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February 28, 2010

With Marja Largely Won, Marines Try to Win Trust

SEMITAY BAZAAR, Afghanistan — After the declaration this weekend that the battle for the Taliban enclave of Marja had been won, for the Marines standing behind sandbags and walking patrols, the more complicated work has begun. With it will be a test of the strategy selected by President Obama and the generals now running the Afghan war.


Published: February 28, 2010

After months of preparation for the largest offensive in Afghanistan since 2001, and two weeks of fighting and moving forces around a sprawling desert battlefield, the last pieces of the campaign’s opening push into a Taliban enclave had come together by the weekend.

Marine units were finishing sweeps of contested ground, clearing the last stretches of roads of hidden bombs, and reinforcing hastily erected patrol bases and outposts. More Afghan government forces were arriving, increasing the manpower to counter the Taliban fighters engaged in the guerrillas’ routine of emplacing booby traps and challenging Marine patrols with hit-and-run fights.

The transition from deliberate combat operations to creating security for the often lackluster Afghan government was under way. A set of tasks more complex than fighting was ahead: encouraging the population of Marja to accept, much less support, an outside government presence.

“We have a fleeting opportunity to earn limited trust,” said Col. Randall P. Newman, who commands the Marine ground forces in Helmand Province, in an interview. He summed up the state of relations now: “They don’t trust us.”

Part of the suspicion was related to the recent military action. Seeking local support would be difficult enough after almost two weeks of fighting, house searches, artillery fire and airstrikes, the Marines said.

But another element of the disaffection reached back further, to previous pledges by the Afghan government to provide services and improve living conditions in Helmand, where Marja is located.

On Friday evening, Colonel Newman and Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, who commands the Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, met with local men who complained that the government had a record of failing them.

“They told us, ‘We’ve been at this eight years and we’ve heard a lot of promises,’ ” Colonel Newman said. “From a human standpoint, I can’t say I blame them. Trust is earned, not given. We’ve got to provide.”

Most of the Afghans in the meeting, he added, had been fighting the Marines in recent days.

In this lies a core test of the American strategy, which makes Helmand Province a potential barometer of the performance of the so-called Afghan surge.

As part of Mr. Obama’s decision last year to increase the American commitment to the war, more and more Marine infantry battalions and their supporting elements have arrived and fanned across the province’s villages and the farmland that follows irrigation canals across the arid steppe.

Less than a year ago, much of the area was wholly outside of Afghan government influence. Helmand was Taliban turf. Today the troop number is still rising. The Marine Corps says nearly 20,000 Marines will be here before the year’s end.

No one can seriously dispute that pushing nearly 20,000 Marines, and several thousand more Afghan soldiers and police officers, into a single province will change the area’s security climate.

Then what?

Fundamental to plans for undermining the insurgency is to set up Afghan security forces — robust, competent, honest, well equipped and well led. If such forces can be created, then the plan is to hand them responsibility for the security achieved by the Army and Marines, allowing for an American withdrawal.

But the bad reputation of the Afghan police forces, in particular, along with the spotty performance of Afghan forces in Marja, suggest that the work and the spending of billions of American dollars to date had not achieved anything like the desired effects.

The Afghans in the meeting with the colonels were blunt. “They said: ‘We’re with you. We want to help you build. We will support you. But if you bring in the cops, we will fight you till death,’ ” Colonel Newman said.

The plan is to bring in the cops; already they are arriving at American-built outposts.

And so a complex and difficult strategy was evident on the ground.

Even while the Marines continued securing Marja and its environs, Colonel Newman was ordering a shift to engagement: paying Afghans for damage to their homes and shops; holding meetings with elders to discuss development contracts that can be started quickly; and putting Afghans to work at quick projects, including clearing brush, digging canals and providing gravel to outposts to keep down dust and mud.

Simultaneously, the Marines were signaling that the Afghan police units coming to Marja were not like the past officers, whose arrogance and corruption left behind a reservoir of animosity and disgust. The message was simple: The new police officers are different men; give them a chance to earn your respect.

The Afghan National Army, meanwhile, was being touted as the government’s better liaison. Problems were surfacing there, too, however.

Late Thursday, the Marines of Company K, Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, staggered through muddy poppy fields at darkness, weighed down by weapons and backpacks and exhausted from a two-day foot patrol clearing a long stretch of road. They were out of water. They had not eaten since the previous day.

At last they reached their destination: a five-way intersection northeast of Marja. An outpost astride the road junction, built on ground seized by Company C of First Battalion, Third Marines, on Feb. 9, will be Company K’s command post, allowing Company C to return to its preoffensive duties in nearby Nawa.

These two companies had seen some of the fiercest Taliban resistance to the Marja operation. Each unit had been in more than a dozen firefights. Together they had suffered 17 casualties.

Capt. Stephan P. Karabin II, who commands Company C, greeted Company K as it arrived. His brief to the incoming officers was as forceful as what the Afghan elders had told Colonel Newman.

The Afghan soldiers who accompanied Company C, he said, had looted the 84-booth Semitay Bazaar immediately after the Marines swept through and secured it. Then the Afghan soldiers refused to stand post in defensive bunkers, or to fill sandbags as the Americans, sometimes under fire, hardened their joint outpost. Instead, they spent much of their time walking in the bazaar, smoking hashish.

Company K had stories of its own. As its own Marines stumbled wearily across friendly lines, much of the Afghan platoon that worked with them was straggling behind, unable to keep pace.

The first phase of the campaign for Marja was ending. Captain Karabin had paid aggrieved shop owners $300 to $500 each for their losses to the Afghan Army’s looting.

So began the complicated campaign of engagement. It is a race for Afghan government competence and a contest for respect and for trust, in a place where all are in short supply.

Tsunami warning ends after waves hit Japan

Hawaii, other Pacific islands escape major damage in wake of Chile quake

HONOLULU - Hawaii's peaceful beaches were again filled with sun-soaking tourists as life returned to normal Sunday following a scare from a tsunami that raced across the world, setting off mass evacuations and safety worries across the Pacific.


NBC News and news services
updated February 28, 2010

In Waikiki, the beaches bustled as usual with families and tourists, children played in parks, Navy ships returned to Pearl Harbor and the waves seemed as inviting as ever.

As it turned out, the tsunami caused by Chile's devastating earthquake Saturday wasn't as dangerous or big as experts first feared.

In Japan, the biggest wave hit the northern island of Hokkaido. There were no immediate reports of damage from the four-foot wave, though some piers were briefly flooded.

As it crossed the Pacific, the tsunami dealt populated areas — including the U.S. state of Hawaii — only a glancing blow.

The tsunami raised fears Pacific nations could suffer from disastrous waves like those that killed 230,000 people around the Indian Ocean in December 2004, which happened with little-to-no warning and much confusion about the impending waves.

Experts 50 percent off
Officials said the opposite occurred after the Chile quake: They overstated their predictions of the size of the waves and the threat.

"We expected the waves to be bigger in Hawaii, maybe about 50 percent bigger than they actually were," said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist for the warning center. "We'll be looking at that."

Besides the panic buying, and hoarding, of food and supplies that caused some supermarkets to place limits on staples like Spam — and long lines as gas stations — officials in Hawaii said everything went as planned.

"I hope everyone learned from this for next time, and there will be a next time," Fryer said.

Japan, fearing the tsunami could gain force as it moved closer, put all of its eastern coastline on tsunami alert and ordered hundreds of thousands of residents in low-lying areas to seek higher ground as waves raced across the Pacific at hundreds of miles (kilometers) per hour.

Japan is particularly sensitive to the tsunami threat.

In July 1993 a tsunami triggered by a major earthquake off Japan's northern coast killed more than 200 people on the small island of Okushiri. A stronger quake near Chile in 1960 created a tsunami that killed about 140 people in Japan.

400,000 told to flee in Japan
Towns along northern coasts issued evacuation orders to 400,000 residents, Japanese public broadcaster NHK said. NHK switched to emergency mode, broadcasting a map with the areas in most danger and repeatedly urging caution.

As the wave crossed the ocean, Japan's Meteorological Agency said waves of up to 10 feet could hit the northern prefectures of Aomori, Iwate and Miyagi, but the first waves were much smaller.

People packed their families into cars, but there were no reports of panic or traffic jams. Fishermen secured their boats, and police patrolled beaches, using sirens and loudspeakers to warn people to leave the area.

Marines, Afghan troops to be stationed in Marjah

MARJAH, Afghanistan — More than 2,000 U.S. Marines and about 1,000 Afghan troops who stormed the Taliban town of Marjah as part of a major NATO offensive against a resurgent Taliban will stay for the next several months to help ensure insurgents don't return, Marine commanders said Sunday.


By ALFRED de MONTESQUIOU (AP) – February 28, 2010

Two Marine battalions, along with their Afghan counterparts, will be stationed in Marjah and help patrol it as part of NATO's "clear, hold, build" strategy, which calls for troops to secure the area, restore a civilian Afghan administration, and bring in aid and public services to win the support of the local population, commanders said.

On Sunday, the 1,000 Marines with the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines Regiment were fortifying positions to the north and west of the town, taking over compounds and building others from scratch to create a small garrison, known as a Forward Operating Base, as well as combat outposts and a network of temporary patrol bases, said Capt. Joshua Winfrey, head of Lima Company.

To the south of Marjah, another battalion was doing the same, Winfrey said. About 1,000 Afghan troops will accompany the Marines, he added.

Marine spokesman Capt. Abe Sipe said construction of a more permanent military outpost will facilitate a long-term NATO presence in the town.

"We are going to have a presence in Marjah for some time. There's no plans for anyone to pull out," Sipe said. "The idea is to live among the local nationals because we found that's the best way to partner with local security partners to make Afghans feel safe and not under threat."

Afghan residents in Marjah had told government officials that they preferred NATO troops to be based in the town itself, instead of being outside, to provide better security.

Winfrey said he has been told that the entire battalion expects to be stationed in Marjah until the end of its deployment in August.

Establishing a credible local government is a key component of NATO's strategy for the longtime Taliban logistical hub and drug trafficking center. Last week, the government installed a new civilian chief, and several hundred Afghan police have already begun patrolling newly cleared areas of Marjah and the surrounding district of Nad Ali.

The Marjah offensive has been the biggest military operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban's hard-line regime. It's the first major test of NATO's counterinsurgency strategy since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 new American troops to try to reverse Taliban gains.

But the challenges in routing the Taliban are formidable. A team of suicide attackers struck Friday in the heart of the capital, Kabul, killing at least 16 people in assaults on two small hotels. Half of the dead were foreigners. The attack served as a reminder that the insurgents still have the strength to launch attacks — even in the capital.

On Sunday, three top police commanders in Kabul offered to resign from their posts for failing to prevent the insurgents' attack.

"We are the people responsible for the security of Kabul, we failed to provide that security and we don't want to be responsible for others dying," said Gen. Abdul Ghafar Sayedzada, the chief of Kabul's criminal investigation unit. The city's police chief and deputy police chief also offered to resign, according to the Interior Ministry.

However, the interior minister told all three to continue in their posts until an investigation is finished. At that point, he will decide whether or not to accept their resignations, said Zemeri Bashary, a spokesman for the ministry.

In other violence, 11 members of one family were killed Sunday in southern Helmand province when their tractor, with a truck-bed hitched to the back, hit a roadside bomb, said provincial government spokesman Daoud Ahmadi. All aboard died, including two women and two children.

Ahmadi said the Sunday attack occurred in Now Zad district, significantly north of the area where international and Afghan forces launched their military push against the Taliban.

Associated Press writers Noor Khan in Kandahar, and Tini Tran and Heidi Vogt in Kabul contributed to this report.

February 27, 2010

In Afghanistan, U.S. plans major push into Kandahar

Even as Marines in Afghanistan continued to fight for control of the Taliban stronghold of Marja, senior Obama administration officials said Friday that the United States has begun initial planning for a bigger, more complex offensive in Kandahar later this year.


By Anne E. Kornblut and Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 27, 2010

The assault on Marja, the largest U.S.-NATO military operation since 2001, is a "prelude to larger, more comprehensive operations," senior Obama officials said Friday. Administration officials declined to say when the Kandahar offensive will begin, but military officials have said that it probably will kick off in late spring or early summer after additional U.S. forces have moved into the area.

"Bringing comprehensive population security to Kandahar City is really the centerpiece of operations this year, and, therefore, Marja is the prelude. It's sort of a preparatory action," said one senior official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials telegraphed the Marja offensive for many weeks before it began, and they appear to be laying the same kind of groundwork before moving into Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city and the original base of Taliban leader Mohammad Omar. The drives into Marja and Kandahar come as part of the administration's decision to deploy 30,000 additional troops in the country, a final push to secure major population centers almost nine years after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Any military operation to drive the Taliban from Kandahar will probably play out very differently than the battle taking place in Marja, which is a tenth the size. About 11,000 U.S. and Afghan troops pushed into Marja and within the first 13 days of the operation raised the Afghan flag over the district's government center. Afghan officials also quickly selected a new district governor to oversee reconstruction efforts.

