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thedrifter
05-11-08, 08:52 AM
MILITARY: Rocket attack interrupts operations briefing

By MARK WALKER - Staff Writer

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD ---- A briefing Saturday night on the latest operations by Marines in Afghanistan's Garmser District was interrupted by a rocket attack, the first this base has experienced since April 28.

The siren sounded at 7:38 p.m., ending a Marine lieutenant colonel's briefing and signaled that incoming mortar or rocket rounds had been detected. Two thumps in the distance sounded moments later.

The attack did not immediately appear to result in any injuries or damage to this airfield in southern Afghanistan, but it was another sign of what military strategists had predicted would be a spring offensive by Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.

When the alarm sounded, the troops not in the field and the 3,000 civilian contractors retreated to concrete bunkers until the all-clear alarm sounded.

More than 3,500 Marines from North Carolina's Camp Lejeune and the Marine Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms have been in the country for a little more than a month now to help staunch the predicted offensive.

Lt. Col. Matt Trollinger, operations officer for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit that makes up the bulk of the Marine force, has three companies in the field engaging the insurgent forces.

"We are executing our task," Trollinger told a reporter moments before Saturday's attack. "We're well into our task to find and defeat them."

Earlier in the day, Col. Peter Wijinka, a Dutchman working as the base's deputy commander, said troops from the 42 coalition countries now in Afghanistan are waiting to see what happens later this month when the poppy harvest is complete.

"The problem here is, it's hard to forecast what will happen," Wijinka said. "Many of the activities in this region are financed by opium sales."

Prophetically, Wijinka also said that operations were taking place to mitigate the risk of rocket attacks around the base.

In addition to combat operations, many of the roughly 12,000 troops assigned to this base 4,000 feet above sea level are conducting outreach efforts around the base, helping the area residents dig wells and providing them with food and hygiene kits, the colonel said.

As a result of that kind of outreach, Wijinka said, some residents are providing information about Taliban and al-Qaida operations in the region.

But Wijinka also predicted that the military and humanitarian efforts will take time, comparing the situation in Afghanistan to the more than 15 years it took to pacify the Balkans.

"We've got the watches," he said, "They've got the time."

Saturday's rocket attack also came shortly after Camp Pendleton's Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland met and dined with several dozen Marines.

Helland, who also serves as commander of Marine Corps forces throughout the Middle East, told the Marines they have been doing outstanding work since arriving back in Afghanistan. They left shortly after the fall of the Taliban government following the 2001 U.S. and coalition invasion.

"The good news is that you're here," the general told Marines gathered outside rows of tent adjacent to the airfield runway. "The other good news is that you're kicking ass."

The general is in the midst of a tour of the Middle East, visiting his commanders and troops in the field.

Contact staff writer Mark Walker at (760) 740-3529 or mlwalker@nctimes.com.

Trip snippets

1. The people who help coordinate military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan say the recent move by the Iraqi government against Shiite militias in Baghdad's Sadr City and elsewhere could be the long-awaited tipping point toward ultimate success.

During a recent background briefing at a Middle Eastern military base, an Air Force lieutenant colonel contended "this is a historic time" in the effort to get the Iraqi government to take action against the militias.

"It represented a 180-degree turning point," the colonel said. "We are now fully anticipating them to start taking the reins."

The move also infused a newfound sense of optimism for the people who help coordinate military missions in Iraq, the lieutenant colonel said.

"We've been waiting for this to happen for quite a while," he said.

2. Shortly after an intensive, daylong meeting with top-level U.S. military officials at a Middle Eastern base on Friday, Camp Pendleton's Lt. Gen. Samuel T. Helland met with a group of Marine Corps aviators.

After delivering a brief pep talk and giving his assessment of the conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the general, who oversees Marine Corps forces throughout the Middle East, solicited comments and concerns from the group.

He got one right away.

After a Marine officer raised concerns about scheduling issues, Helland pointed out that he doesn't control the battle theater ---- only the Marines and sailors serving there.

The officer pressed his concern, prompting Helland to point out he deals with an array of issues each day.

"It's what I do every day," he said. "I guess I've now got another rock in the rucksack."

Ellie