did nothing for Marja; we will bring back dignity and prosperity," said Zahir, repeating a line he used Thursday when the Afghan flag was unfurled above a temporary government center.
Although Marja is called a city, it could be more accurately described as a network of impoverished villages connected by rutted, trash-strewn roads. Homes are made of mud, many with mud walls encircling the property.
Each village has its own bazaar, with stalls and straw roofs. Fifty-five businesses had reopened by late in the week, selling fruit and vegetables, motorbike parts, clothing, pharmaceuticals and more.
The recent rains have left the fields green and lush. Farming, including crops of poppies that are used to make heroin, is the dominant industry here, helped by irrigation canals built by the U.S. government in the 1950s.
A plan has already been cobbled together to offer wheat seeds and fertilizer to farmers in an attempt to persuade them to stop growing poppies.
Beyond its symbolic value as a place where a U.S. and Afghan force wrested control from the Taliban, Marja and its surrounding fields are thought to be key to the insurgency's finances, providing profits from the heroin trade to hire recruits and buy weaponry and the makings of roadside bombs.
Three Marja residents, including a former police official, have been identified as potential leaders in a campaign to undercut reconstruction efforts, possibly because of their links to the heroin trade. Marja police will be watching their moves.
A group of U.S., British and Danish reconstruction specialists has devised a multimillion-dollar plan for Marja that includes reopening schools and health clinics, installing solar lighting in the bazaars, repairing culverts and streets, and offering cleanup jobs for the many unemployed, who are sometimes recruited by the Taliban. The three governments are contributing money.
Later on, the plan calls for building police stations and small hydroelectric pumps and offering microloans to farmers and merchants.
So-called stabilization specialists from the U.S. and Britain have already set up a tent at the government building, where many of the Marines who were in the thick of the fighting are stationed. The specialists' first goal is to talk to village elders about their needs and to convince them that the provincial government is on their side.
As Nicholson and Mattis, who is commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, met with Afghan leaders, soldiers, police and Marja residents, the emphasis Saturday was on remembering those killed in the battle.
"I'm sorry for the Marines you lost," Zahir said. "We will pray for them."
Feb 26, 2010
Marine Corps Leader Stands Against Gays In Military
Gen. James T. Conway tells the Senate Armed Services Committee that he thinks 'don't ask, don't tell' works as it is.
By Julian E. Barnes
Los Angeles Times
February 26, 2010
Reporting from Washington--The commandant of the Marine Corps said Thursday that gays should not be allowed to serve openly in the military, becoming the most senior commander to break from President Obama's goal of lifting the ban.
Gen. James T. Conway, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the policy known as "don't ask, don't tell" should be left alone.
"I think the current policy works," he said. "My best military advice to this committee, to the secretary, to the president, would be to keep the law such as it is."
Conway's stance is considered crucial because it shows there are sharp disagreements among top officers and within the Joint Chiefs of Staff about whether to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly. Opposition from military leaders helped derail earlier efforts to lift the ban, most notably former President Clinton's effort in 1993.
Unlike previous attempts to ease rules, however, top Pentagon officials have endorsed a change. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said this month that he wanted a new policy and that allowing gays to serve openly was a matter of "integrity."
Republicans opposed to changing the policy have said that Mullen's views do not represent those of other senior military leaders.
The chiefs of the various military services have been testifying before the House and Senate this week, and lawmakers have questioned them about the Obama administration's plans to overturn the 1993 law that bars gays and lesbians from serving openly. Since the law was passed, about 14,000 service members have been removed from the military because of their sexual orientation.
During their testimony, none of the chiefs backed Mullen's position by calling for an end to the ban. But all of the chiefs, including Conway, have supported Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' plan to study the effect of changing of the law.
Conway has taken positions at odds with top Pentagon officials in the past, but has not publicly addressed the issue of gays in the military. Conway is due to retire this summer when his term as commandant is up.
He told lawmakers that any policy change should not be judged by its fairness to gays, but by its impact on the military.
"My personal opinion is that unless we can strip away the emotion, agenda and politics and ask [whether] we somehow enhance the war-fighting of the United States Marine Corps by allowing homosexuals to openly serve, then we haven't addressed it from the correct perspective," Conway said. Conway was challenged, gently, by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who has said that he plans to introduce legislation to allow gays to serve openly.
"I hope we conclude that repealing 'don't ask don't tell' will enhance military readiness," Lieberman said.
Some advocacy groups were more direct.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said that any law that pushed out qualified troops during wartime undermined military readiness and effectiveness.
"Gen. Conway was the only chief to say to Congress this week that the law is 'working,' " Sarvis said. "It is not working."
Feb 24, 2010
Afghan Military Gains Strength
Marjah offensive offers chance to demonstrate its fighting abilities
By Jim Michaels, USA Today
Feb 24, 2010
CAMP SHORABAK, Afghanistan — Lt. Hafizullah, an Afghan commando, had just returned to this garrison in southern Afghanistan after several days of close-quarters fighting with Taliban jihadists in Marjah.
His assessment: "This is a big victory for the Afghan security forces."
The battle for Marjah, now in its 11th day, is the first major test for Afghanistan's new army. Prior to Marjah, the Afghans have been dealing largely with skirmishes and protecting villages.
In Marjah, the biggest Taliban stronghold in the country, the Afghan soldiers are out in greater numbers and are more closely partnered with allied forces than any previous operation, the Pentagon says. They appear willing to fight and are competent at basic infantry skills, according to U.S. military members who are watching.
"These guys are good fighters," said Maj. Gen. David Hogg, deputy commander of the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan.
NATO did not report any significant fighting in Marjah on Tuesday. The Pentagon said this week that ending the threat of the Taliban and its explosive devices might take a month or more.