In Kandahar, U.S. forces are unlikely to move into the city in large numbers and instead will probably attempt to drive Taliban fighters from towns and villages surrounding the main city, military officials said. Local politics in Kandahar, where the Taliban movement first secured its foothold in Afghanistan, are also far more tangled than in Marja.

The success or failure of U.S. operations in Kandahar will probably dominate the administration's next review of war policy in December. In the interim, President Obama is conducting monthly video conferences with leaders on the ground and receiving lengthy written assessments.

Briefing reporters at the White House, officials described the Marja effort in cautiously optimistic terms, saying it is "well into" the first phase of clearing the Taliban out of the city and that "pockets of resistance" remain. The real test in the area will be whether the United States can help the Afghan government jump-start reconstruction projects and build a non-corrupt government in an area that has in recent years been dominated by the opium trade.

"We don't from the outset enjoy the trust of the people," the administration official said. "We have to win that trust."

Beyond southern Afghanistan, U.S. officials have reported greater success in recent days in capturing and killing senior Taliban officials, aided by increased cooperation from the Pakistani government.

In addition to those arrests, the administration has relied on strikes from Predator unmanned aircraft to kill Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan -- though it has not publicly confirmed them. In Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has put strict limits on the use of airstrikes to minimize civilian casualties that might drive the locals to support the Taliban.

Because U.S. forces don't have a presence on the ground in the Pakistani border region where most of the Predator attacks occur, it is difficult to gauge the number of civilian deaths caused by the strikes. The senior administration official said that the strikes produced few civilian casualties. "If there are Predator operations in Pakistan," the official said, "I would argue that the collateral damage is negligible at most, and that the reports of intensified damage are a myth, and that the Pakistanis would recognize how negligible they are and are very pleased with that precision that is taking place, which then encourages them to allow said Predator operations, if they existed, to continue with even greater momentum and pace."

Insurgents disappear as US, Afghan forces clear last areas of former Taliban stronghold Marjah

MARJAH, Afghanistan - Marines and Afghan troops who fought through the centre of Marjah linked up Saturday with American soldiers on the northern edge of the former Taliban stronghold, clearing the town's last major pocket of resistance.


Sat Feb 27, 11:20 AM
By Alfred De Montesquiou, The Associated Press

The joint force encountered almost no hostile fire, indicating that the militants have either fled or blended in with the local population - perhaps to stage attacks later if the Afghan government fails to hold the town. Some Taliban operatives are believed to remain west of Marjah.

Establishing a credible local government is a key component of NATO's strategy for the 2-week-old offensive on the Taliban's longtime logistical hub and heroin-smuggling centre. Earlier in the week, the government installed a new town administrator, and several hundred Afghan police have begun to patrol the newly cleared areas of the town in the southern province of Helmand.

After a grueling four-day march, Marines and Afghan troops succeeded Saturday in linking up with a U.S. Army Stryker battalion on Marjah's northern outskirts.

"Basically, you can say that Marjah has been cleared," said Capt. Joshua Winfrey, commander of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines Regiment.

As helicopters and unmanned drones circled overhead, NATO troops saw little resistance except from homemade explosives buried in the ground.

Lima Company's more than more than 100 heavily armed Marines, along with nearly as many Afghan army soldiers, had spent days carefully advancing to the north in tactical columns, searching every compound for possible Taliban ambushes.

But there was no enemy in sight. The Marines didn't fire a shot - except at a couple of Afghan guard dogs who attacked the unit.

Some of the allied force said the Taliban probably just went underground, waiting for better days.

"They're not stupid. I'd do the same if I saw a company of U.S. Marines coming my way," said Capt. Abdelhai Hujum, commander of the Afghan unit.

The Marjah milestone came a day after Taliban suicide attackers killed at least 16 people - half of them foreigners - in bomb and gun assaults on two guesthouses in Kabul, a reminder that the insurgents still have the strength to launch attacks even in the heavily defended capital.

At least six of the victims were Indian citizens whose bodies were returned home Saturday on an air force jet sent from New Delhi. Afghan President Hamid Karzai telephoned Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Saturday to express regret and vowed his government would take extra security measures, Karzai's office said. An Indian statement said Singh was "outraged" at the attack.

The Marjah offensive has been the war's biggest combined operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban regime and the first major test of NATO's counterinsurgency strategy since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 new American troops to try to reverse Taliban gains.

Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, said success in Marjah will be measured by whether its people, who have lived for years under the Taliban's hard-line interpretation of Islam, eventually feel as secure as under the religious militia.

"The president was very clear before the operation that we have to convince the people of Marjah that we'll bring them security, we'll bring them good governance and life will be better for them than under the Taliban," Omar said Saturday.

Saturday's linkup between the U.S. military units along with their Afghan partners means the offensive on the town has now given way to what military officials are calling "the hold phase," though that doesn't mean an end to fighting in Marjah. There remain some suspected groups of Taliban fighters on the western outskirts of town.

Marine spokesman Capt. Abe Sipe downplayed the development, describing it as another step in the effort to secure Marjah. He warned that the combined forces expect to face intermittent attacks for at least two more weeks.

"We are not calling anything completely secure yet," Sipe said.On Saturday, a Marine convoy hit a large roadside bomb on Saturday, but there were no injuries.

U.S. Army soldiers have also discovered buried explosives in northern Marjah, but they have had no direct enemy contact for two or three days. Gunfire rang out Saturday from the British-patrolled eastern side of the area's main canal, but it was unclear if there were any casualties.

Sipe said armed resistance has "fallen off pretty dramatically" in the last four to five days, but he added, "We don't think that necessarily means it's gone completely."

Hujum, who spent two decades in Afghanistan's various militia before joining the nascent national army, shared that view. He said most of the Taliban in the area probably buried their AK-47s and blended with the civilians.

"I can sense them all around us," Hujum said Friday as squads of Afghan troops and some Marines stormed a mosque where a child had said eight insurgents were preparing an ambush. Villagers were somewhat hostile -one threw a stone at a Marine waiting outside.

But again, there wasn't a single rifle or Taliban in sight.


Associated Press writers Christopher Torchia in Marjah, and Kay Johnson and Kathy Gannon in Kabul contributed to this report.

US plan to seize Afghanistan town from Taliban

The United States plans to launch a new military operation later this year to seize Kandahar city in southern Afghanistan from Taliban control, a senior Obama administration official says.


Published: 7:02AM Saturday February 27, 2010

"If the goal in Afghanistan is to reverse the momentum of the Taliban ... then we think we have to get to Kandahar this year," the official says.

Kandahar is Afghanistan's second largest city. A major offensive there follows the current military operation in the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in neighboring Helmand province.

The offensive to secure Marjah, which is now in its third week, is an early test of President Barack Obama's plan to add 30,000 more troops to win control of Taliban strongholds and eventually transfer them to Afghan authority.

Marjah is one of the biggest operations in the more than eight-year-old Afghan war, aimed at driving the Taliban from one of their big strongholds in the country's most violent province.

"The way to look at Marjah - it is a tactical prelude to a comprehensive operation in Kandahar City," the official says.

He says the military operation in Marjah was "pretty much on track" but NATO forces still had several more weeks left to clear the area of Taliban.

Afghan authorities recently raised the Afghan flag over Marjah to signify the handover of control to the government from NATO troops led by US Marines.

DoD opens access to social media sites

By William H. McMichael - Staff writer
Posted : Saturday Feb 27, 2010 9:15:28 EST

Users of unclassified .mil computers are now allowed to access social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter — subject to local control if bandwidth demand or web integrity become issues.

To continue reading:


Normalcy takes root in Marjah after allied offensive

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
Stars and Stripes online edition, Saturday, February 27, 2010

MARJAH, Afghanistan — Just a few dozen yards from the bullet-riddled government building, Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson found more proof Saturday that the battle for Marjah was over.

To read the entire article:


Navy Cancels Tsunami Warning in Hawaii; Ships Return to Pearl Harbor

Middle Pacific ordered the return of Pearl Harbor-based ships that sortied today.


American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 27, 2010 – The commander of Navy Region Hawaii and Naval Surface Group

USS Crommelin, USS O'Kane, USS Chafee and USS Chung-Hoon departed Pearl Harbor this morning in response to a tsunami warning for the Hawaii Islands issued in the wake of an 8.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Chile today. No injuries or damage have been reported in Hawaii.

Access will be restored to previously evacuated areas. The Ford Island Bridge in Hawaii has reopened, and the Fleet and Family Support Center has stood down its family assistance center. Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai is returning to normal operations, also reported no injuries or damage related to the tsunami warning.

The U.S. 3rd Fleet also took precautionary measures by advising able San Diego ships to get underway and to take station in the Southern California operating area.

(Based on U.S. Navy news releases.)

US, Afghan forces clear last parts of Taliban area

MARJAH, Afghanistan (AP) -- U.S. and Afghan forces say they have cleared the last major pocket of resistance from the former Taliban stronghold of Marjah.


February 27, 2010 09:15 EST

After a grueling four-day march, Marines and Afghan troops who fought through the center of the town have linked up with American soldiers on the northern edge.

Today's linkup means the offensive on the town has now given way to what military officials are calling "the hold phase."

The joint force encountered almost no hostile fire, indicating that the militants have either fled or blended in with the local population. Some in the allied force say the Taliban probably just went underground to regroup.

Some Taliban fighters are believed to remain on the western outskirts of town.

The Marjah offensive has been the war's biggest combined operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban's hard-line regime.

The goal now is to establish a credible local government.

February 26, 2010

Marine with Minnesota ties killed in Afghanistan

A U.S. Marine with Minnesota family ties has been killed in Afghanistan.


By CHAO XIONG, Star Tribune
Last update: February 26, 2010 - 11:11 PM

Lance Cpl. Eric L. Ward, 19, of Redmond, Wash., was part of a security mission in the southern province of Helmand when an improvised explosive device killed him and another Marine Sunday, Ward's mother, Monica McNeal, said by phone Friday night from her home in Washington.

Ward attended kindergarten and first grade in the Twin Cities area when his family lived in Chanhassen. The family then moved to California and Washington, but Ward visited Minnesota every year because of his mother's family ties in Winthrop, Minn., his mother said.

He was a fourth-generation Marine who always strove to be his best, she said, noting that even when Eric was a child, his love for the Marines was clear: His bedroom was draped with camouflage.

"Eric loved life," McNeal said. "He kind of lived life on the edge of the sandbox. He pushed the limit. He made people laugh."

Ward was a competitive baseball and football player in high school, but had a sensitive side, too. His mother said one morning he arrived early to class and put a Hershey's kiss chocolate on every student's desk.

He joined the Marines in July 2008 and was deployed in October 2009. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force at Base Camp Lejeune, N.C.

"He was just ready to serve," his mother said. "And he was a really giving person."

While in Afghanistan, Ward spoke often with his mother via cell phone or Facebook, where a memorial page with more than 1,200 fans now has sprung up. He never talked about safety concerns, instead reassuring his mother that he was fine and focusing on stories about the Afghan children he encountered and how eager they were to receive pens and pencils from soldiers.

"On Facebook, he said, 'Mom, I'm safe. Don't worry. I love you,' " McNeal said.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire has directed that flags at Washington state buildings fly at half staff Monday in memory of Ward. A memorial service will be held March 13 at his high school in Washington. He will be buried March 19 at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Ward is also survived by his father and five siblings.

"As a parent, you only want your child to do the things that make them very happy, and I'm proud that he chose this career knowing that death was part of being a Marine during wartime, and I'm proud to be his mom," McNeal said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Chao Xiong • 612-673-4391

Magnitude 6.9 earthquake shakes southern Japan, tsunami warning issued

TOKYO (AP) — A magnitude 6.9 earthquake hit off Japan's southern coast early Saturday, shaking Okinawa and nearby islands, where a tsunami warning was briefly issued, Japan's Meteorological Agency said.


Associated Press Writer
4:33 p.m. CST, February 26, 2010

The quake occurred off the coast of the island of Okinawa at a depth of 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) at 5:31 a.m. Saturday (2031 GMT Friday), the agency said.

There have been no reports of major damage or casualties so far, except for reports of ruptured water pipes in two locations, Okinawa police official Noritomi Kikuzato said.

The Meteorological Agency had initially predicted a tsunami up to 6 feet (2 meters) near the Okinawan coast, warning nearby residents to stay away from the coastline. The agency later lifted the warning within two hours after observing only a small swelling of tide.

Ryota Ueno, a town official in the Nishihara district of Okinawa, said, "I was fast asleep when the quake hit, and I jumped out of bed. It felt like the shaking lasted forever."

There was no major damage in his house, and he then rushed to the town office to meet up with his colleagues and stand by in case of reports of damage from residents, Ueno told a telephone interview with public broadcaster NHK.

So far, only one resident in the town reported a ruptured water pipe, but no other damage reported, he said.

Masaaki Nakasone, another official at he Nanjo town, said his house shook violently but all furniture and other objects stayed intact.

