View Full Version : Airstrikes boom through southern Afghan town as Marines move through

05-02-08, 07:51 AM
Airstrikes boom through southern Afghan town as Marines move through

AP - Friday, May 2
By JASON STRAZIUSO,Associated Press Writer AP - Friday, May 2

GARMSER, Afghanistan - Airstrikes and artillery thundered through this southern Afghan town on Thursday as U.S. Marines moved through the area's bountiful poppy fields in an effort to clear the region of its Taliban stranglehold.

Cobra helicopters concentrated rounds of fire on a mud house hideout at daybreak before a Harrier jet dropped two bombs. Artillery rattled the countryside at nightfall after militants fired mortars on U.S. positions.

The assault in Helmand province is the first major task undertaken by the 2,400 Marines in the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit since their arrival in Afghanistan last month. Their mission in Helmand province _ the world's largest opium poppy producing region _ is the farthest south U.S. forces have operated in years.

The Marines are moving south through the town, clearing a route from the northern tip of Garmser where about 120 British soldiers are posted. Everything below that line is considered militant territory.

Many Afghan families have fled the town, and the main bazaar has long been closed because of the Taliban threat. But dozens of others _ mostly Afghan men _ have stayed behind to work in the poppy fields now producing the sticky brown resin that will eventually be turned into heroin.

Capt. Charles O'Neill, a company commander, hunkered down in a barnyard and turned a small, mud-brick house into his headquarters. His unit called in artillery in darkness Thursday after enemy forces fired mortars at his troops.

"We'd been receiving indirect fire in this area since we got here about three days ago," said O'Neill, 33, of Euclid, Ohio. "We receive it sometimes in the afternoon and sometimes in the early evening, and it seemed like they were gradually what we call bracketing, getting it closer to the target."

O'Neill said he didn't expect any more mortar attacks after a U.S. artillery team stationed outside town sent shock waves through the countryside during a 15-minute barrage. The Marines have been taking sporadic gunfire since their daybreak assault into Garmser on Tuesday. Helicopters patrolled the skies all day Thursday.

Helmand province is the world's largest opium poppy growing region and has been a flashpoint of the increasingly violent insurgency in the last two years. British troops _ who are responsible for Helmand _ have faced fierce battles in the north end of Helmand.

The Garmser region is filled with poppy fields, but the Marines are not eradicating any poppies, something they have stressed to Afghan farmers who rely on the cash crop for their livelihoods.

Marines have established a checkpoint near where Afghan farmers walk out to their fields. As about 10 men moved through, the troops belatedly identified two who they thought could be Taliban scouts because they were clean and much younger than the farmers.

"It's the world's greatest guessing game," Staff Sgt. Tyree Adams, 29, said after the two passed by. Separating insurgents from innocent Afghans is one of the toughest tasks for U.S. and NATO troops here.

Marines said Taliban scouts were believed to be operating throughout Garmser. One suspected militant wielding a pair of binoculars was shot on Thursday. Three suspected scouts were spotted at dusk on top of a roof, but Marines didn't fire at them because they weren't certain.

O'Neill's men are operating in a dirty backyard filled with the sounds and smells of a typical farm. When they first arrived they shared space with two cattle, several sheep, a goat and chickens. The animals' owner came back later to claim the animals but said the Marines could use his compound.

"He wasn't too upset to see us here, especially when he saw his animals were still alive," said Gunny Sgt. John Thompson, 33, Arnett, Oklahoma. "They'd kind of taken to us."

Most U.S. troops operate in the east, along the border with Pakistan, but Britain _ with 7,500 troops _ and Canada _ with 2,500 troops in neighboring Kandahar province _ have not had enough manpower to tame the south.

Many of the men in the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit served in Ramadi, the capital of the Anbar province in western Iraq in 2006 and 2007. The vast region was once al-Qaida's Iraqi stronghold before the militants were pushed out in early 2007.

More than 8,000 people died in insurgency-related violence last year, and militants set off more than 140 suicide bombs. Taliban fighters have been increasingly relying on roadside bombs and suicide attacks after being routed in force-on-force battles in the past.


