The Afghan head of the Third Brigade 205th corps, Gen. Mohiudin Ghori, tells Marja villagers that it is time to back the government, not the Taliban.
The Afghan head of the Third Brigade 205th corps, Gen. Mohiudin Ghori, tells Marja villagers that it is time to back the government, not the Taliban. Soraya Nelson/NPR
It's the second week of a major U.S.-led offensive in southern Afghanistan to expel the Taliban from a key stronghold in Helmand province.
The Marines and their Afghan counterparts are claiming some success in this first test of President Obama's military surge. But overall, the fighting in the Taliban stronghold of Marjah shows little sign of letting up.
Marines and Afghan soldiers were in a good mood during the first hours of the offensive in Marjah. Taliban resistance to the advancing Afghan army and the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment seemed sporadic and weak. The only casualties were a Marine with a minor gunshot wound to the arm and an Afghan soldier who'd shot himself in the foot.
From a ridge overlooking northwestern Marjah, Afghan Sgt. Amanullah declared they'd broken through the outer ring of enemy resistance. He predicted that soon the rest of Marjah would fall.
Marine officers leading the charge were more circumspect, like Capt. Bill Hefty, the commander of the battalion's India Company, who cautioned against underestimating the Taliban.
"They are harassing, they are watching," says Hefty. "I mean, there is nowhere we've been since we got out here that they haven't seen us and known what we're doing.
"They are writing in their notebooks, figuring out how we do things, just like we are writing in ours, figuring out how they are doing it. They are more mobile that's for sure," Hefty adds.
A Fast-Moving Enemy
By nightfall, it was clear that winning would not be easy.
One problem the joint force faces is a fast-moving enemy — one who plays dirty, using residents as human shields, and who has choked Marjah with homemade bombs known as IEDs.
Equally daunting is ensuring that the military has Afghan public support.
Marine Brig Gen. Larry Nicholson, who is commanding the offensive, says if getting Marjah residents on his side means letting Taliban fighters flee to the hillsides, he's willing to do that.
"Kind of the bumper sticker for us is no more Marjahs," Nicholson says. "We don't want to let them get somewhere else where they establish, you know, sanctuaries where we're not at.
"So we are concerned about their flight, but at the same time, frankly, trying to get to the population is the most critical thing, and this operation is designed to get to the people."
That means keeping civilian casualties in Marjah to a minimum, as well as getting Afghan forces to take over security and the government to deliver services there as soon as possible.
A small army of U.S. government aid workers and a new Afghan government to run the 70-square-mile area are waiting in the wings to speed the process along.
'The Right First Impression'
Kael Weston, the senior State Department representative at Marine headquarters in Helmand province, has been working with Marines and Afghan officials to persuade Marjah's elders to turn against the Taliban.
"As the fighting subsides, there'll be a lot more opportunity to have the right first impression they are going to want from us," Weston adds. "It's not just uniforms walking through their town, it's actually their own government, their own security forces. And that government presence with our help starts to deliver projects right away."
But that effort is delayed until the fighting subsides. No one can realistically say when that might be, given the level and type of resistance the joint force is encountering.
"We're only about 10 days in, and it's on top of a nine-year war. And that's why expectations on all sides need to be managed," Weston says.
"This is truly the first time we, working with the Afghan government and Afghan security forces, are collaborating on a very, very tough challenge. We shouldn't kid ourselves that the report card of Marjah will be finalized within a few weeks. It will be awhile."
IEDs Pose Challenge
The biggest threats to the joint force are the hundreds of IEDs Taliban fighters have planted in and around Marjah.
Uncovering and detonating those bombs is a full-time job for India Company.
In a four-block radius, the Marines discovered more than 20 IEDs in the first few days. That included two on the other side of a wall where two dozen Marines bedded down each night.
Another impediment to a quick win are the continuing hit-and-run attacks by small bands of Taliban, even in areas the Marines think they have already cleared.
Hefty estimated there are few militants in his area of operation, but they have home-court advantage.
"Compared to guerrilla fighters, we are a big cumbersome beast," Hefty says. "They moved around a lot, and they know where they are. If this is my neighborhood, I'd know how to get in and out, too. I don't think there are more than 40 to 45, and again it's not like TV, [where] one guy can stop 13 guys for a while."
Rules Of Engagement
Rules governing when Marines can fire at militants are another problem.
For example: They can't fire at a suspected Taliban fighter who has fired at them, unless they see him with a weapon. Also off-limits are militants who lay down their weapons.
The goal is to protect civilians as much as possible, given how quickly and easily militants blend in here.
But the rules have spawned a lot of confusion.
Take this radio transmission between Marines during the offensive: "If operator sees him with a weapon, take the shot, break. If they lose tail on him and he reappears without a weapon, they can't take the shot right now. Copy?"
That prompted this sarcastic exchange from several Marines listening in: "To shoot a guy that is shooting at you now, you need permission."
"Roger. This guy shot at me and I'm hit in three places, and he is still shooting at me. Can I engage?"
"Not anymore. He hid behind a wall."
"Ow, he just shot me again. I'm shot four times. Do I have permission to engage?"
"He changed clothes."
"Can we get a grid on where he shot you at?"
Checking and rechecking circumstances happens even when Marines are pinned down in a gunfight.
On a recent afternoon, at least four militants firing from compounds had members of India Company in a tight spot for more than an hour in northwestern Marjah, while they tried figuring out whether any civilians were in the buildings.
One Marine was shot through the leg during the attack. Eventually, officials gave the nod for Cobra helicopter gunships to strike the compounds and free the Marines.
Despite the Marines' best efforts, it turned out there were civilians inside.
Nine were killed or wounded — many of them children.
Survivors said they'd been forced to stay in their compounds by the Taliban.