"First there was a vertical shaking, then the house swayed sideways," Nakasone said.

Okinawa is about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) southwest of Tokyo.

Japan is one of the world's most earthquake-prone countries. In 1995, a magnitude-7.2 quake in the western port city of Kobe killed 6,400 people.

Iwo Jima: 65 years later


It was Feb. 19, 1945, and Cpl. Leroy Hulser, a 19-year-old radioman with Company B, 3rd Amphibian Tractor Battalion, was looking at the beach of Iwo Jima from a landing ship tank, an amphibious vehicle designed to transport personnel in shallow water where coral reefs made it hard for conventional vessels to travel in.


2/26/2010 By Lance Cpl. Lucas G. Lowe, Marine Corps Base Quantico

“We were taking the infantry in,” said the now 85-year-old Hulser. “About 40 troops would climb into the LST, we would take them to the beach, drop them off and turn around and go back to the ships.”

Hulser was at the National Museum of the Marine Corps for the 65th anniversary of the battle on Feb. 19. He spent a lot of time milling around the foyer, looking up at the life-size model of the landing craft he was on at Iwo Jima.

Hulser and the rest of the crew on his LST brought in wave after wave of men to land on the beach.

“We were unemotional at the time it was happening,” he said.

“We had a job to do, and we just didn’t think about death.”


Luther Gerren, a fellow member of Company B, 3rd Amphibian Tractor Battalion, with Hulser, spent D-Day in much the same way as Hulser. He was an LST crew chief, responsible for transporting Marines to the beach.

The Japanese were putting down pretty good suppressive fire, recalled Gerren.

“We did what we could to help those guys with supporting fire from the LST,” he said.

Gerren and Hulser did not see each other again for 29 years after the war. They met again at a reunion in 1974. Now they were together again at this reunion at the NMMC.

Hulser remembered when the American flag went up on Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23. Now, after he has grown old, he said he struggles to maintain the feeling he got when he saw the scene.

“It’s something like happiness – joy, I guess,” he said and started to cry.


Lee Terrell, 85, joined the ranks of so many teenage men who stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima. A rifleman with Company D, 46th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division, he lay in the volcanic sand, looking out from under the bottom of his helmet while bullets flew overhead.

“We landed in the morning, and the first thing we encountered was that white sand,” said Terrell. “You couldn’t get through it.”

Terrell’s unit headed for the first of the airfields on the island that was their objective.

“We fought for every inch we got,” he said. “We had to get that airfield.”

-Correspondent: [email protected]

MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va.-Raymond Salvie, a former Marine and mortarman with Headquarters and Service Company, 3rd Battalion, 21st Marine Regiment, during the Battle of Iwo Jima, came to the National Museum of the Marine Corps for the 65th anniversary of the battle Feb. 19., Lance Cpl. Lucas G. Lowe, 2/19/2010 6:00 AM

MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va.-Luther Gerren, 85, left, and Leroy Hulser, 85, both served in Company B, 3rd Amphibian Tractor Battalion, during the Battle of Iwo Jima. Gerren and Hulser reunited for the 65th anniversary of the battle at a ceremony at the National Museum of the Marine Corps Feb. 19., Lance Cpl. Lucas G. Lowe, 2/19/2010 6:00 AM

MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va.-Raymond Salvie, a former Marine and mortarman with Headquarters and Service Company, 3rd Battalion, 21st Marine Regiment, during the Battle of Iwo Jima, came to the National Museum of the Marine Corps for the 65th anniversary of the battle Feb. 19., Lance Cpl. Lucas G. Lowe, 2/19/2010 6:00 AM
MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va.-Luther Gerren, 85, left, and Leroy Hulser, 85, both served in Company B, 3rd Amphibian Tractor Battalion, during the Battle of Iwo Jima. Gerren and Hulser reunited for the 65th anniversary of the battle at a ceremony at the National Museum of the Marine Corps Feb. 19., Lance Cpl. Lucas G. Lowe, 2/19/2010 6:00 AM
MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va.-Retired Master Gunnery Sgt. Ray Piper, left, and retired Sgt. Maj. Nicholas Zingaro, talk with the base sergeant major, Sgt. Maj. Leon S. Thornton, center, at the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima at the National Museum of the Marine Corps Feb. 19., Lance Cpl. Lucas G. Lowe, 2/19/2010 6:00 AM

Korean War vets tell their stories

CAMP H.M. SMITH, Hawaii — Dozens of Marines, sailors and Republic of Korea service members with U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific, gathered for a Korean War presentation Feb. 25 at the Sunset Lanai, Camp H.M Smith Hawaii.


2/26/2010 By Sgt. Juan D. Alfonso, Marine Forces Pacific

MarForPac officials invited retirees with The Chosin Few’s Aloha Chapter, an organization of Korean War veterans, to give their first hand accounts of what transpired during some of the most famous battles of the Korean War; Pusan, Inchon and the Chosin Reservoir.

Retired Master Gunnery Sgt. Robert E. Talmadge, a supply sergeant during the Korean War, recounted his memories and documented history, which took place during his nine-month deployment.

During the war, the U.S. and its allies owned the skies, Talmadge said. The North Korean and Chinese forces lacked the aerial support that the U.S. Marine Corps became famous for during the three years of heated battle.

The Marines utilized a new technology, which gave birth to the Marine Corps’ air to ground teams used in today’s warfare, helicopters. Though the other services at the time, did not see an application for rotary wing aircraft, the Marines decided to give it a chance.

“The Marine Corps said, ‘well lets’s get six and see what we can do with them.’” Talmadge said laughing. “(The enemy) had never seen anything like a helicopter or an air-ground team, and they wished they hadn’t.”

The support offered by Marine air-ground teams was instrumental to accomplishing the mission. Army Lt. Gen. Walton Walker, 8th Army commander, stated he could not hold the perimeter without the Marine Brigade, despite the four Army regiments under his command, according to Talmadge.

The few North Korean and Chinese aircraft in the sky posed no threat as Talmadge recounted an aerial attack he experienced.

“An enemy plane dropped some bombs one night while we were sleeping in our train carts,” he said with a chuckle. “I woke up my captain and told him ‘sir they’re dropping bombs out there,’ he said, ‘I know. Now go back to sleep.’ They just weren’t a threat. We didn’t fear them. We had complete control of the skies.”

After explaining Marine tactics, such as the Marine Corps use of small unit leaders in its squads and describing some of the difficulties involved during the amphibious landing at Inchon, Talmadge discussed the battle the majority of his audience, Marines, wanted to know more about, the Chosin Reservoir.

The brutal 17-day battle also known as the Frozen Chosin, which all Marines are taught in boot camp, holds a special place in Marine history. One of the coldest battles in military history, the Battle for the Chosin Reservoir took place Nov. 26 – Dec. 11, 1950. Service members with 1st Marine Division, and the Army’s 7th Infantry Division were out numbered and surrounded by Chinese forces. Fighting not just the enemy, but frost bite and a lack of supplies, Talmadge was a part of the action that secured U.S. victory.

There was only one road into the reservoir, only one way to get equipment and personnel needed to fend off communist attacks. The road was too narrow for the vehicles, it was service members from Talmadge’s battalion and the army engineers that constructed a bridge over a 15,000 gorge.

“It was the only bridge, on the only road, in or out,” he said. “Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to send in our trucks and we wouldn’t have gotten the dead and injured out. We weren’t going to leave them.”

Today the Marines who fought for the Chosin Reservoir are respectfully known as the Chosin Few.

In addition to Talmadge’s presentation, Retired Navy Capt. Charles “Davy” Crockett, a pilot during the Korean War and a member of The Chosen Few, spoke a few words regarding his experience, tactics and procedures during the war, such as communicating with other pilots during operations.

At the end of the presentation, many in the audience felt honored to have had the opportunity to speak with and hear stories from the veterans who served and fought in Korea.

“It was outstanding,” said Master Sgt. Raymond Ortiz, operations chief for Headquarters and Service Battalion, MarForPac. “To hear these stories through the eyes and ears of those who were there is an honor. We are losing more and more veterans every day. Opportunities like these aren’t going to be around forever. All Marines should take advantage of these opportunities whenever they present themselves.”

Talmadge hopes to continue giving his presentation to MarForPac.

“It was an honor to be invited and educate so many young Marines and service members,” he said. “I hope to keep doing this as long as I can.”

Afghans give US soldiers a run for their money

BADULA QULP, Afghanistan – The battalion commander pondered the question: How much is a tree worth?


By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA, Associated Press Writer Christopher Torchia, Associated Press Writer – Fri Feb 26, 3:32 am ET

Warrior one day, haggler the next. Lt. Col. Burton Shields was talking to an Afghan farmer who said the Americans had damaged five trees on his property in an operation against the Taliban near the town of Marjah, where NATO forces are fighting insurgent holdouts.

The farmer, an elderly man with a beard and turban, wanted compensation.

"What's a fair price for five trees? I don't know. How much is a tree worth?" Shields mused. Then, he couldn't resist: "Money doesn't grow on trees."

Just the night before, Shields of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was surrounded by attentive officers in uniform in a tent on a patrol base, plotting military strategy and assessing the threat of hidden bombs and insurgent infiltration.

The next day, Thursday, the men around him were Afghan elders, faces lined by decades of sun and wind, a few wearing battered army jackets over their robes, relics of past wars.

The farmer, Habibullah, got 30,000 Afghanis, or $600, for his trees. He had asked for another $200, but Shields and his money men — Staff. Sgt. Christopher Wooton and 1st Lt. Daniel Hickok — bargained low in the best bazaar tradition. Rules of thumb: shave off up to 40 percent, or more, of an opening bid from an aggrieved villager and lean heavily on Afghan commanders as "honest brokers."

Still, the Afghans overall gave the Americans a run for their money. The troops parted with more than $10,000 as part of a plan to compensate civilians for damage to crops and compounds, and also injuries — whether caused by the Taliban or not — after more than two weeks of combat.

The aim: Show the goodwill of NATO forces, and persuade the local population to support the Western-backed government.

"I assume everyone's trying to take us for as much as they can get," said Shields, clutching a stack of handwritten claim forms. "The Afghan system is kind of inflated."

He paid $5,000 to the leaders of a village whose mosque was destroyed by an American missile that targeted an insurgent allegedly hiding in the building. He paid $50 to a man whose 1,000-square-meter (quarter-acre) patch of land was torn up by Stryker infantry vehicles, which often go off-road to avoid improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that the Taliban plants on, under or beside roads.

The man had been growing poppy, the opium-bearing flower that provides the Taliban with a major source of funding in southern Afghanistan. His case revealed the line between strict policy and hard reality.

"We don't pay for poppy, sir," said Wooton, of Richmond, Virginia. Hickok, of Puyallup, Washington, sat beside him, plucking fresh bank notes from a black zip-up bag.

"Depends on how you look at it, I guess," said Shields. "We could be paying for damage to the land, but not for the poppy."

Later, the commander of 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment of the 5th Stryker Brigade explained, saying the farmer likely had no alternative to poppy-growing until the government could organize seed distribution for legitimate crops.

With the help of a Pashto-speaking translator, Wooton alternated between stiff courtesy — "I hope your harvest is a good one this year" — and exasperation — "This isn't a money stop. Tell him I want $1,000 too, but I just can't take it."

He was ever-mindful of security. The Afghans lined up for payouts after a meeting beside a compound with the chief of staff of the district administrator, who was absent from the region until NATO troops rolled in. In keeping with local sensitivities, the frisking of arrivals was left to Afghan troops, but American soldiers wore flak jackets, carried weapons, and most kept their helmets on.

"Tell him he can't stand behind me. He needs to move on," Wooton said as an Afghan man circled in the background.

A large explosion in the distance forced a pause in the proceedings. The report came that a building had blown up while insurgents were building a bomb.

"Very good," said Shields. He and the top Afghan commander in the area, Maj. Abdul Jalal, shared a fist-bump.

As the haggling progressed, Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Morgan of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, sat on a box and said villagers had offered to sell him a goat for $200, a steep price compared with the $35 he paid while deployed in another area of southern Afghanistan.

Morgan said he wanted to trap one of the many weasels he had seen on this deployment. "If it's got a heartbeat, I'll eat it. I'm from Tennessee."

3/1 Marines Foundation to host 2nd annual run

HUNTINGTON BEACH -- The Huntington Beach 3/1 Marines Foundation will host their second annual 3/1 Run March 13.


Published: Feb. 26, 2010
Updated: 2:01 p.m.

Medals will be awarded to the first through third place winners in each age group and for the overall fastest time for the 5K run. Prior to the race 50 marines will run cadence.

The Huntington Beach Firefighters Association will serve breakfast for a $5 donation. Funds raised from the event will go to support programs and projects for the Third Battalion First Marines and their families. Registration is $35 per person, or $50 on the day of the race.

Huntington Beach has adopted the "3/1 Marines" from Camp Pendleton, which means residents raise funds to help the Marines and their families.