The U.S. Marine command maintains authority over airstrikes and artillery support, which require careful coordination and planning. Most Afghan troops are ferried into battle aboard U.S. aircraft.
The Americans have sustained a disproportionate number of casualties in Marjah, suggesting that the Marines are taking the initiative in pursuing the enemy.
Since the operation began, 13 coalition and two Afghan soldiers have been killed in action. About 2,100 Afghan soldiers and 4,000 coalition servicemembers are participating in the offensive to clear the Taliban's largest remaining bastion in southern Afghanistan.
Forces get shot of confidence
When U.S. Marines launched a series of operations in southern Helmand province last summer the ratio of coalition to Afghan troops was 10-to-1. Since then, the Afghan government has flooded forces into Helmand province.
Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the U.S. commander directing the Marjah offensive, said the relationship between the Marines and Afghan soldiers is an authentic partnership and not "cosmetic."
Hafizullah, a 28-year-old platoon leader in a commando battalion, said his unit encountered small teams of Taliban fighters that usually broke and ran rather than sustain a firefight with his unit. "They cannot last long in a fight with us," said Hafizullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name.
Even if Afghan forces are junior partners in the fight, the battle has given Afghan troops a shot of confidence. "Now we know the Afghan army has power against the Taliban," said Lt. Col. Janbaz Junbish, 52.
Earned residents' trust
Hamid Hamza, 18, who lay on a dirt berm on a position north of the city, said he hasn't taken off his boots in a month.
"We have engaged directly with the enemy," he said, looking down the barrel of his M-16. "We have faced their ambushes."
The performance of the Afghan forces has also boosted their image in the eyes of the nation. Local television has repeatedly broadcast an image of an Afghan soldier climbing a crane in the village of Showal in Helmand province to replace a white Taliban flag with the Afghan national flag.
"People have confidence in us," said Afghan Lt. Col. Ghullam Dastagir, a battalion commander who briefed Nicholson last week at his command post on the outskirts of Marjah.
Before they arrived, the Taliban had told residents that the Afghan army would brutalize the population, Dastagir said.
Junbish, who is based at this garrison and not involved in the Marjah offensive, said that when Afghan forces enter a village now, residents ask them to stay.
Marines at this Afghan military base were organizing a convoy of several hundred national police officers to go into Marjah last week. The police will provide security in areas that have already been cleared by the army, freeing up soldiers to clear the city.
The Afghan national police were piled into pickups, waiting to go. Marine vehicles were interspersed with the convoy to help provide security in the event they were attacked on the road to Marjah. "We're going to make sure they have what they need to get into the fight," said Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jose Canseno, 42, of Houston.
Feb 22, 2010
Military Sweep Of Marja Focuses On Pockets Of 'Determined Resistance'
Marines and Afghan troops target insurgents in one corner of the city as they battle holdout fighters in various locations. At least 8 Marines KIA
By Tony Perry and Laura King
Los Angeles Times
February 22, 2010
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Nawa, Afghanistan -- Backed by fighter jets and attack helicopters, U.S. Marines and Afghan troops closed in on an insurgent-ridden sector of Marja on Sunday, the ninth day of a coalition bid to wrest control of the southern Afghan town from the Taliban.
The fighting, concentrated in northwestern Marja, took place amid what the North Atlantic Treaty Organization called "determined resistance" from holdout fighters in various locations in and around the town. Advancing coalition troops faced a continuing threat from small-arms fire and homemade bombs, the Western military said in a statement.
"We're still pushing through the city," said Lt. Josh Diddams, a Marine spokesman. Some of the remaining pockets of insurgents consist of only a handful of fighters, but at least 40 -- a relatively large concentration -- were thought to be holed up in the town's northwestern quarter, the Associated Press reported.
NATO said Sunday that another service member was killed in connection with the offensive, bringing the number of Western troop fatalities to 13. At least eight were Marines.
The battle of Marja is the largest coalition assault since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban. NATO commanders want to break the insurgents' grip on the town and its environs as part of a larger effort to establish government authority for the first time in years in a strategic swath of troubled Helmand province.
NATO said the operation remained "on track," although commanders acknowledged last week that clearing operations will take a month or more, somewhat longer than originally envisioned.
In coming days, however, the coalition expects the town will be secure enough to bring in a newly appointed Afghan governor, marking a symbolic shift away from the military confrontation and toward job creation, school openings and the setting up of other long-absent public services.
The military said in a statement that route clearance -- ridding the roads of one buried bomb after another -- was improving freedom of movement for local people. Many Marja residents have been pinned down in their homes for days by the fighting or have fled to other parts of the province.
Shops are slowly reopening as well, field commanders and local officials said.
Although the Marja offensive is concentrated in the district of Nad Ali, where the town is located, related operations are taking place across Helmand, the insurgency's traditional heartland.
NATO forces on Sunday reported the capture of a Taliban commander and another insurgent in a shootout in Kajaki district, in the east of Helmand, which left one of the suspects wounded. Both of the men arrested Friday were thought to have helped plant bombs and plan attacks.
In an operation last week that was tied to the Marja offensive, coalition forces in Sangin district, also in Helmand's east, captured three Taliban fighters and seized nearly 150 detonators for use in bomb-making.
Feb 20, 2010
Marines in Marja offensive find that the basics of battle haven't changed
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
February 20, 2010
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN -- They had slogged through knee-deep mud carrying 100 pounds of gear, fingers glued to the triggers of their M-4 carbines, all the while on the lookout for insurgents. Now, after five near-sleepless nights, trying to avoid hypothermia in freezing temperatures, the grunts of the 1st Battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment finally had a moment to relax.