05-02-08, 07:53 AM
Marines muscle in on Taliban

By Paul Wiseman, USA TODAY
GARMSER, Afghanistan — U.S. Marines contended with 110-degree heat, rugged terrain and an increasingly savvy and war-hardened enemy as they pressed deeper into a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan on Thursday.

Operation Azada Wosa — "Stay Free" in the local Pashto language — kicked off Monday and represents a new push by the U.S. military to retake territory that NATO troops have so far been unable to conquer and hold. The 2,400-strong 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit is on its first mission since it started arriving here more than a month ago.

After nearly seven years of war, the challenges facing the U.S. troops here are eerily similar to those they faced when they first arrived to topple the Taliban regime following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Among the familiar problems are dehydration, long supply lines, residents whose loyalties are often unclear and enemy forces that stage quick-hit attacks then slip into the shadows.

Capt. John Moder, the commander of the Marine unit's Charlie Company, says residents have told them they are eager to see the Taliban removed from the area. Their local bazaar has been closed for months because of the fighting.

"They just want to live their lives," Moder says.

Tenacious Taliban

The Taliban aren't giving up without a fight. In groups of three and four, they open fire at the Marines with assault rifles or rockets, then flee. Sometimes they attempt infantry maneuvers, trying to draw the Marines in one direction with a feint, then attacking from another direction. "They were tactically sound," Moder says. "It shows that they've done it before, that they might have been trained."

Moder estimates his men have killed 30 Taliban fighters. Maj. Tom Clinton, executive officer of the Marines' infantry battalion, could not confirm Taliban casualties, but he says the Marines are getting reports that wounded Afghan men are seeking medical treatment in Helmand's capital, Lashkar Gah.

So far, U.S. casualties have been relatively light. Through Thursday afternoon, no Marines had been killed in the operation, although two died last month when a roadside bomb hit their supply convoy.

Six Marines had been injured, none critically: One was shot in the foot, perhaps accidentally; one suffered a concussion from a Taliban rocket or mortar attack; one was bitten by a dog; one fell from a roof and broke an ankle; two broke their legs; and two more sprained their ankles.

The nagging injuries and intense heat are sometimes a more immediate threat than the enemy itself, troops say. "Imagine carrying 75 to 120 pounds of gear and playing a football game where each quarter lasts three hours," says 1st Lt. Mark Matzke, 21, of Arlington, Va.

Keeping them supplied with water, ready-to-eat meals and ammunition is a full-time operation. From Camp Dwyer, a handpicked team of two dozen Marines runs convoys to infantrymen in the field.

"We wanted to be called 'The Nomads' but they gave us 'Wagon Wheel' " instead, says Gunnery Sgt. Javier Duarte, 34, of Miami. Before every convoy, Duarte usually gives the Wagon Wheel team a profanity-laden pep talk, then introduces the chaplain for a prayer.

The convoy heads outside Camp Dwyer's concertina wire and into the desert on the way to the Marines fighting on the outskirts of Garmser. Along the way, they pass Afghans working in the fields, harvesting the poppy that could be turned into heroin and sold in Europe and the United States.

Back at Camp Dwyer, a special team of combat surgeons, doctors, nurses and medics plays cards and lounges in scarce shade, relieved that light casualties mean their skills haven't been needed. Some of the doctors have trained in emergency rooms in Los Angeles and Baltimore, treating victims of gangland shootings.

Medics without borders

Earlier this week, a Marine helicopter touched down carrying an 11-year-old boy with serious shrapnel wounds in his abdomen. Two Afghan men brought the boy to the Marines for treatment after an explosion. Maj. Clinton suspects that the men — perhaps even the boy — may have been Taliban and had misfired a rocket or a bomb. Clinton says the insurgents sometimes bring their wounded for treatment, claiming to be civilians.

This time, medical authorities decided the boy would get better treatment at another NATO base, because there is no pediatric equipment — such as child-size respiratory tubes — at Dwyer.

"I have five kids," says Navy Lt. Commander Luis Marquez, 39, an emergency room doctor from San Juan, Puerto Rico. "I want to save every child I can."