The event will begin at 8:30 a.m. in the parking lot at Beach Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway.

Information: HB4Marines.org

DOD Releases Policy for Responsible and Effective Use of Internet-Based Capabilities

Today the Department of Defense released a policy memorandum regarding the safe and effective use of Internet-based capabilities, including social networking services (SNS) and other interactive Web 2.0 applications.


No. 154-10
February 26, 2010

The memorandum makes it policy that the DoD non-classified network be configured to provide access to Internet-based capabilities across all DoD components. Commanders at all levels and heads of DoD components will continue to defend against malicious activity on military information networks, deny access to prohibited content sites (e.g., gambling, pornography, hate-crime related activities), and take immediate and commensurate actions, as required, to safeguard missions (e.g., temporarily limiting access to the Internet to preserve operations security or to address bandwidth constraints).

The directive is consistent with the increased security measures that the Department has taken to secure its networks and reinforces existing regulations related to ethics, operations security, and privacy.

“This directive recognizes the importance of balancing appropriate security measures while maximizing the capabilities afforded by 21st Century Internet tools,” said Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn III.

Use of Internet-based capabilities, including SNS, have become integral tools for operating and collaborating across the DoD and with the general public. Establishing a DoD-wide policy ensures consistency and allows for full integration of these tools and capabilities.

The new policy memorandum is available at: http://www.defense.gov/NEWS/DTM%2009-026.pdf .

February 25, 2010

Ermey throws weight behind name change

By James K. Sanborn - Staff writer
Posted : Thursday Feb 25, 2010 20:38:50 EST

Retired Gunnery Sgt. R. Lee Ermey, widely known for his performance as the sadistic drill instructor in the 1987 film “Full Metal Jacket,” headlined a Thursday news conference in Washington, D.C., calling to rename the Department of the Navy the Department of the Navy and Marine Corps.

To continue reading:


Afghan army improving, not ready to go it alone

MARJAH, Afghanistan -- When U.S. Marines find suspicious powder that could be made into a bomb, they probe it with sophisticated tests. Afghan soldiers have their own method - they taste it.


The Associated Press
Thursday, February 25, 2010; 2:31 PM

The operation against the Taliban in Marjah has been a major trial for the Afghan military, showing the army is still far from capable of operating on its own. But its soldiers appear to be improving - even if they don't always do things by the book.

When soldiers taste the white powder, for example, they are testing to see if it is salty, an attribute of ammonium nitrate, a main ingredient in roadside bombs. And they do it even though they have access to the U.S. testing methods.

Afghans make up about 2,000 of the 6,000 troops fighting in the southern town, with thousands more operating in the surrounding Nad Ali district - the biggest Afghan contribution to an offensive of the eight-year war.

They've searched houses, identified suspected Taliban, helped detect bombs and acted as a liaison between Marines and Afghan civilians - groups that barely understand each other.

"I think we learn from each other," said Sgt. Abdulhadi Deljuh, one of the Afghan troops in Marjah with the Marines. A former fighter in the ethnic Uzbek militia from the north, Deljuh joined the Afghan National Army two years ago. "The Americans bring us more weapons and more discipline ... but we're at least as brave."

Though the Afghan army is now more than 100,000 strong, it's not ready to go it alone - a key condition for U.S. and other international troops to leave. It lacks an adequate supply and logistical network as well as a professional noncommissioned officer force. Although NATO insists the Marjah offensive is Afghan-led, the Americans appear to make all the major decisions on the ground.

Throughout the operation, American commanders at all levels have been eager to showcase their Afghan counterparts. "We've got some of the very best Afghan troops with us," said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the Marine commander in Helmand province, as he toured Marjah last week with an Afghan general.

Afghan generals have worked with the Americans for years. In Marjah, the pairing goes down to the lowest echelon.

Marines have been fighting, eating and sleeping alongside some of the best soldiers the Afghan army could muster.

"I've got to be honest, it's been going far better than I'd expected," said Staff Sgt. Christopher Whitman, who has been leading the 1st Platoon of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines through hours of gunbattles and treacherous marches across poppy fields every day since the offensive began Feb.13.

"The professional respect is there, and at the squad level, integration is good," Whitman said.

Still, there are points of friction.

As the Marjah assault progressed, Whitman has had to increase pressure on Afghan troops, especially when they revert to their habit of thinking Americans will do everything for them. At times, Afghan soldiers with 1st Platoon have refused to go on the risky night marches for supplies. And Whitman threatened that those refusing to carry their own food rations would go without eating.

Some Afghans have refused to stand guard at night, or slipped away during their post, leaving Marines to do all the work. Poorly trained Afghan soldiers sometimes shoot without thinking of friendly fire casualties, though the problem has considerably lessened since the Afghan army was outfitted with American M16 rifles. The switch helped differentiate friendly shooting from the Taliban's higher-pitched Kalashnikov rounds.

But one Afghan soldier knocked down a Marine lieutenant last week when he fired a rocket-propelled grenade without checking to see if anyone was behind him and vulnerable to the backblast of gases and unburned powder.

Tempers have flared among Marines as rare plastic bottles of drinking water carried over long distances disappeared when Afghan troops need to wash before Muslim prayers.

Marines often repeat stories of Afghan troops refusing to fight. But, in contrast with last year, many now conclude their stories by stating: "Well, actually, a couple of guys on my squad are pretty good."

A typical sign of growing cooperation has been the Marines and Afghans getting to know each other's names. Marines started calling one Afghan soldier "RPG," because of the grenade launcher he carries. He was later nicknamed "Kite," because Marines say he's "high as a kite" in the mornings after smoking his first joint of hashish. As respect for his fighting grew, he was upgraded to Zabeer, his first name.

Like many others, Zabeer now trades items from his Afghan military ration with Marines tired of their own fare. One big hit is Cheerios breakfast cereal, which Afghans get in exchange for cheddar cheese.

The most significant improvement is that Marines increasingly seem to respect the Afghans' performance in combat. Akbar, the lieutenant with 1st Platoon, grabbed an RPG-launcher from one of his soldiers last week and knelt in the open to fire a precise shot at insurgents, despite bullets flying around him. All the Marines taking cover nearby cheered.

An hour later, a bullet ripped through Akbar's arm as his troops charged the Taliban, ahead of the more disciplined Marines who stuck to their standard tactics.

"Don't worry, I'll be back within a week," said a heavily sedated Akbar as he was flown to an American base for treatment. He said it was the 20th time he was injured by the Taliban. There are many like him among Afghan ranks.

"Not once have I doubted their fighting capacities," Whitman said of Afghan troops. "But they need to be pulled by someone who's a true warrior."

Akbar's captain skipped the latest, grueling three-day march, stating he had a stomach ache. One of his soldiers shot himself in the foot while cleaning his weapon and is now missing a toe.

Another, Malachi, was hit in the leg by a Taliban bullet. "He's an excellent guy," says Whitman, who carried him on his shoulders to a medical evacuation zone while insurgents kept shooting.

Like other Marines in his platoon, Whitman has spotted the good men with his unit. "I'd fight any day of the week with 25 percent of these guys," says Whitman, stating another half are all right. Then there's the remaining quarter, which Whitman says he'd rather not have with him.

"But even in the U.S., there's always 10 percent of a team you could make better."

Taking It to the Taliban

Two days before launching the most ambitious military campaign of the Obama Administration, General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, convened a meeting in Kabul of 450 tribal elders and scholars from Helmand province. The general's objective: to build support for Operation Moshtarak, a massive offensive on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah. McChrystal ran through the military phase of the plan, which would involve 6,000 U.S. Marines and British soldiers and 4,500 Afghan troops and police. Then he described how these troops would protect the town while a "government in a box" — a corps of Afghan officials who had been training for this moment for months — would start administering the town. The elders all signed off on the plan, but not before one of them warned the American general, "You have to understand that if you don't do what you say, we'll all be killed."


By Bobby Ghosh Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010

McChrystal repeated the chieftain's words Feb. 18 in a secure video teleconference with President Barack Obama and his top advisers on Afghanistan and Pakistan. By then, the operation, by all accounts, was going well. NATO troops had encountered only sporadic resistance; much of the town was under the control of the U.S. Marines. British-led forces, meanwhile, had taken the nearby community of Showal. Some government in a box was already being unpacked.

There was good news from other fronts too. In Pakistan, a joint operation in Karachi by the CIA and Pakistan's own spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had netted a very big fish: Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Afghan Taliban's military chief. In quick succession, the ISI had also rolled up two of the Taliban's "shadow" governors of Afghanistan's provinces and another senior figure. And in North Waziristan, near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, a missile launched from a CIA drone had struck at the heart of the Haqqani network, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group responsible for countless attacks on NATO troops. The network's current leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, survived, but his younger brother Mohammed had been killed.

After a year of mostly grim tidings from Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama could have been allowed a moment of satisfaction. But McChrystal's recounting of the Helmand chieftain's warning ensured that the mood in the White House's Situation Room during the conference call was somber. According to National Security Adviser Jim Jones, who was there, Obama added an exhortation of his own, using the idioms of counterinsurgency warfare. "Do not clear and hold what you are not willing to build and transfer," he told McChrystal, a maxim he had repeated often over the previous months. "You've heard me say it many times, but it bears repeating," Obama said as he signed off.

That sense of restraint is at the heart of Obama's "AfPak" strategy, which requires McChrystal's troops to help Afghans build and take increasing responsibility for their country, rather than depending solely on Western forces to thump the Taliban. Marjah is the first real test of that plan, and the Administration is determined to keep everyone's expectations to the bare minimum. That is wise, as much could still go wrong. The Taliban could return to areas from which it has been ousted; the Afghan army could turn out to be too slim a reed on which to hang the Administration's ambitions. And so, in contrast to the Bush Administration, which was often accused of overstating small successes, the Obama White House has projected a studied solemnity over encouraging dispatches from the war the President has made his own. Every sign of progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been greeted with circumspection. Yes, say Administration officials in Washington and commanders in the field, things are going well — but let's not beat our chests. Far too much hangs in the balance now: Afghan lives, American lives and, just possibly, the fate of Obama's war.

Making Marjah Count
A town of 60,000 souls, Marjah is ringed by poppy fields that are watered by irrigation canals built in the 1950s and '60s by U.S. engineers. McChrystal chose this location to launch the reconquest of Afghanistan because it is the western end of a population belt that extends from central Helmand province through Kandahar province — both infested with the Taliban. McChrystal has set out to secure that belt, starting in Marjah, then moving to Lashkar Gah, Kandahar city and finally Spin Boldak. "It's where we hadn't been, it's where the enemy still was, and it's where the population is," says a senior Administration official.

Since it's an opening salvo in what promises to be a long, hard-fought year, McChrystal knew Operation Moshtarak would influence perceptions, among allies and enemies alike, about how the war would be fought — and how the peace would be waged. Managing those perceptions would be key to victory. "This is not a physical war, in terms of how many people we kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up," he told reporters in Istanbul on Feb. 4. "This is all in the minds of the participants. The Afghan people are the most important, but the insurgents are [too]. And of course, part of what we've had to do is convince ourselves and our Afghan partners that we can do this."

The offensive was months in the planning, and little effort was made to keep it secret. If the Taliban chose to melt away rather than resist, McChrystal reasoned, it would give him more time to set up a robust administration — a good advertisement for those in other towns where NATO troops would soon have to fight. U.S. commanders even ordered an opinion poll of Marjah residents: they wanted to know how they felt about the U.S. and the Taliban and to gauge what they might want from his government in a box.

When the operation got under way, it quickly became clear that only about 400 Taliban had dug in to fight. As in other such encounters between an overwhelming Western military and a local insurgency — in Iraq's Diyala province, for instance — the greatest threat to the troops came from roadside bombs and sniper fire. By Feb. 23, 13 NATO troops had been killed, as the U.S. total in the Afghan war pushed past 1,000. Estimates of Taliban casualties were around 120. Civilian casualties were low for such an intense offensive: 28 were killed in the fighting, though as the operation progressed, there was some bad news when a pair of air strikes, one near Marjah, killed 39 civilians.

As pockets of resistance continued, commanders downplayed expectations of a speedy campaign. "I guess it will take us another 25 to 30 days to be entirely sure that we have secured that which needs to be secured," British Major General Nick Carter, the top NATO commander in southern Afghanistan, told reporters on Feb. 18. "And we probably won't know for about 120 days whether or not the population is entirely convinced by the degree of commitment that their government is showing to them." If McChrystal's forces prevail, Operation Moshtarak will serve as the template for the far more challenging battle this summer, the battle for Kandahar. With nearly 500,000 people, it is the Taliban's spiritual capital. The city is nominally under NATO control, but there are reportedly thousands of Taliban in and around it — and every expectation that many will make a bloody stand.