As the sun set Thursday evening over the rubbled market where they set up camp, four of them sat around an overturned blue bucket and began playing cards. A few cracked open dog-eared paperbacks. Some heated their rations-in-a-bag, savoring their first warm dinner in days. Many doffed their helmets and armored vests.
Then -- before the game was over, the chapters finished, the meals cooked -- the war roared back at them.
The staccato crack of incoming rounds echoed across the market. In an instant, the Marines grabbed their vests and guns. The 50-caliber gunner on the roof thumped back return fire, as did several Marines with clattering, belt-fed machine guns. High-explosive mortar rounds, intended to suppress the insurgent fire, whooshed overhead.
And so went another night in the battle of Marja.
The fight to pacify this Taliban stronghold in Helmand province is grim and grueling. For all the talk of a modern war - of Predator drones and satellite-guided bombs and mine-resistant vehicles - most Marines in this operation have been fighting the old-fashioned way: on foot, with rifle.
They hump their kit on their backs, bed down under the stars in abandoned compounds and defecate in plastic bags.
"This isn't all that different from the way our fathers and grandfathers fought," said Cpl. Blake Burkhart, 22, of Oviedo, Fla.
The battlefield privation here is unlike much of the combat in Iraq, which often involved day trips from large, well-appointed forward operating bases. Even when Marines there had to rough it, during the first and second campaigns for Fallujah, they didn't have to walk as far and they remained closer to logistics vehicles.
In Marja, U.S. military commanders figured, the best way to throw the insurgents off-balance and avoid the hundreds of homemade bombs buried in the roads was to airdrop almost 1,000 Marines and Afghan soldiers. That provided an element of surprise when the operation commenced, and it allowed the forces to punch into the heart of Marja. But it also meant they would have to tough it out.
Because they had to stuff their packs with food, water and ammunition, sleeping bags and tents were left behind. That seemed fine, because summer temperatures in southern Afghanistan often reach 140 degrees. But at this time of year, the mercury can dip -- and it did during the first days of the mission, to freezing temperatures at night.
Huddled under thin plastic camouflage poncho liners, the Marines lucky enough to get a few hours of sleep in between shifts of guard duty huddled close together, sometimes spooning one another, to keep warm.
It didn't always work. In those first days, more Marines were evacuated for hypothermia than for gunshot wounds. One grunt in the battalion's Alpha Company proudly displays the frostbitten tip of his middle finger as his battlefield injury.
In the mornings and evenings, the Marines huddle around small fires they build, fueled by stalks of dried poppy, the principal cash crop in Marja.
But in some platoon bases, nighttime fires have been banned because they make it too easy for Taliban snipers to aim.
The snipers have become the principal concern for the troops here, not the seemingly pervasive roadside bombs, in part because there is less driving than in other missions. More Marines have died from gunshot wounds than blasts in the first days of the operation.
As a consequence, body armor and helmets are a must-wear, except when in a patrol base with thick brick walls. Even then, mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades are a constant threat.
Marines who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan call the Marja operation more intense than anything else they've encountered, save for the battles in Fallujah.
"This place is crazy," said one sergeant as he ran to respond to the attack on Thursday evening. "It's more intense than anything you could have imagined."
The intensity is sharpened by the lack of any relaxation. It's all combat, all the time.
The laptops and DVD players that some Marines brought are packed in duffel bags and footlockers, which will be delivered at some point. Could be days. Could be weeks.
There is technology out here, but it is all in the service of war. Each company has a few laptops connected to high-powered satellite antennas, which commanders use to view live, streaming footage from unmanned aircraft flying overhead. It allows a bird's-eye glimpse of the battlefield in a way their infantry units could only dream of a few years back.
But for the average grunts, all they have is what they could carry. And those who borrowed a book from the chapel library at the base before they were dropped into Marja -- well, nobody has really had time to read.
Same for showering. That is, if there were showers or places to bathe. "Hygiening" in the morning means a quick scrubbing with a baby wipe. Full ablutions are weeks away. In the meantime, everyone smells equally rank.
The lack of hot water hasn't kept the Marines from shaving. The Corps' style -- high-and-tight haircuts and cleanshaven faces -- is enforced out here, no matter how rough the conditions.
The one edict most openly flouted is with regards to the possession of pets. Every patrol base, no matter how small, seems to have attracted at least one stray dog in search of food, water or just companionship. The outpost that was attacked has a tiny puppy, dubbed Furball, who is fed a generous daily allotment of packaged tuna and chicken found in some ration bags.
The rations, which are called MREs -- for Meals Ready to Eat -- are pretty much all anyone has to eat, other than the last bits of Corn Nuts or beef jerky squirreled away in a rucksack. The choices range from a boneless pork rib to a beef enchilada to vegetable lasagna. Regular meals, which require a base with a kitchen, a dining hall and contract labor, may never come to Marja. The Marines here have been told to get used to meals in a bag for months.
None of this seems to bother anyone out here. There's a bit of harrumphing here and there -- the lack of hot coffee and the shortage of cigarettes prompt regular complaints -- but all say this is why they got into the Corps.
After Thursday's attack, which lasted 90 minutes before a volley of mortar shells and rockets presumably wiped out the insurgents who had been shooting, the Marines returned to their designated corners of the base in the darkness. Dinner was cold, and the cards were scattered. But nobody cared. All they wanted to do was talk about the fighting, and the one Marine who had been wounded by a Taliban sniper.
"This is better than 'Call of Duty,' " said Lance Cpl. Paul Stephens, 20, of Corona, Calif., referring to a series of shoot-'em-up video games.
