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The Baltimore Sun

10. Marines sweep Taliban refuge


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

Date: Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Section: TELEGRAPH
Edition: Final
Page: 1A
Dateline: GARMSIR, Afghanistan
Source: Sun reporter
Byline: David Wood
Illustration: Photo(s)
Graph Source: David Wood : Sun Photographer
Caption: Marines battle Taliban in Afghanistan's poppy-growing region, which
produces more than 90 percent of the world's opium.

GARMSIR, Afghanistan -- More than a thousand Marines, backed by artillery and


helicopter gunships, stormed into this Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan
before dawn yesterday.

The operation, mounted by the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, opens a new
American combat sweep across the region where the Taliban, ousted from power in
2001, have made a strong comeback.As of last night, there were no reported Marine
casualties. The assault was launched in stages from a base near Kandahar, where
the Sept. 11 attacks were plotted.

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

Simultaneously, a convoy of Marines in light armored vehicles attacked Taliban


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

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

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

Later, two insurgents fired on a pair of Marine scout helicopters. As cheering


Marines watched, one of the Kiowa Warrior helicopters wheeled and killed the
attackers with rockets.

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

The operation is taking place in Afghanistan's rich poppy-growing region along


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

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

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

Facing the Marines were a mixture of what intelligence officers described as


hard-core foreign fighters, local Afghans hired to be soldiers and younger
trainees at a Taliban training camp.

The intelligence officer said there is a "substantial" flow of non-Afghan


fighters into Garmsir from Pakistan.

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

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

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

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

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

Underscoring the complex nature of a counterinsurgency war waged among the


civilian population, Lt. Col. Anthony Henderson, the battalion commander, told his
men that the Marines should be "no better friend, no worse enemy."

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

Initially, at least, Marines intend to prevent reinforcements from reaching


Taliban forces fighting the British in northern Helmand province, roughly 120
miles from here.

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

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

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

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

For Marines steeped in the lessons of counterinsurgency warfare, the


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

"There's a huge potential we could cede [back to insurgents] a lot of what


we've done," Petronzio said.

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

In an interview before the operation, he expressed his frustration that the


effort would have little long-term effect.

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

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

david.wood@baltsun.com