The Pakistani Play
Under normal circumstances, in planning his offensive McChrystal would have had to keep a close watch on Afghanistan's difficult neighbor. Pakistan's support for the Taliban and the Haqqani network has frequently bedeviled U.S. military plans, as Afghan fighters have too easily slipped across the border and found sanctuary. But a year's worth of diplomatic pressure on Islamabad began to pay off before Operation Moshtarak: Pakistan launched a major military offensive of its own in South Waziristan, not against the Afghan Taliban but against its Pakistani cousins known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan or TTP.

The Pakistani change of heart had been a long time coming. It was influenced by the TTP's bloody campaign of suicide attacks in Pakistani cities, often targeting military and ISI compounds. "I can remember anecdotally where we had questions for our team in Pakistan at one point and they couldn't get a hold of their ISI counterparts because they were too busy attending funerals of their key leadership," says a U.S. counterterrorism official. This, along with the militants' brazen capture of a town some 40 miles (65 km) from the Pakistani capital last spring, did more than any American finger-wagging to convince Islamabad that the TTP needed to be taken down. The U.S. helped by mounting drone strikes on TTP leaders, killing its founder, Baitullah Mehsud, last summer and possibly his successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, in January.

Even so, Pakistani cooperation in the arrest of Baradar, on the eve of the Marjah assault, was an unexpected bonus for McChrystal. Why did Pakistan roll up Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar's deputy? Islamabad has previously arrested senior figures in the Afghan Taliban, but they've typically been released quickly, without U.S. officials being given access to them. But the Pakistanis made an exception with Baradar, who may have a treasure trove of information on the Taliban. Possibly the Pakistanis were under pressure to reciprocate for the U.S. strikes on the Mehsuds. Or perhaps Baradar had fallen out with Omar and was trying to open a direct channel for peace talks to the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, bypassing his hosts. By taking Baradar out of circulation, Pakistan may be making a case to be given a seat in eventual peace negotiations.

Whatever the reason, his arrest doesn't represent a sea change in Pakistan's attitude toward its longtime clients in the Afghan Taliban, say White House officials with responsibility for Pakistan and Afghanistan. While Washington views the TTP, the Haqqani network, al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban as all part of the same terrorist syndicate, Islamabad is concerned mainly about the TTP's legions of suicide bombers. Nor is the effect of Baradar's arrest on the top Taliban leadership yet clear. If he had indeed broken with Omar, then the group has most likely replaced him already. The Taliban was able to shake off the 2007 killing of its top commander, Mullah Dadullah, by NATO forces. "The Taliban are used to this," says Waheed Muzhda, a former Taliban official. "When Mullah Dadullah was killed, some people thought that the Taliban would give up. But it didn't happen, because the Taliban are waging an ideological war, and in an ideological war, this kind of thing doesn't have a big impact."

Another bonus for McChrystal: in Operation Moshtarak, he has not had to contend with al-Qaeda. For many months now, Osama bin Laden's once feared legions have been consigned to the margins of the fighting in Afghanistan. Their numbers have dwindled from 500 to 100, says National Security Adviser Jones. In Pakistan they continue to enjoy the protection of the TTP and the Haqqani network but have effectively been pinned down by the CIA's drones. "Neither in Afghanistan nor in Pakistan is al-Qaeda at the tactical front edge," says a senior Administration official. Al-Qaeda remains the strategic reason for the current fighting; one of Obama's grounds for staying the course in Afghanistan is to prevent bin Laden from re-establishing safe havens there. But the only area of real military activity against al-Qaeda at the moment is in North Waziristan, where the Pakistani military is not active. The U.S. is doing the attacking, primarily with drones.

To some effect. There have been 17 strikes by unmanned aircraft in Pakistani territory thus far this year, according to the Long War Journal, a nonprofit online publication that tracks such attacks. The spike was triggered in part by a Dec. 30 suicide attack that killed seven CIA officials at an Afghan outpost. The Haqqani network and Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud apparently aided the suicide bomber; some reports say Mehsud was wounded, possibly killed, in a Jan. 14 strike. Meanwhile, the remote-control pilots operating Predators and Reapers continue to peer at their video screens, hoping to catch sight of a very tall, thin, bearded man emerging from a hideout.

Skepticism Makes Sense
Well-informed analysts know to keep the champagne on ice. At a conference at Tufts University last week attended by experts on Afghanistan, not a single optimistic take on that nation's long-standing problems could be heard. One comment became a refrain: "I have no doubt that peace will one day come to Afghanistan, but I can't say if it will be in 50 or 200 years," a speaker said. "What I can say is that at the rate we are going now, it's unlikely to be any sooner than that."

There was skepticism in Marjah too. Abdul Hadi, a student, fled the fighting along with his family on Feb. 18; now living in Lashkar Gah, he is in no hurry to return. He worries that many Taliban are just waiting for the NATO forces to move on to their next target. "I know the Taliban will come back," he says. Mohammad Hosain, a teacher from Marjah, wonders if they even left. "The Taliban does not have a uniform, so if they leave their weapons at home, they can easily move around," he says. "There is no [sign] on their face that says, 'I am a Talib.' "

People like Hadi and Hosain came by their skepticism the hard way: they have seen foreign forces defeat the Taliban in Helmand, then pull out, then repeat the cycle. The town of Musa Qala, north of Marjah, has twice been taken by NATO arms: by British and Danish forces in 2006 and by the U.S. in 2007. On both occasions, a new local government was created, and each time, the Taliban returned to murder those it deemed collaborators.

To prevent that from happening in Marjah, McChrystal is counting on his government in a box — a lineup of administrators who have prepped for months — to enforce law and order, provide basic facilities, build schools, create jobs and persuade local farmers to give up the poppy crop. But that's asking a lot from officials who have shown scant aptitude for doing a decent job elsewhere. McChrystal's plan calls for 80 prepacked governments to take root across Taliban-ruled territory over two years, but Afghanistan simply doesn't have that many clean, qualified and experienced bureaucrats, policemen, doctors and teachers. Besides, parachuting officials into former Taliban strongholds may be self-defeating; Pashtuns rarely trust anybody outside their own tribe and clan. It can hardly be reassuring to the residents of Marjah that their newly appointed mayor, Haji Zahir, has only recently returned from 15 years of living in Germany.

Even if McChrystal's officials are a huge success, two other crucial planks in Obama's plan to start pulling U.S. forces from Afghanistan in mid-2011 already look worm-eaten. One is the creation of a legitimate, reliable government in Kabul: since Karzai's contentious election late last year, Afghanistan's President has shown little inclination to ditch his corrupt cronies. Nor is there yet an Afghan security force capable of taking over from the Americans. Although U.S. commanders carefully talk up the contributions of the 4,500 Afghan National Army soldiers (two had been killed) and police in the Marjah operation, it's no secret that the U.S. Marines and British troops are doing the heavy lifting. McChrystal's target of a 134,000-man Afghan National Army by late fall — up from 104,000 now — seems hopelessly optimistic. Training is slow, and there's a scarcity in the ranks of southern Pashtuns, who are needed the most in the Taliban's strongholds.

Across the border, Pakistan's continuing support for American efforts is far from assured. Right now, Islamabad's immediate interests may coincide with Washington's, but they can just as quickly diverge, especially on the question of what to do about the Taliban's core leadership. The U.S. is adamant that it will not negotiate with Omar unless he parts ways with bin Laden. "There's a clear red line," says Richard Holbrooke, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. "They must renounce al-Qaeda." American officials are also determined to root out the Haqqani network, which they regard as the greatest danger to NATO troops. Pakistani officials, on the other hand, view the Taliban and the Haqqanis as strategic assets and believe both should have a role in Afghanistan after the NATO withdrawal. They point out that many Afghans still regard Omar as a legitimate figure — more so, in fact, than Karzai, who is seen as an American puppet. Without Omar's endorsement, they think, any peace negotiations will be fatally flawed.

Islamabad's long-standing nightmare remains: that when the Americans go, its neighbors — especially India, Pakistan's hated rival — will be influential in Kabul. The Taliban and the Haqqanis are insurance against such an eventuality. Baradar's detention has not yet changed Pakistan's assessment of how its own interests may best be defended. Remember, too, that no matter how well Operation Moshtarak seems to be going, many Taliban commanders think they are winning. Whatever happens in Marjah, they can point to a widening influence across Afghanistan. They also have been heartened by last week's announcement that the 2,000-strong Dutch contingent will be departing this year because Holland's coalition government was unable to agree on an extension of its deployment — another indication of how unpopular the Afghan war is in the nations whose troops are fighting it.

Mullah Omar and his colleagues, taking Obama on his word that he wants to begin a U.S. pullout by July 2011, have said they intend to outlast the occupiers. If that means ceding strongholds like Marjah only to pop up elsewhere, then that's what they will do. They have been doing it for years. Call it insurgency in a box.

— With reporting by Mark Thompson, Massimo Calabresi and Michael Scherer / Washington, Tim McGirk / Islamabad, Aryn Baker / Boston and Shah Barakzai / Kabul

Chaplains help Marines cope with offensive in Afghanistan

WILMINGTON – Chaplains deployed to Afghanistan have provided support for Marines dealing with the loss of their own in recent battles. After two weeks of intense fighting in Afghanistan, an Afghan flag now flies over Marjah, a former Taliban stronghold.


By: Andrea Pacetti
Feb. 25, 2010

"They are optimistic and hopeful about a new beginning, and we've got a lot of work to do to make that happen," Brigidier Gen. Larry Nicholson said.

The cost of securing Marjah has already been high. About a dozen Camp Lejeune Marines died in the offensive.

In times of tragedy, chaplains like Navy Lt. Robert Johnson step in.

"Chaplains walk around talk to the different Marines about the pressures and the struggles of losing a brother or sister that they really loved," Johnson said. He says Marines tend to worry more about their comrades than themselves.

He remembers being in the hospital when a Marine who lost both legs regained consciousness.

“This Marine looked me in the eye and said, 'Chaplain, how are my Marines doing?' and that is the mentality that is the focus of all these Marines out there," Johnson said.

That loyalty makes it especially difficult when Marines lose one of their own. Chaplains stay with a unit before, during and after a deployment and provide spiritual and emotional support. They also look for signs a Marine should be referred to military psychologists.

"Chaplains typically spend enough time with their Marines to know how their Marines act on a daily basis, and if they're a little bit more angry or impatient or a little bit more quiet and reserved, those are indicators that that Marine might be struggling," Johnson said.

He says there are many other support systems for Marines once they return from Afghanistan. There are also programs through the Marine Corps and Marine Corps Community Services designed to help the families of fallen Marines.

Johnson says when a Marine or sailor dies, the unit conducts a memorial service in the field. It's recorded and sent to loved ones back home.

"It is also designed for the unit to provide some closure for them, and it's a way to show honor for their sacrifice," he said.

Snipers are top threat in Marjah, Conway says

By Dan Lamothe - Staff writer
Posted : Thursday Feb 25, 2010 20:33:52 EST

The biggest threat to Marines assaulting the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, Afghanistan, isn’t improvised explosive devices, but sniper fire, the Marine Corps’ top officer said Wednesday.

To read the entire article:


Afghan government claims Taliban stronghold

Flag-raising ceremony held as troops mop up last pockets of resistance

MARJAH, Afghanistan - The Afghan government took official control of the southern Taliban stronghold of Marjah on Thursday, installing an administrator and raising the national flag while U.S.-led troops worked to root out final pockets of militants.


msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1:57 p.m. CT, Thurs., Feb. 25, 2010

The ceremony was held in a central market as U.S. Marines and Afghan troops slogged through bomb-laden fields in the north of the town. The Marines and their Afghan partners are trying to secure a 28-square mile area believed to be the last significant pocket of Taliban insurgents in Marjah.

Militants and allied troops are still getting caught up in gunfights in some areas, NATO said.

US-led troops inch close to victory in Afghan assault

MARJAH, Afghanistan : US-led troops were inching closer to declaring victory over a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan as a senior commander said Wednesday militant resistance had fallen dramatically.


Posted: 25 February 2010 0305 hrs

Residents of the Marjah area in Helmand province were streaming out in search of food and other supplies, risking heavily-mined roads, humanitarian workers said.

Around 15,000 US, Afghan and NATO forces have been fighting to capture the area from the Taliban and drug lords, in the first test of a US-led troop surge battling to end the eight-year Afghan war.

Taliban snipers and booby-trap bombs had hampered progress in the battle for Marjah and Nad Ali on the poppy-growing plain of the central Helmand River valley.

But US Marines commander Brigadier General Larry Nicholson said resistance had dwindled to almost nought.

"We had 39 contacts on day two. We didn't have a single one on day nine," he told AFP during a battlefield tour on day 11 of the offensive.

Nicholson was speaking in Marjah after entering the township with US and Afghan troops.

At the main Baraki Naw market, there was little sign of the fierce fighting reported earlier in the week, said an AFP photographer on the scene.

The assault is the first phase of Operation Mushtarak or "together" in Dari, and aimed to clear the Marjah and Nad Ali areas of Taliban control so the government can re-assert authority and the next phases -- consolidation and development -- can begin.

It is the first test of President Barack Obama's plan for speeding an end to the long war, with a comprehensive strategy for eradicating militants and instilling public confidence in the government's ability to bring security and civil services.