"This is what it's all about," Cpl. Mina Mechreki added. "We didn't join the Corps to sit around. This is what we came out here to do."
Feb 19, 2010
NATO Holds Marjah Roads; Troops Dropped Into Key Area
By Alfred de Montesquiou, AP
MARJAH, Afghanistan -- Two U.S. helicopters dropped elite Marine recon teams behind Taliban lines before dawn today as the U.S.-led force stepped up operations to break resistance on the seventh day of fighting in the extremist stronghold of Marjah.
About two dozen Marines were inserted into an area where skilled Taliban marksmen are known to operate, an officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.
U.S. and Afghan troops encountered the sharpshooters and better-fortified Taliban positions yesterday, indicating that insurgent resistance in their logistics and opium-smuggling center was far from crushed.
NATO said six international service members died yesterday, bringing the number of allied troops killed in the offensive to 11 NATO troops and one Afghan soldier. The international coalition did not disclose their nationalities, but Britain's Defense Ministry said two British soldiers were among the dead.
No precise figures on Taliban deaths have been released, but senior Marine officers say intelligence reports suggest more than 120 have died. The officers spoke on condition of anonymity.
Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of U.S. Marines in Marjah, said that allied forces had taken control of the main roads, bridges, and government centers in the town of 80,000 people 360 miles southwest of Kabul. "I'd say we control the spine" of Marjah, he said as he inspected the Marines' front line in the north of the dusty, mud-brick town. "We're where we want to be."
As Nicholson spoke, bursts of heavy machine-gun fire showed that insurgents still held terrain about a half-mile away. "Every day, there's not a dramatic change; it's steady," he said, noting that fighting continued to erupt.
The offensive in Marjah is the largest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and a test of President Obama's strategy for reversing the rise of the Taliban while protecting civilians.
Plans call for NATO to rush in a civilian administration, restore public services, and pour in aid to try to win the loyalty of the population in preventing the Taliban from returning.
But stubborn Taliban resistance, coupled with restrictive rules on allies' use of heavy weaponry when civilians may be at risk, have slowed the advance. The NATO commander of troops in southern Afghanistan, British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, told reporters in Washington via video hookup that he expected it could take 30 more days to secure Marjah.
NATO has given no figures on civilian deaths since a count of 15 earlier in the offensive. Afghan rights groups have reported 19 dead. Since those figures were given, much of the fighting has shifted away from the area where most civilians live.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly criticized the use of air strikes because of the risk to civilians. Twelve of the 15 deaths reported by NATO happened when two rockets hit a home Sunday.
Throughout yesterday, U.S. Marines pummeled insurgents with mortars, sniper fire, and missiles as gun battles intensified. Taliban fighters fired back with rocket-propelled grenades and rifles, some of the fire far more accurate than Marines have faced in other Afghan battles.
The increasingly accurate sniper fire - and strong intelligence on possible suicide bomb threats - indicates that insurgents from outside Marjah are still operating within the town, Nicholson said.
There were also pockets of calm yesterday. Several stores reopened in the bullet-riddled bazaar, and customers lined up to buy goods for the first time in nearly a week.
Feb 16, 2010
Marines Into Marjah
Wall Street Journal
Feb 16, 2010
The skill, courage and discipline of the U.S. military is on display once again, as 15,000 American and allied troops are battling to clear the Taliban from the Afghan city of Marjah in what must be one of most advertised offensives in modern military history.
The advertising is part of the new NATO counterinsurgency strategy, whose goal is to win over the population as much as it is to kill terrorists. The more Taliban who flee in advance, the better. Even if some escape to fight another day, the larger U.S. and NATO goal is to re-establish Afghan government control over the city of 80,000 in the country's south.
The Marjah offensive is the start of months of operations designed to push the Taliban out of Helmand and Kandahar provinces. The military clearing will only succeed if the Afghan government can follow it with hold and build operations that maintain the loyalty of the population. But the military operation is crucial to showing the Afghan people that Taliban rule isn't inevitable and they can take the risk of cooperating with the Kabul government.
The offensive seems to be going very well so far, thanks to careful planning and the remarkable discipline of allied soldiers. Our troops would crush the enemy in any frontal engagement, but they rarely get that chance. Instead, they must disarm IEDs, dodge booby-traps and fend off suicide bombers while under constant threat of sniper fire from terrorists hiding among civilians. The troops can't return fire indiscriminately because that runs the risk of alienating the civilians we hope to win over.
It is dangerous duty, and the relatively few casualties so far are a tribute to the training and leadership of the Sixth Marines. One errant rocket volley killed a dozen civilians on Sunday, but the bigger story is the rarity of that incident despite the scale of the NATO-Afghan operation. We only wish the rest of the U.S. government operated half as well. As the rest of us enjoy watching the winter Olympics from the comfort of our living rooms, spare a thought for the Marines and special forces risking their lives on our behalf.
Feb 15, 2010
The Marines move on Marja: A perilous slog against Afghanistan's Taliban
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Monday, February 15, 2010
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN -- For the Marines of Charlie Company's 3rd Platoon, Sunday's mission was simple enough: Head west for a little more than a mile to link up with Alpha Company in preparation for a mission to secure the few ramshackle government buildings in this farming community.
It would take nine hours to walk that distance, a journey that would reveal the danger and complexity of the Marines' effort to wrest control of Marja from the Taliban.
The operation to secure the area, which began with an airlift of hundreds of Marines and Afghan soldiers on Saturday and continued with the incursion of additional forces on Sunday, is proceeding more slowly than some U.S. military officials had anticipated because of stiff Taliban resistance and a profusion of roadside bombs.
