Forcing hundreds of Taliban fighters out of a key stronghold in southern Afghanistan is proving far more difficult than expected for thousands of U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers. The militants are using roadside bombs and snipers to slow the joint force to a crawl during the week-old offensive in the Taliban-controlled area called Marjah, in Helmand province.
That's what happened Tuesday to a Marine and Afghan patrol tasked with moving the front line deeper into the militant stronghold. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who was with the patrol, reports their efforts came at a painful price.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
U.S. Marine and Afghan army commanders confer after their men begin taking fire while on patrol earlier this week.
U.S. Marine and Afghan army commanders confer after their men begin taking fire while on patrol earlier this week. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
U.S. Marines from India Company of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Regiment are itching to move out.
They drape extra ammunition belts over their shoulders. They check their weapons. They wait impatiently for Afghan soldiers to join them on the patrol, who are hours late.
The joint patrol finally heads out at about 2 p.m. Marines with portable minesweepers walk ahead, clearing a path for the armored vehicles rumbling behind. American and Afghan troops fan out over wheat and opium poppy fields.
Their objective on this sunny afternoon seems modest: push south about a mile from their base in northwestern Marjah.
1st Lt. Justin Gray leads India Company's 2nd Platoon.
"We're going to speak with the locals, find out what we can do for them, and basically give them the advice of, 'Hey, you don't want to get caught in the crossfire.' Because there is going to be fighting. The Taliban wants to fight us and we want them out of Marjah, so it's best for locals to just get out of town," Gray says.
The locals have already obliged. As the Marines and their Afghan army counterparts advance, compound after compound that they search is empty.
In fact, the whole village seems abandoned. There is no sign of the turbaned farmers who toil in the fields, or women in brightly colored tunics who wash clothes and dishes in the fast-flowing canal. There are no children playing on the dirt streets.
Yet the patrol is not alone. Like villains in a video game, Taliban militants in black tunics pop up on rooftops, from behind mud walls or in trenches.
They fire at the patrol with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. The Marines return fire. Capt. Jordan Condo barks orders for his men to direct their attention to a building and suppress the gunfire coming their way, but the militants then disappear.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
A Marine prepares to search an Afghan man as Lance Cpl. Alejandro Yazzie (right) stands guard. Yazzie was killed six hours after this photo was taken.
A Marine prepares to search an Afghan man as Lance Cpl. Alejandro Yazzie (right) stands guard. Yazzie was killed six hours after this photo was taken. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Condo, who is with the Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, gets bad news over the radio from a support aircraft overhead. The surveillance has spotted a person with a rocket-propelled grenade moving north.
Gray suggests a quick fix: "OK, let's blow them up before they can establish that ambush site. Hey, easy day."
Condo receives approval for Harrier jets to carry out Hellfire missile attacks.
The attacks destroy the ambush site. Condo says the militants are badly wounded or dead.
"[That's] good for us, because we would have eventually met that ambush site," he says.
Still, the encounters with the Taliban take their toll.
Just before sunset, the patrol leaders call it a night; it's too dangerous to push on.
The Marines and Afghans have barely covered a half-mile in nearly four hours. They approach a field near an empty mosque, searching for a place to set up camp.
Three militants hiding nearby train their weapons on the approaching group.
As gunfire erupts, the Marines and Afghans take cover, crouching behind mounds of dirt. They return fire.
Among them is Lance Cpl. Alejandro Yazzie, a combat engineer from Rock Point, Ariz.
Automatic weapons fire rattles and the Marines shout as the firefight unfolds, when Yazzie is hit.
"Corpsman up! Corpsman up!" Marines yell, calling for a medic.
Jose Luis Magana/AP
A team of Marines carries the transfer case containing the remains of Yazzie upon arrival at Dover Air Force Base, Del., on Thursday.
A team of Marines carries the transfer case containing the remains of Yazzie upon arrival at Dover Air Force Base, Del., on Thursday. Jose Luis Magana/AP
Condo shouts, "Hey, we got a KIA, KIA."
Yazzie is the KIA, or killed in action. A bullet struck him in the head, killing him almost instantly.
The 23-year-old is the first Marine in this battalion to die in the offensive. Yazzie had planned to call his wife on my satellite phone that night.
The Marines go after the Taliban gunmen. Condo again calls for air support. This time, two Cobra helicopter gunships respond with rounds and rounds of fire.
But the gunships hit the wrong trench. They leave to refuel as darkness falls.
Yazzie's body is gently placed in the back of an armored vehicle. He is driven back to company headquarters to begin the trip home, a half a world away.
Yazzie's coffin arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Thursday. The AP reports that funeral arrangements are pending in his Navajo community in Arizona.