Elite police battalions have already moved into Marjah, NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said in an operational update, and would soon be reinforced.

NATO confirmed "fewer engagements with insurgents" in the past 24 hours, but added: "Despite this relative calm, IEDs and insurgent gunmen continue to pose a threat to civilians and security forces."

A market in Nad Ali had opened for the first time in 18 months, and a patrol base had become operational, it said in an update.

The vast number of hidden bombs planted by the Taliban were impeding those plans, however, it said.

Humanitarian organisations said that despite the risk presented by the improvised explosive devises (IEDs), desperate residents were flooding out of Marjah seeking help in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah and other areas.

Food prices have skyrocketed as supplies run out and the cost of transport had risen to the point that many people were leaving on foot, they said.

Provincial authorities say thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) have arrived Lashkar Gah, about 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Marjah.

Related article: Britain warns Karzai over election watchdog

"We have registered 3,739 families displaced to Lashkar Gah, Nad Ali, Nawa and Gereshk districts, and 2,841 families have received assistance," said Ghulam Farooq Noorzai, Helmand's director for refugees' affairs.

"Families are coming night and day, whenever they find time," he added.

The families average around five people but can be as large as 25.

Ajmal Samadi, head of the independent Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM), said people were leaving Marjah as conditions deteriorated.

"They are facing a serious lack of food and medicine, they hear that IDPs have been provided assistance elsewhere, and the military operation is extending," he said.

ARM confirmed 27 Marjah residents killed in the offensive -- six by the Taliban and 21 by foreign forces -- but said the figure could be over 30.

Southern Afghanistan, in particular Helmand and adjacent Kandahar province, have been the main focus of insurgent activity since the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001.

Senior military commanders, including US General Stanley McChrystal who commands the 121,000 US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, have said Kandahar is in line for a major anti-insurgent offensive of its own.

- AFP /ls

Afghans displaced by Marja offensive fret in a cold limbo

At least 24,000 people have fled since the assault on the Taliban began. Each passing day is a countdown to ruin for farm families.

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan - In wind-whipped tents, makeshift shelters and overcrowded family compounds, Afghans who fled the battleground town of Marja are asking themselves and one another: When will it be safe to go home?


By Laura King
February 25, 2010

Since the start this month of a massive assault by U.S. Marines and British and Afghan troops on the southern Afghan town, nearly 4,000 families have sought shelter in nearby Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. By the calculation generally used by aid agencies -- six people per family, though many are far larger -- that would add up to at least 24,000 people, nearly one-third of the town's population.

The figure takes into account only those who have officially registered as displaced; thousands of others are thought to be undocumented. Many fled with only scant possessions, hoping the fighting that erupted Feb. 13 would end quickly.

"People want to find a way to go back," said Ghulam Farooq Noorzai, who heads of the directorate of displaced people in Helmand province. "They left everything behind: homes, livestock, farms."

The Western military says residents are beginning to trickle home, which it counts as a vote of confidence in the government's pledge to establish rule of law and restore long-vanished public services in the town, which was for years a Taliban haven.

But many of the Marja refugees are hesitating, fearful of roadside bombs, Taliban stragglers and continuing battles between insurgents and coalition troops.

"People were very hopeful at first; they thought the offensive would take a few days," said Mohammed Anwar, whose 15-member clan is sharing a cold, cramped house in Lashkar Gah with four other displaced families. "But there is no hope of going back until one side or the other is in complete control."

The clashes have steadily diminished, though firefights still flare and tracts of the town remain minefields. On Wednesday, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization reported fewer engagements with insurgents over the previous 24 hours. But commanders have said that clearing operations could take another month.

For agricultural families, the great majority of the town's residents, each passing day is a countdown to ruin. Worry beads click as farmers envision their crops dying, livestock scattered or starving, irrigation ditches choked with debris.

Still, many believe their decision to flee may have saved their lives. NATO says 16 civilians have been killed in the offensive, but the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission on Wednesday put the civilian death toll at 28, of whom 13 were children. At least 70 people have been hurt, the group said.

Although most of the displaced have access to food and at least rudimentary shelter, the privations are beginning to grate. Kinship dictates that a family must take in fleeing relatives without question. But many people in rural Helmand already live at the subsistence level, so host families and their guests alike face growing hardship.

"Most people find relatives who can at least give them one room to share, but it's hard for both families," said Mohammad Hussain Haider, who fled Marja with his wife and five children. "It's winter, and people ran away without warm clothing and other necessary things."

Afghan officials expect the refugee exodus to reverse, but do not know when.

"If there were no threat, people would go home immediately," said Noorzai. "But it will take time."

[email protected]

Special correspondent Aimal Yaqoubi contributed to this report.

Trash Talking the Taliban During Firefights

ABC News' Miguel Marquez Embedded With Marines in Marja, Afghanistan

It's a remarkable combination of psychological warfare, political roundtable and trash-talking. Afghan soldiers and Taliban fighters taunt each other, debate each other and try to persuade each other almost daily over their radios, at times while even shooting at each other.


MARJA, Afghanistan, Feb. 25, 2010

I came across the astonishing facet of the Afghan War while spending time with the 302nd kandak, or battalion, of the Afghan National Army. The foes chatter with each other over their Vietnam-era, two-way radio system. It's such an antiquated system that the Taliban and the Afghan forces share radio frequencies, and verbal barbs, as they try to kill or capture one another.

I asked Maj. Said Rahim Hakmal what they talk about. Politics, he said. "The Taliban will say things like why do you side with the Americans? Why do you sell out your country? You love Obama more than Afghanistan."

Hakmal said the standard response goes something like, "The Americans are here to help our country function again. They don't want to stay. They want to help, then leave. You should help, too."

Then the shooting starts.

To the Taliban, religion is politics and they are willing to die for their way of life. At least half the Afghan Army's and its government's job here is to sell the Talibs on the notion that they can have their religion, they just have to keep the politics separate. Easier said than done when it comes to fundamental beliefs about the nature of being and whom the almighty favors.

The Taliban and their politics aside, there are other questions Afghans have for America. While they do appear to trust that America has no interest in colonizing Afghanistan, they wonder about our true motives. Their No. 1 concern, maybe fear: Pakistan. They are desperate to know what America is really up to with their needed yet distrusted neighbor. Who does America support in Pakistan and why? Why doesn't America, with all its power, just kill all the "terrorists" in Pakistan? For many Afghans, all their problems, and conspiracies, are rooted and imported from Pakistan.

Everybody Has an Opinion

Pro-government Afghans have a harder time wrestling with their beliefs than the Taliban. They have to simultaneously believe that the United States is good and questionable, maybe bad, for Afghanistan. Afghans are all for America when it comes to the surge, defeating the insurgency and building its government. They are less trustful when they look at U.S. actions outside Afghanistan.

It's like Americans who love their congressmen but have few kind words for Congress.

Afghans want to know just about everything about America but they'll settle for the American in front of them. The questions are non-stop. Where are you from? Who is your father? How big is your family? Do you have a wife? Children? What do you do for fun? What food do you like? Show me your pictures? Is that your phone? Signal? Can I call home?

When we'd go about our work shooting interviews or sending back material via a small satellite transceiver, the Afghans would gather around as though it were the day's entertainment. They all want to be interviewed. They don't really care about the questions. They have an opinion on just about everything and are always ready to share. That, too, reminds me of home.

Taliban lose control of stronghold

The Afghan government took official control of the southern Taliban stronghold of Marjah on Thursday as Nato troops worked to root out final pockets of militants.


(UKPA) – February 25, 2010

The ceremony was held in a central market as US Marines and Afghan soldiers slogged through bomb-laden fields in the north of the town.

The Marines and their Afghan partners are trying to secure a 28-square mile area believed to be the last significant pocket of Taliban in Marjah.

Militants and allied troops are still getting caught up in gunfights in some areas, Nato said.

But the number of residents returning has increased, shops have opened and officials hailed the installation of Abdul Zahir Aryan as the town's administrator as a key sign of progress.

The ceremony opened with a reading from the Koran, and then he and the Helmand governor pledged to those gathered that they were ready to listen to their needs and eager to provide them with basic services that they did not have under the Taliban.

Operation Moshtarak, the mass assault in southern Helmand province with 15,000 Nato and Afghan troops, is the largest military operation in Afghanistan since the removal of the Taliban regime in 2001.

Nato's strategy is to drive the Taliban from the town, which had served as a logistical base and drug trafficking hub, restore the Afghan government's presence, and rush in public services in a bid to win over the confidence of local communities.

In a sign that Nato's push to win over the population may be gaining ground, bomb tip-offs from residents have increased by nearly 50%, the alliance said.

As the offensive closes in on its second week, 13 Nato troops and three Afghan soldiers have been killed, according to military officials. Eighty Nato troops have been wounded, along with eight Afghans.

February 24, 2010

Marines Clearing Last Taliban Pockets In Marjah

More than 100 Marines and their Afghan counterparts are pushing into a neighborhood they say is the last significant stronghold of insurgents.

Marines are starting a push to clear the last pockets of Taliban insurgents from Marjah.


Associated Press
Posted: 11:30 AM Feb 24, 2010

More than 100 Marines and their Afghan counterparts are pushing into a neighborhood they say is the last significant stronghold of insurgents. Marine commanders say they believe about 100 militants have regrouped in a 28-square-mile area.

Troops haven't met the stiff resistance they expected. Some fleeing Afghans say Taliban militants said they were planning a large attack, while others say they haven't seen a militant in days.

In the past week, Marines have come under heavy fire each time they skirted the zone.

A Marine spokesman says he expects there will be a spike in fighting as troops move into the final pockets.

Captain Abe Sipe says "We by no means think that this is over."

Operation Moshtarak Update for Feb. 23

KABUL, Afghanistan - The last 24 hours have seen fewer engagements with insurgents. Despite this relative calm, IEDs and insurgent gunmen continue to pose a threat to civilians and security forces.


ISAF Joint Command
Courtesy Story
Date: 02.23.2010
Posted: 02.24.2010 04:31

Afghan national security forces are taking the lead in responding to local incidents, including a suicide IED attack in Lashkar Gah that killed eight Afghans and wounded 16. Afghan national police immediately responded to the attack site outside the Transport Department and bus station. ANP officers coordinated medical support, cordoned off the scene and gathered evidence as part of their investigation.

Approximately 3,600 central Helmand residents have registered in the provincial capital as internally displaced persons. Residents are reportedly returning to cleared areas.

District Governor Habibullah held a community Shura in Nad-e Ali.

Supported by the district community council and ANSF, the shura allowed 450 people an opportunity to voice their concerns.

Signs of commercial growth continue. A market in northern Nad-e-Ali opened for the first time in 18 months, selling goods and livestock to over 200 customers. The new patrol base at 5 Ways Junction is now operational. The Afghan Gendarmerie are deployed in several new communities with an additional 100 officers expected soon.

The operation is being conducted at the request of the Afghan government and the governor of Helmand. The security forces involved are serving side-by-side, representing partnership in strength.

Imagery of Operation Moshtarak is available for download at:





Camp Lejeune Marines Continue Their Work In Haiti

Marines from Camp Lejeune remain in Haiti, some 6 weeks after the devastating earthquake.

Officials on the ground say the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit is not just handing out aid, but is helping to unite the people and governments of Haiti with non-governmental organizations and international aid workers.


Feb 24, 2010

The military says with the aid of the Navy-Marine corps civil affairs teams from the 22nd MEU, the government of Haiti has taken primary responsibility for humanitarian aid distributions in the Carrefour area, which is where the Marines are set up.

The Marines have been there for one month.

So far, the death toll from Haiti's devastating earthquake has topped 222,500, according to the United Nations. Haiti President Rene Preval said the number could eventually reach 300,000.

Army, Marines, Afghan National Army Team Up to Clear Vital Route of Roadside Bombs

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Soldiers from the Route Clearance Platoon, 162nd Engineer Company, 105th Engineer Battalion, Oregon National Guard, worked to remove any IEDs on Route "Cowboys," in Garmsir District, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Feb. 14-16.



Regimental Combat Team-7, 1st Marine Division Public Affairs
Story by Lance Cpl. Dwight Henderson
Date: 02.24.2010
Posted: 02.24.2010 02:01

Route "Cowboys" is a road that runs from north to south inside of 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment's area of operation. It has been known for a multitude of roadside bombs, making it an unsafe road to travel.

Normally, a route clearance platoon from 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion would do the job. However, with Operation Moshtarak in full swing the 162nd Engineer Company was brought in to take their place from their normal area of operations near Kandahar Air Base.

For three days the soldiers moved at a pace of six to seven kilometers a day, meticulously checking for any indicators for IEDs or unexploded ordinance. They started at Patrol Base Amir, cleared all the way to the town of Laki and then all the way back to Combat Outpost Sher, covering approximately 19 kilometers of road over their three-day operation.