In perhaps the most audacious Taliban attack since the operation commenced, a group of insurgents firing rocket-propelled grenades attempted to storm a temporary base used by Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment on Sunday evening. The grenade launch was followed by three men attempting to rush into the compound. The Marines presumed the men to be suicide bombers and threw grenades at them, killing all three.
The attack on the Bravo patrol base was one of several attempts to overrun Marine positions Sunday. All were repelled.
"The enemy is trying last-ditch efforts," said the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Cal Worth.
The intensity of Taliban opposition is forcing the Marines to move cautiously, which sometimes means spending hours to advance only a few hundred yards, as Charlie Company's 3rd Platoon discovered Sunday.
At 6:30 a.m., the Marines disembarked from their trucks, which had been parked single-file along a de-mined path cut through a muddy field seeded with homemade bombs. Tires served as urinals. Shaving, the Marines' daily ritual no matter how grim the environment, occurred atop the vehicles.
Thirty minutes later, it was clear that the armored trucks were not going to get the Marines to their destination. The temporary bridge across the canal ahead of them, installed by combat engineers the day before, was starting to slip. And the road ahead was deemed to be littered with improvised explosive devices.
The first shots
So at 7:30, they set off by foot, accompanied by a contingent of Afghan soldiers fresh out of boot camp. To avoid homemade bombs, they walked across the fields, trudging through mud and over small opium-producing poppy plants.
They hadn't been walking 15 minutes when the first shots rang out. Everyone dropped to the ground. They looked for the shooter. But there were no more shots, just the crowing of a rooster.
There would be no straight path to the destination. The adobe-walled compounds along the way -- and for hundreds of feet to the north and south of their route -- would have to be cleared.
The plan was that the Afghan soldiers would knock on doors whenever possible. In this counterinsurgency operation, the Marines have been told that the people of Marja are the prize. Don't alienate them. Don't knock down doors unnecessarily.
A few minutes later, another shot echoed across the poppy field. Word quickly made it down the line: A Marine ahead fired on a menacing dog while searching a housing compound.
Before anyone could find the owner to make amends, a rattle of gunfire came toward the Marines from the west. The Marines and the Afghan soldiers returned fire with M4 carbines and belt-fed machine guns.
Eighteen minutes later, what sounded like a lawn-mower engine could be heard overhead. A small, unarmed drone, launched from a nearby base, circled above. It revealed what the Marines couldn't immediately see from the field: Three insurgents, one of whom was carrying a walkie-talkie, had been killed.
As a squad from the 3rd Platoon moved gingerly forward, unsure if there were more insurgents unseen by the drone, Worth received a report over his radio: The Marines from Bravo had just hoisted the Afghan flag at a bazaar to the northwest.
Each of his companies have been given Afghan flags, he said. He made it clear that the Stars and Stripes was not to be raised in Marja.
"No end-zone dances," he said. "This is their country."
By then it was safe to approach the owner of the dog, a middle-aged farmer named Jawad Wardak, who was standing in front of his spacious mud-walled house with five young men who he said were his sons and nephews. There were large stacks of dried poppy plants on his driveway, and his fields were filled with small poppy saplings, which will grow to harvest height by spring.
"I'm very sorry about your dog," Worth said. "Hopefully we haven't done any damage to your home."
Wardak shrugged. "It's no problem," he said.
Worth didn't want to pass up the opportunity to make a friend. "We're bringing the government of Afghanistan back here," he said. Wardak said nothing.
"You will see more forces moving through here so that the Taliban goes away," Worth continued.
Some of the Afghan soldiers assigned to the 3rd Platoon also didn't want to miss an opportunity. One of them asked Wardak's nephew for food.
"We'll give you a meal," Worth said to the soldier. "This is not why we're here. We don't want to impose ourselves. We're guests here." But the nephew came out with three large pieces of flatbread anyway, and the soldier left content.
'Expand from here'
Across a dirt road from Wardak's house was an irrigation canal. Fording it would require stepping through thigh-high water, but getting back in the trucks was not an option. A team of route-clearance Marines, with devices that detect and detonate roadside bombs, was discovering devices every few hundred yards. By the end of the day, it would find a dozen on the road paralleling the 3rd Platoon's journey.
It was even worse on other routes. On a road perpendicular to the one the 3rd Platoon was following, Charlie Company's 2nd Platoon discovered a 10-foot wall embedded with 70 bombs.
As soon as the Marines had crossed the canal, Worth noted that his Marines did not plan to check every house on the way to their objective. "We're engaged in a counterinsurgency," he said. "We're not going to be kicking down every door."
As he uttered the word "door," a piercing crackle of gunfire came from a housing compound to the northwest of Wardak's house. Everyone dove to the ground.
The Marines responded with their rifles. When that didn't seem to do the trick, they fired mortars and shoulder-launched rockets. After 10 minutes, the firing ceased. Four insurgents lay dead.
Worth said the slow, methodical pace the Marines are using to move into the area has kept them from "desperate situations" that result in units calling in air and artillery strikes, which have greater potential of causing civilian casualties.
Even so, he said, he aims to secure Marja's government center soon and then extend anti-Talilban clearing operations to other parts of the area. "We're going to expand from here," he said. "We'll bring more locals into the security bubble as quickly as we can."
Two hours later, at 4:30 p.m., the Marines walked into a walled-off courtyard used by Alpha Company. They were wet and tired but had suffered no casualties. Their mission had been accomplished.
Feb 14, 2010
Attack gives Marines a taste of war
After a long buildup of tension, they walk into an ambush
By C. J. CHIVERS
New York Times
9:33 p.m. EST Feb. 13, 2010
MARJA, Afghanistan - The helicopters landed before dawn Saturday in a poppy field beside a row of mud-walled compounds. The Marines ran into the darkness and crouched through the rotor-whipped dust as their aircraft lifted away.