"We go so slow because we're interrogating anything that looks suspicious," said Sgt. Robert B. Bertilson, a squad leader with 162 Engineer Company.

The trip through Route "Cowboys" turned up one IED found by Fox Company, while providing security for the route clearance platoon, after receiving a tip from a local national.

Flanking either side of the convoy were Marines from 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, who moved through the fields and compounds watching for indicators of IEDs that may not be found on the road.

The platoon crept down the road allowing their ground penetrating radar and their metal detector, both attached to vehicles known as Huskies, to check each inch of the road. Ahead, dismounted soldiers moved with portable mine detectors as well.

"We are behind our dismounts," said Bertilson. "They're up there with the mine detectors and if they see something then we have to stop and dig. That's a slow process right there."

The soldiers have to inspect every metallic hit. They can dig manually but some vehicles come with a robotic arm that allows the soldiers to inspect the ground from within the vehicle.

While most metallic hits turn out to be trash, they still check each one to be sure it isn't an IED.

The soldiers operated from sunrise to sunset each day. At night, they would simply set up security and sleep on the side of Route Cowboys.

"We use all the hours of daylight we can," said Bertilson

While route clearance is a great way to find IEDs, the majority of IEDs are still being found by tips from the local populace.

February 23, 2010

Afghan official who will govern Marja pays first visit, makes plea to residents

MARJA, AFGHANISTAN -- The Afghan official responsible for governing Marja paid his first visit to this strife-torn community Monday, imploring residents to forsake the Taliban and promising employment programs as an inducement for local men to put down their weapons.


By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Haji Zahir, the newly appointed mayor of Marja, told a group of about 50 elderly men who had gathered at a gas station near the main bazaar that the large U.S. and Afghan military operation to flush out the Taliban is intended to bring "positive changes."

"They're not here to occupy our country," he said of the U.S. Marines who now control key commercial and residential sections of Marja. "They're just here to bring you peace."

But Zahir, a native of southern Afghanistan who has spent the past 15 years in Germany, elicited only a tepid endorsement from the men who gathered to meet him. Their questions made clear that the Taliban still enjoys deep support here, and that the Afghan government is almost universally loathed, illuminating the deep challenge facing Marines and civilian stabilization specialists as they try to establish basic civic administration.

"The Taliban provided us with a very peaceful environment," said Fakir Mohammed, 32, a tractor driver. "They did not bother us. We were very happy with them here."

Mohammed said police corruption and malfeasance led residents to support the insurgents. "They were not corrupt like the police," he said.

One man accused U.S. and Afghan forces of responding to fire from AK-47 assault rifles, a weapon commonly used by the insurgents, with rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells.

"Your government drops bombs on us," another said.

Brig. Gen. Mohayden Ghori, who commands the Afghan forces involved in the operation and joined Zahir at the meeting, told the men: "I understand some of your houses have burned. But let's solve our problems with negotiations, not with weapons."

Ghori said he was open to reconciling with insurgents who stop fighting. "Those Afghan Taliban who have shot at my soldiers, I can tolerate them," he said. "They are my sons. They are my brothers. They are Afghans."

He delivered a far more impassioned plea for support than Zahir, raising his voice almost to the point of screaming as he asked the men to persuade their fellow residents to stop fighting.

"Let's start supporting each other. We will have schools, a hospital, good roads," he said. "Tell me the truth: When the Taliban was here, did they do anything for you? Did they even give you a water pump?"

But several residents said they were less interested in government services than being left alone. The principal cash crop in Marja is opium-producing poppy, and many farmers are wary that the establishment of local governance and a police force will put an end to what has been a lucrative way of life for them.

Halfway through the meeting, one participant stood and proclaimed himself a Talib. "I have nothing against the Americans, but I don't like our government," farmer Ali Mohammed said to Zahir. "It steals all the money that the foreigners give us."

Zahir pledged that he would be honest. "You cannot deceive me with money," he said.

He arrived in Marja aboard a Marine MV-22B Osprey helicopter with a contingent of Marine officers and a small retinue of tribal elders who have been living in other parts of Helmand province. He was on the ground for about two hours, not venturing more than 100 yards from where his aircraft landed. He did not travel to the site of the new municipal center the Marines plan to construct, less than a half-mile away.

Zahir sought to allay concerns about the time he spent abroad by noting that he was born and raised in Helmand. He even pulled out a small black-and-white photograph from his wallet that showed him as a young soldier in the Afghan army. But he also sought to use his time abroad to his advantage.

"I've traveled to other countries, and they don't have the conditions that we do," he said. "We have to change things here."

He urged the men to remember that U.S. engineers helped to design and build the canals that crisscross Marja, transforming barren desert into fertile farmland. "Who helped you 60 years ago?" he said. "They were Americans, and they are here to help you now."

Zahir's aides even distributed a little Afghan-style political pork to his new constituents: Each of the men was given a mobile phone calling card worth 250 afghanis, about $5.

U.S. officers remained in the background during the meeting, letting Zahir and Ghori run the show. After about an hour, the men broke into small groups, sitting in the dirt in two small circles around each of the men.

"We will give you two years," Ali Mohammed, the self-described Talib, told Ghori. "If you keep your promises, we will support you."

"We will do our job in two years," Ghori pledged.

That prompted John Kael Weston, a State Department official listening to the conversation, to pipe up: "Two years is about all the time we've got."

"If the government doesn't deliver in two years, these gentlemen right here are going to be cheerleaders for the Taliban, and that's not fun to hear, given that there's a lot of American blood that's been spilled in this city in the last few days," Weston said after the exchange.

Pfc. Jason Hill Estopinal, 21: Marine was killed in Afghanistan

Cindy Sharpe was about to board a plane for a return trip to Atlanta when her phone rang.

Photo at above link.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010
By Rick Badie
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

She'd been on a field trip with students who belonged to the history club at East Paulding High in Dallas. They'd visited Washington, D.C., and New York City.

In the Big Apple, they visited Ground Zero, site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that fueled U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Recently, three boys from Mrs. Sharpe's neighborhood had joined the military. One of them was Jason Estopinal, a 2007 graduate of East Paulding High. The Sharpes have lived a few doors down from Mr. Estopinal since he was six. She watched him grow up, a low-key kid who shunned mischief, who was called JJ by most everybody, even though he disliked it.

"He was quiet," Mrs. Sharpe said, "and fun to be around."

After high school, Mr. Estopinal worked briefly for the Cobb County Parks and Recreation Department. He mowed and maintained ball fields and cleaned facilities. Then, in 2008, he and his best friend, Mitchell Gard, joined the Marines.

Mr. Estopinal left for boot camp in January 2009 and deployed to Afghanistan in December of that year.

"He loved the Marine Corps. That was evident," said Capt. Michael McFarland, a family spokesman. "His family have nothing bad to say about the U.S. government and were 100 percent behind his decision. Of course, the family and friends believe it was the most honorable thing you could do. Or die for."

On Feb. 15, Pfc. Jason Hill Estopinal was killed in the Helmand province, site of a major offensive against the Taliban mounted by U.S. and Afghan forces. He was 21.

A public memorial service was held Tuesday in the chapel of Sosebee Funeral Home in Canton. He was buried in the Georgia National Cemetery. Sosebee Funeral Home was in charge of arrangements.

Mr. Estopinal was born in New Orleans. He graduated from East Paulding High in 2007, where he played soccer. He joined the Marines in late 2008, Mr. McFarland said, and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force out of Camp Lejeune, N.C.

In a recent article, his father, Jason Parker Paul Estopinal of Dallas, said the death of his eldest son was hard to believe.

Still, "we're accepting it," he said at the time, "but it's not something we were expecting."

On Feb. 15, the day of the fallen soldier's death, Mrs. Sharpe's family called to relay the news.

"I was devastated," she said. "I couldn't imagine that happening to one of ours."

Additional survivors include his mother, Claire Hill Estopinal and a brother, Parker Paul Estopinal; both of Dallas; grandparents, Barbara and Fernando Estopinal of New Orleans; and Jeanne Sanson Hill of Birmingham, Ala.

Government Administrator Arrives in Marjah

MARJAH, Afghanistan—The new Afghan government administrator of Marjah moved into town Tuesday, the most overt sign so far that the fierce military campaign to oust the Taliban is beginning to give way to the civilian campaign to win over the locals with economic aid and public services.


FEBRUARY 23, 2010, 10:50 P.M. ET

Abdul Zahir arrived in Marjah on a Marine helicopter with a small advance team of British and American diplomats to help oversee a flurry of aid projects. Mr. Zahir and his boss, Helmand Province Gov. Ghulab Mangal, immediately presided over the distribution of food oil, rice, tea, sugar and blankets to hundreds of locals who gathered at a mosque in the center of town.

"In the area where security is good enough, we're starting to do the work of governing," Mr. Zahir, the Nad-e-Ali District sub-governor, said in an interview.

As of sundown, there was no significant fighting reported in central Marjah, a first in the 11-day-old offensive. The lull likely doesn't signal an end to armed resistance, however. Intelligence reports suggest there are still pockets of insurgent fighters around Marjah. The Marines expect to be battling improvised explosive devices and other booby-traps for weeks or months.

"That simply tells me they're prepping for a new phase—IEDs and suicide bombers," said Lt. Col. Cal Worth, whose 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, is the main force in central Marjah.

Underscoring the war's ongoing toll, icasualties.org, an independent web site that tracks fatalities, reported Tuesday that the number of U.S. military killed in Afghanistan surpassed 1,000, and now stands at 1,002.

Elsewhere in Helmand province Tuesday, a blast at a crowded bus station caused by a bicycle laden with explosives killed at least seven people in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, said a spokesman for the provincial government, Dauod Ahmadi.

Also Tuesday, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan went on national television Tuesday to apologize for a deadly weekend air strike, an extraordinary attempt to regain Afghans' trust in the south. In a video translated into the Afghan languages of Dari and Pashto and broadcast on Afghan television, a stern Gen. Stanley McChrystal apologized for the strike in central Uruzgan province that Afghan officials say killed at least 21 people.

"I pledge to strengthen our efforts to regain your trust to build a brighter future for all Afghans," Gen. McChrystal said in the video, the Associated Press reported. "I have instituted a thorough investigation to prevent this from happening again.''

Marjah's new de facto mayor, Mr. Zahir, a black-bearded native of Helmand Province, spent the years of Taliban rule in Germany, working at a dry cleaner and hotel. Since the Taliban fell in 2001, he has represented the government at councils of elders.

For his first night in Marjah, Mr. Zahir was lodged in a simple tent at a Marine outpost, with a cot, a red rug with floral designs and military meals that accord with Islamic dietary laws—his isolation evidence of the fragility of the security situation. There is no government office building in the town, and Kabul has yet to set a date for dispatching to Marjah the dozens of bureaucrats in health, education, justice, finance and agriculture necessary to implement the government's promised rebuilding agenda.

But the Marines and Afghan soldiers have seized an ever-larger swath of Marjah, with forces advancing from the north and south, as well as a battalion of Marines expanding outward from the town's center. Mr. Zahir estimated that 70% of the town is secure enough for him to visit.

"Soon Marjah will be cleansed of enemy forces," Gov. Mangal told a crowd in Marjah.

Mr. Zahir said the Taliban who have controlled Marjah for the last two years won the locals' tolerance—sometimes even support—by showing respect for Islam, property and women and children.

But he said the Taliban didn't provide basic government services, such as health care and road repair. And Taliban justice was as harsh as it was swift, with beheadings and amputations meted out with little chance for fair trials, he said.

The biggest challenge for the government, Afghan officials acknowledge, will be to reverse the damage done by the national police who served in the town before the Taliban takeover. Locals uniformly complain the police were brutal and corrupt.

"Whatever the old police did wrong in the past, we'll get it right this time," Col. Asadullah Shirzai, the Helmand provincial police chief, told the gathering Tuesday. The first policemen dispatched to Marjah since the offensive began are from the civil-order police, a force considered more professional than the regular police.

The civil-order police man road checkpoints around town, and they helped hand out the relief supplies.

Mr. Zahir and Lt. Col. Worth met Tuesday with three important tribal elders from a hotly contested area in southeast Marjah. The elders said that a day earlier, they had rebuffed Taliban fighters who had tried to use local houses to stage attacks on U.S. and Afghan troops.

Mr. Zahir and Lt. Col. Worth saw the elders' willingness to stand up to the Taliban—and welcome the government—as a very promising sign. "It's the best day of the operation," Lt. Col. Worth said.

After the food distribution, some 20 men signed up with the Marines for $5-a-day jobs cleaning roads and irrigation canals.

"It's that first step that they feel safe enough to take advantage of an opportunity to provide for them and their families," said Maj. David Fennell, who jotted down their names and tribal affiliations. "It doesn't necessarily mean they're on our side of the fence yet."

Indeed, before he flew out of Marjah, leaving Mr. Zahir behind, Gov. Mangal approached a 12-year-old boy, Allahnazar, who was leaving with a heavy food bundle on his back. "Who's better?" the governor asked. "The government or the Taliban?"