For the Marines of Company K, Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, the assault into the last large Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province was beginning. For almost all of them, this was to be their first taste of war. And an afternoon of small-arms combat was ahead.
But at first, these Marines, the vanguard for 6,000 NATO and Afghan troops streaming in to loosen the Taliban’s grip here permanently, met no resistance.
On the last miles of the ride in, the Marines were silent as the aircraft flew 200 feet above freshly sprouting fields. Irrigation canals glittered beneath the portholes, rolling past fast. They did not know what to expect, beyond the fact that at least hundreds of insurgents were waiting for them, and that many would fight to keep their hold on this opium-poppy production center.
Company K is part of what many Marines call a surge battalion, one of the units assigned to Afghanistan after President Obama decided last year to increase the American troop level on the ground. It arrived in Afghanistan a month ago, and had waited for this moment. Its introduction to the war was a crash course.
As helicopter wheels touched soil, the aircraft filled with whoops, and the Marines stood and bolted for the tail ramp.
They moved briskly. Within minutes, the first Marines of Third Platoon were entering compounds to the landing zone’s north, checking for enemy fighters and booby traps. The rest of the platoon followed through the gate. Sergeants and corporals urged a steady pace. “Go! Go! Go!” they said, spicing instructions with foul words. By 3 a.m., Company K had its toehold.
The company’s mission was to seize the area around the major intersection in northern Marja, clear a village beside it and hold it. By drawing this assignment, the company had become its battalion’s lead unit — sent alone and out front into Taliban territory. It had been told to hold its area until other companies, driving over the ground and clearing hidden explosives from the roads, worked down from the northwest and caught up.
Second Platoon took a position to the west, to block Route 605, a main road. First Platoon was to the east, watching over another likely Taliban avenue of approach. Third Platoon gathered in the southernmost compounds, with orders to sweep north and clear the entire village.
Third Platoon’s commander, First Lt. Adam J. Franco, ordered a halt until dawn.
A canal separated the platoon from the village. The company had been warned of booby traps. Lieutenant Franco chose to cross the canal with daylight, reducing the risks of a Marine’s stepping on an unseen pressure plate that would detonate an explosive charge. “Hold tight,” he said into his radio. The noncommissioned officers paced in the blackness, counting and recounting every man.
Being the lead company had drawbacks. The Marines had been told that ground reinforcements and fresh supplies might not reach them for three days. This meant they had to carry everything they would need during that time: water, ammunition, food, first-aid equipment, bedrolls, clothes and spare batteries for radios and night-vision devices.
As they jogged forward, the men grunted and swore under their burdens, which in many cases weighed 100 pounds or more. Some carried five-gallon jugs of water, others hauled stretchers, rockets, mortar ammunition or bundles of plastic explosives and spools of time-fuse and detonating cord.
In Third Platoon, two teams carried collapsible aluminum footbridges, each about 25 feet long when extended, which the platoon would use to cross the canal.
At daybreak, Third Platoon bounded across one of its bridges and into the village, and dropped its backpacks and extra equipment, moving forward without excess weight. The Taliban initially chose not to fight, and the company’s first sweeps were uneventful.
At 8:30 a.m., as one of the squads searched buildings, a gunshot sounded just behind the walls. The Marines rushed toward the door, guns level to their eyes, ready for their first fight. A shout carried over the wall. “Dog!” the voice said. A Marine had fired a warning shot at an attacking dog, scaring it off. The young Marines shook their heads.
Minutes later, gunfire erupted to the south, where another unit, First Battalion, Sixth Marines, had also inserted Marines.
The firing was intense for about 10 minutes, then it subsided. It rose again a few minutes later, and subsided again. Much of the shooting carried the distinct sound of American machine guns and squad automatic weapons. Then a large explosion rumbled near the source of the noise. A small mushroom-shaped cloud rose from the spot: an airstrike.
The Marines listened to the fighting far away. They still had no contact.
Before the assault, Capt. Joshua P. Biggers, Company K’s commander, had said that as many as 90 percent of the company’s Marines had not been in combat before. A few were brand new — straight from boot camp and infantry school, men with roughly a half-year in the corps.
But the captain also said the bulk of the company had been together a year or more. These Marines knew each other well, he said, and had trained intensely for this day. “They’re ready,” he said.
Soon they were finding signs of the Taliban. A sweep of one compound turned up 12 sacks of fertilizer used to make explosives and a batch of new cooking pots, which insurgents have often used as the shells of bombs.
The compound’s only adult male resident, Abdul Ghani, said the fertilizer belonged to his son. The company detained Abdul Ghani.
At 10 a.m., the day changed. Taliban fighters probed Second Platoon, and a firefight erupted as the platoon moved toward the road. It subsided, but not before several Taliban fighters had been killed and the platoon had been fired on by small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.
At 12:40, fighting broke out for Third Platoon. For almost three hours, Second and Third Platoons took sporadic fire from insurgents in several directions. At times the fighting was intense, and the gunfire rose and roared and snapped overhead. The fight briefly quieted after a B-1 bomber dropped a 500-pound bomb on a compound near the landing zone, leveling most of the house there.
For a short while after the airstrike, the village was quiet. But by late afternoon, the company, which had established a crude outpost in a compound, was taking fire again. Between exchanges of fire, a squad-sized patrol led by Cpl. Thomas D. Drake pushed out across the fields to search the building that had been hit by the airstrike.
The Taliban let the Marines walk into an open field and approach a tall stand of dried grass. Then they opened fire in a hasty ambush. The Marines dropped. They fired back, exposed. Gunfire rose to a crescendo.
Corporal Drake shouted over the noise to the team in front, “You got everyone?” He shouted to the team behind him, which was pressed flat in the field. “Everyone O.K.?”
The Taliban firing subsided. “We’re moving!” the corporal shouted. The patrol stood and sprinted toward the withdrawing Taliban, and then ran across irrigation dikes and poppy fields and entered the compound that had been struck.
It searched the wreckage, took pictures, collected a few documents and returned to the small outpost just ahead of dark.
At night, Captain Biggers reflected on the day. An explosives ordnance disposal team with the company had found and destroyed four large bombs hidden in the roads. The platoons had seized their first objectives. In its first day of combat, Company K had been fighting for hours without a casualty, and several Taliban fighters were lying dead in one of the fields.
Feb 12, 2010
U.S. Marines launch major offensive in Afghanistan
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010; 4:59 PM
CAMP LEATHERNECK, AFGHANISTAN -- Thousands of U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers traveling in helicopters and mine-resistant vehicles began punching into a key Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan early Saturday, as one of the largest operations to assert government control over this country got underway.
The first wave of Marines and Afghan soldiers swooped into the farming community of Marja at about 2 a.m. Saturday local time (4:30 p.m. Eastern), their CH-53 Super Stallion transport helicopters landing amid clouds of dust on fallow fields. As the troops, weighed down with ammunition and supplies, lumbered out and set up defensive positions, AV-8B Harrier fighter jets and AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters circled overhead in the moonless sky.
Subsequent waves of troops were expected to alight in other parts of Marja in the hours before dawn. At sunrise, hundreds more Marines and Afghan soldiers plan to enter Marja by land, using mobile bridges to ford irrigation canals -- built by U.S. engineers 50 years ago -- that have served as defensive moats for the Taliban. Heavily armored mine-sweeping trucks and specially outfitted tanks will try to carve a path through a belt of makeshift bombs buried around the town.
The Marines entering Marja are with some of the first new military units to arrive in Afghanistan since last fall, when President Obama authorized the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to combat a growing insurgency. The operation is intended to deprive the Taliban of a haven in Helmand province, which military intelligence officials say is home to numerous bombmaking facilities and drug-processing labs.
"We're going to take Marja away from the Taliban," said Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. Doing so, he said, could result in "a fundamental change in Helmand and, by extension, the entire nation of Afghanistan."
'We're a go'
Although there have been other large U.S. military campaigns to flush out the Taliban in the eight-year-long war, this mission is different, involving more extensive cooperation with the Afghan army than any previous effort. Each U.S. Marine company is partnered with an Afghan one -- U.S. and Afghan troops sat side by side on the helicopters -- and a top U.S. commander is working next to an Afghan general in a command center.
U.S. officials said Afghan President Hamid Karzai authorized the incursion on Friday evening after discussions with U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. It is the first major military operation of the war that Karzai has endorsed, the officials said.
According to the officials, Karzai had been ambivalent about a military push into Marja, hoping instead to persuade some of the insurgents to participate in a reintegration program. But Eikenberry and McChrystal, as well as some senior members of Karzai's cabinet, urged him to approve the operation, noting that fighters in the area have had months to switch their allegiance. They also emphasized that more than 400 tribal elders from Marja and surrounding areas had voiced support for an incursion at meetings organized by Helmand's governor on Thursday and Friday.
Marine officers were not certain the mission would proceed until five hours before the first helicopters were slated to take off, when Nicholson announced to his senior staff: "President Karzai agreed to the operation. We're a go."
The Marine units landing by helicopter did not meet immediate resistance. It is not certain how insurgents in the area will react, but Marine commanders expect many of them to stand and fight. U.S. military intelligence reports have indicated that senior Taliban leaders may have crossed into Afghanistan from their redoubts in Pakistan in recent days to direct defensive operations in Marja.
In the face of past operations, however, many insurgents have simply fled to nearby areas where there are fewer security forces. Marine and Army units have sought to encircle the Marja area to prevent fighters from fleeing, but there are still vast stretches of desert through which they could slip.
Even if the insurgents do not fight in large numbers, Marja will remain treacherous ground, littered with buried homemade explosive devices. Marine officers say it is the most heavily mined part of the country.
Civilians sought to leave the area in advance of the operation. Some made it out, traveling in cars and on tractors piled with their belongings, but the insurgents forced others to remain in their homes, military officers said. In some cases, they said, Taliban members told residents that roads out of Marja had been mined.
About 3,500 U.S. Marines, sailors and soldiers, accompanied by about 1,500 Afghan army infantrymen, are directly involved in the mission, supported by thousands more troops in nearby bases. More than 500 paramilitary police will join the effort Sunday or Monday.
The push to retake Marja is part of a larger NATO effort, dubbed Operation Moshtarak, which means "together" in the Dari language, to reassert control over parts of Helmand that have become Taliban sanctuaries. About 5,000 British, Danish and Afghan forces, also traveling in helicopters and armored vehicles, moved into the northern part of Nad Ali district shortly after the first Marines arrived in Marja.
Marja is a 155-square-mile farming community crisscrossed with irrigation canals that were built by U.S. contractors in the 1950s in an effort to transform the desert into cropland so Afghanistan could provide enough food to feed its people. The Taliban moved into the area three years ago after striking deals with opium-producing poppy growers and drug traffickers to protect their operations in exchange for the freedom to set up bomb factories among the canals, which are too deep for combat vehicles to drive across.
"The United States built Marja," Nicholson said. "We're going to come back and fix it."
The canals pose a significant challenge for the Marines. The two principal units in the area -- the 1st and 3rd battalions of the 6th Marine Regiment -
- will operate largely on foot, carting food, water and other supplies on their backs. Engineering units will seek to set up temporary bridges to allow combat vehicles to cross.
Once the central part of Marja is cleared of fighters, a team U.S. and British diplomats and reconstruction personnel will set up a stabilization office. One of their top priorities will be to assist the newly appointed district governor, Haji Zahir, who recently returned to Afghanistan after spending the past 15 years in Germany. The Marines have identified dozens of potential quick-impact projects to help the local population -- from fixing health clinics to drilling wells -- and have received permission to spend more than $800,000 on such activities.
But U.S. officials also want the Karzai administration to send personnel and deliver services to the area, describing the mission as a gauge of Kabul's willingness to take advantage of opportunities created by the new troops.
"Marja is a test of the central government's ability to reach down to a still-volatile part of the country and deliver sustainable governance," said John Kael Weston, the State Department representative to the Marine brigade.
News Alert: U.S. Marines launch major offensive in Afghanistan
04:35 PM EST Friday, February 12, 2010
Thousands of U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers traveling in helicopters and mine-resistant vehicles began punching into a key Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan as one of the largest operations to assert government control over this country got underway.
Feb 10, 2010
Marines Readying to attack Marjah
U.S. Marines came under attack from insurgents armed with sniper guns and rocket-propelled grenades as they geared up Wednesday to overwhelm a Taliban bastion in Afghanistan.
Thousands of Marines along with foreign and Afghan soldiers are taking up position around the town of Marjah in Helmand, which officials say is one of the last areas of the southern province under Taliban control.
The flow of residents fleeing the imminent offensive has slowed, provincial officials said, after loaded-down cars, trucks, tractors and buses clogged roads from Marjah to provincial capital Lashkah Gar for days.
"We have announced and told people in Marjah not to leave their houses as our operation is well planned and designed to target the enemy," said Daud Ahmadi, spokesman for Helmand Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal.
"Civilians will not be harmed," he said. Another 75 families had left Marjah, on top of 164 families who left earlier, the spokesman said. Other officials have said more than 400 families have fled.
The operation, expected to begin in days, will be the biggest push since U.S. President Obama announced a new surge of troops to Afghanistan and one of the biggest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion defeated the Taliban regime.
It is seen as a key test of a comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy that aims to follow up what officials predict will be a decisive military victory by establishing Afghan government control.
But Taliban fighters appear defiant in the face of the enormous fire power being amassed in the region, where they have held sway for years in tandem with drug traffickers.
On the northeastern edge of Marjah, an AFP photographer said U.S. Marines arrived by helicopter at a deserted junction and immediately came under sniper fire from insurgents.
The Marines' encampment, reinforced with sandbags, also came under rocket fire. U.S. Cobra helicopters were called in to attack Taliban positions, the photographer said.
The Marines searched houses and compounds for weapons and IED's )the prime Taliban killer of foreign troops) and evacuated residents from the few homes still occupied.
NATO forces dropped leaflets on the area warning of the fight to come, to give residents and insurgents time to flee and avoid a battle, officials said.
Feb 9, 2010
February 09, 2010
OUTPOST BELLEAU WOOD, Afghanistan - Take a desert of yellow-orange dust so flat it looks like Mars, with a freezing wind that blows so hard it can lift a large tent.
Add hundreds of U.S. Marines, squads of Afghan soldiers, some Drug Enforcement Administration agents, a few private contractors, along with dozens of armored cars, mine breachers and an improvised helicopter landing zone.
That's Outpost Belleau Wood, a Marine base near the edge of the Taliban-controlled town of Marjah, which the Marines plan to attack in the coming days.
It took barely a week for the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment to create the outpost from scratch. They bulldozed earth berms to make a protection wall, pitched lines of pup-tents that bend and wobble in the gale, and set up batteries of mortars and 155-millimeter artillery cannons.
"Those guns started shooting the night they got here," said the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, as he leaned forward against the wind while walking through the base in full body armor and helmet.
Named after a World War I battle where the 6th Marines earned the label "devil dogs" for the ferocity of their fight against German troops, Belleau Wood lies about 7 miles (10 kilometers) north of Marjah.
Several units from the battalion are already pushing in toward the town, where an estimated 600 fighters are entrenched. While the outpost has been hit only once, companies closer to Marjah face daily skirmishes and bombings.
Marjah is the biggest community in southern Afghanistan that is under Taliban control and a center of their logistical and drug-smuggling networks. The NATO command believes restoring government control there would go a long way to discrediting the Taliban among Afghans in a part of the country where the militants have been strong for years.
The offensive proper is expected to be the biggest in the nine-year Afghan war, and troops on the outpost are all waiting for battle.
Dozens of Marine engineers have been rehearsing how to lay out massive metallic bridges they plan to use when troops will need to cross the canals surrounding Marjah. Route clearance teams were also fine-tuning their tactics to detect the bombs that litter the area.
NATO commanders have been outspoken on their plans to take Marjah. But they've remained tightlipped on one key bit of information: timing.
Few know when the offensive will begin, and those who do are saying nothing. So the Marines are in the starting blocks, waiting in the cold. "The wait is part of the fight," says Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Daniel Perez, a Navy medic. "It gives people the time to pump up with anticipation."
Marjah is suspected to be one of the biggest, most dangerous minefields NATO forces have ever faced, and hundreds of the fighters barricaded inside could be planning to fight until death.
But Perez said he hasn't seen anyone frightened by the fight - "or if they are, they're hiding it very well." He says waiting, however long, doesn't matter for the Marines. "It's almost like the Olympics," he said. "You train and train and train ... and this is finally the big show."