"Whoever brings peace," the boy answered.

Write to Michael M. Phillips at [email protected]

US offensive yet to persuade Afghans in key town

MARJAH, Afghanistan -- Bouwudin courteously greeted the Afghan and American officers who came to meet him, offering tea and eventually a meal as the meeting lingered on. No amount of invitations could get him to walk a few hundred yards to the Marines base.


The Associated Press
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; 2:36 PM

"I'm sorry, but I can't do that, it's too early," said Bouwudin, a tribal chief. "I'll go when security has come back."

Despite an 11-day-old U.S.-led attack to capture the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, most Afghan tribal leaders in this town are like Bouwudin - still sitting on the fence. The mission may be proceeding militarily but it has not yet won over the people who matter most.

Many of them seem unwilling to believe that the Americans and the Afghan military will stay long enough to ensure that the Taliban never come back.

"If you leave again, I'll have too many problems with the Taliban," Bouwudin said with a polite smile as servants poured more cups of tea to guests sitting on rugs next to the mud-brick wall circling his fortress-like compound.

Safety wasn't the issue in Bouwudin's refusal to visit the American base. He simply didn't want to be seen with NATO troops.

The Marines made no fuss about it. They knew Bouwudin had worked with NATO before, only to be beaten and jailed by the Taliban when they moved in when British forces left in 2007.

His family had to pay a ransom for his release. When British and Afghan troops reclaimed the town again in March last year, Bouwudin stayed away. It was a wise move because the British pulled out again.

Winning over people like Bouwudin is key to NATO's efforts in the embattled Afghan south. The critical step is to prove that American troops and Afghan units are going to stay - and provide better governance than the strict Islamist Taliban, who, residents say, at least ruled the town without corruption and allowed the lucrative opium poppy business to thrive.

"He's exactly the kind of person we call 'on the fence,'" says Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, the commander of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines. "We need to bring him over to our side, because if he does, the population will follow."

As he met with Bouwudin, Christmas promised over a dozen schools, a health clinic, roads and - most importantly - professional police forces permanently stationed in the area.

Bouwudin, who like many Afghans goes by only one name, winced at the idea. "When police were here, they stole all the time," he said. "People were relieved to have the Taliban back."

Capt. Abdelhai Hujum, the Afghan army commander for the area, promised it would be different this time. "These aren't corrupt police, they're a new type," he said.

Hired from ethnic groups all over the country, the new police units have been trained to treat all citizens fairly, Hujum said.

But all attempts to establish a modern administration won't succeed in Helmand province without the support of Bouwudin's own power base.

"He's a proper, old school `khan,'" says Jared Davidson, an analyst hired by the Pentagon to advise Marines on working with the local population. "You don't see so many of them still around."

Bouwudin, about 45, holds over 3,000 acres of land granted to his late father by the king of Afghanistan in the 1960s, after Americans dug a large irrigation canal system through Marjah.

While he belongs to an aristocratic clan of the Pashtun ethnic group - like the Taliban leadership, the former king, and President Hamid Karzai himself - most of his tenants are impoverished nomads from the Kochi tribe who settled in the area to plow his fields for a share of the crop - now almost exclusively opium poppies.

Many villages across Afghanistan have a 'malek,' or local chief, acting somewhat like a mayor.

But Bouwudin is much more than that.

To explain the difference, he pulls a tin box of chewing tobacco from his pocket. "A malek is like this tobacco," Bouwudin says, tucking a pinch under his lower lip. "You take it, and then you spit it out," he says with a smile. "But a khan is like the box," a permanent fixture.

Stepping in his father's shoes, Bouwudin is now the mayor, the local chief justice and just about the only permanent authority several hundred families here can rely on.

"We live under his shadow," said Zaher, one of the frightened civilians who greeted U.S. Marines when they entered the town Feb. 13. Bouwudin says the tenants who steered the troops away from some of the numerous minefields laid by insurgents were sent on his orders. He says he'd be relieved to see the Taliban gone for good.

But intelligence officers know he's had a working relationship with the Taliban too, if only because he grows several thousand acres of poppies used to refine heroin. Bouwudin won't discuss the subject, but intelligence officers say 10 percent of the crop's worth certainly went as a tax to the insurgency. Tenants swear they know nothing about the deal.

"People came only by night to buy the poppies," Zaher says. "They went straight inside Bouwudin's house." He says the khan then handed some money back to the farmers: their fields' equivalent for a crop of wheat - much, much less than the roughly $2,000 an acre that opium poppies have been going for.

Learning from errors of the past, NATO does not plan to antagonize farmers by destroying their poppy crops, fearing that could build support for the Taliban.

"This is not a counter-narcotics operation," insists John Weston, a senior member of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, or PRT, as NATO's civilian arm is known in Helmand province. Drug Enforcement Administration teams moving in the wake of the Marines are tasked with finding traffickers and heroin factories - but not destroying crops.

The khan, who won't have his picture taken for security reasons, says he'd be happy to try out alternative crops.

"If you stay, we can do a lot of work together," he told Marine officers.

But alternative crops were not on the mind of the Marines during the meeting. They've been tasked with securing the town, and know the khan can help them. They repeatedly asked how insurgent gunmen keep crossing through his area to fire at the troops.

Even as the meeting went on, the sound of gunshots and rockets grew more intense as Marines battled an insurgent unit just a few blocks away.

"I don't know these fighters, I don't talk to them," Bouwudin said, escorting his guests indoors to avoid stray bullets.

The Pashtun code of honor - the Pashtunwali - requires he provide protection to guests in his home. If the Taliban had showed up at the door and demanded he hand over the Americans, it would be a huge breach of honor to have done so.

Others weren't so lucky.

The khan's guests had barely finished eating their omelet when the word "angel" rang out on the Marines' handheld radio sets. That's the code word for someone killed in action.

A Marine had just fallen to Taliban bullets in Bouwudin's nearby fields.

1/2 to deploy from Lejeune to Afghanistan

By Dan Lamothe - Staff writer
Posted : Tuesday Feb 23, 2010 17:14:49 EST

The Marine Corps will have another battalion in Afghanistan within the next 10 days, swelling Marine forces in southern Afghanistan to more than 12,000 Marines.

To continue reading:


Taliban fighters hinder offensive

Snipers, bombs slow progress

Senior defense and military officials said Monday that the U.S. and allied military offensive in southern Afghanistan is making steady progress although it has been slowed by resistance from insurgents.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010
By Bill Gertz

The offensive near the town of Marjah in Helmand province, led by U.S. Marines and now 10 days old, is encountering moderate resistance, mainly in the form of Taliban snipers and hidden roadside bombs.

The next phase of the operation will be for the 15,000 U.S. and allied forces to try to hold the Marjah region and move on to the nearby Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in the coming days.

"This is the second week of this operation," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon. "It's well-planned. The Afghans are in the lead. … But it's going to take some time. There have been some successes, and there have also been some tougher spots. I just think it's early."

Adm. Mullen said at a press briefing that "as you've all been seeing, we're making steady, if perhaps a bit slower than anticipated, progress."

"By all accounts, the Taliban's resistance has been, at best, disjointed," Adm. Mullen said. "But we have experienced difficulties. In some places, the enemy fights harder than expected. The IEDs he has planted along the roads and at intersections, though crude, are still deadly," he said, referring to improvised explosive devices.

A NATO air strike in central Afghanistan killed some 27 Afghan civilians, in the third coalition raid this month that hit civilians.

Adm. Mullen said the tragic bombing "reminds us of just how fragile and how tragic any move we can make can ultimately be."

The four-star admiral declined to go into details noting that the air strike is under investigation. However, he stated: "I would remind everyone of an essential truth: War is bloody and uneven. It's messy and ugly and incredibly wasteful, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth the cost."

Also Monday, a suicide bomber detonated explosives at a community meeting in eastern Afghanistan, killing 15 civilians including a prominent tribal leader widely criticized for failing to prevent Osama bin Laden's escape at Tora Bora after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Associated Press reported.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Michele A. Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy, said the campaign to retake control of Marjah is the first step in a larger campaign to break the control of the Taliban throughout the country. The next phase will be to move into Kandahar.

"Marjah is an opening salvo. It is a first step. It is designed to begin to create that shift in momentum," she said. "And I think once we have that in Helmand the focus will shift to Kandahar province."

Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John M. Paxton Jr. told the Senate hearing that the strategy of the current military offensive is to first break the Taliban's grip on Marjah and surrounding towns that he said were "sanctuary and safe haven" for the insurgents.

The offensive is designed to "crack the insurgent stronghold there, to open the freedom of movement" on the way to Kandahar, Gen. Paxton said.

The strategy calls for Afghan and coalition forces to hold Marjah and surrounding areas with troops and then move into Kandahar. Gen. Paxton said the offensive has driven many insurgents "north and east" of Marjah.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, appearing with Adm. Mullen, said steps are being taken to minimize civilian casualties.

Asked about the recent capture of the Taliban's military commander, Mr. Gates, said "what we're seeing is the importance of operations on both side of the border."

U.S. and allied security forces earlier this month arrested the No. 2 Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Karachi, in what U.S. officials said was a major strike against the Islamist militia.

Gen. Paxton said a number of Taliban leaders and fighters have been captured during recent operations but the number was not significant.

Adm. Mullen stated there are mixed reports on the performance of Afghan military forces in the offensive, which number around 4,500 troops. "They are in the lead. There have been Afghan security forces that have performed exceptionally well. There's certainly no frequency of reports that they're not doing that," he said.

Scarface Detachment Offers Quicker Response for RCT-7

CAMP DWYER, Helmand province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan – The Marines of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 367, who reside at Camp Dwyer, know their detachment may be small, but that they provide the necessary air power for Marine Aircraft Group 40 and Regimental Combat Team 7, both with Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan.



Marine Aircraft Group 40
Story by Lance Cpl. Samuel Nasso
Date: 02.23.2010
Posted: 02.23.2010 01:44

With several infantry battalions from RCT-7 spread out across the province, the convenient location of HMLA-367 here allows the attack helicopters to support these units faster.

"We basically act like a very quick 9-1-1 call," said Maj. David Andersen, an AH-1W "Super Cobra" helicopter pilot for the squadron. "Instead of waiting 20 to 30 minutes for our aircraft to respond to a TIC [troops-in-contact] from Camp Bastion, we respond in 10 to 15 minutes."

The detachment consists of less than a quarter of HMLA-367's total aircraft, but supports the Marines on the ground with close-air support and intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance.

The combination of having both AH-1W "Super Cobra" and a UH-1Y "Yankee" helicopters in the air offers MAG-40 flexibility for the Marines who need it because it also offers command and control missions and troop transport.

"Our mission is to support the grunts on the ground and our location brings us closer to accomplishing that," said Andersen, "It is the reason why we are down here."

February 22, 2010

Finally, a glimmer of hope for US in Afghan war

KABUL -- The arrests of key Taliban leaders in Pakistan and slow but steady progress on the battlefield of Helmand province have offered the first flicker of hope in years that the U.S. and its allies may be able to check the rise of an insurgency that seemed unstoppable only a few months ago.


The Associated Press
Monday, February 22, 2010; 3:52 PM

That's a long way from victory - a word that has fallen out of favor within a U.S. military keenly aware of the complexity of Afghanistan and the dangers of elevated expectations among a war-weary public in the United States and Europe.

However, the events of the last few weeks suggest that failure isn't inevitable either.

For the first time in four years, the Taliban and their allies are on the defensive. Key leaders are in Pakistani custody, insurgents on the verge of losing their supply and logistical base in the Helmand town of Marjah and they face an expected showdown in the months ahead around their spiritual birthplace of Kandahar.

"The situation remains serious but is no longer deteriorating," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday.

If all goes well, pressure will mount on the Taliban and their allies to consider a negotiated settlement - which the top NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal and others believe is the only way to end the conflict.

The process won't be quick. The Taliban have shown great resiliency, rebounding from more serious setbacks including the loss of power in the U.S.-led invasion of 2001.

Civilian casualties, such as the 21 people said to have been killed Sunday in a misguided NATO airstrike, still fuel bitterness among Afghans despite the alliance's efforts to curb its own firepower. Continuing deaths at the hands of foreign soldiers build resentment among Afghans - even though the U.N. says the Taliban are responsible for the majority of civilian casualties.

Gen. David Petreaus, who oversees the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, said last weekend that the ongoing offensive in Helmand province is only the beginning of a campaign expected last up to 18 months - testing the mettle of an U.S. military strained by nearly nine years of war and the patience of an American public facing their own severe economic and political challenges.

Success is by no means assured - even if recent developments favor the allies. Afghanistan's government remains weak, its army and police years away from functioning effectively on their own.

Battered or not, the Taliban have proven nimble in the past. They have expanded into the north, stretching NATO forces and attacking supply lines coming south from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Over the last six months, they have struck in the heart of Kabul, a capital that has remained far more secure than Baghdad.

If the Taliban lose their bases in Helmand, they could regroup to the north in Uruzgan province, especially if the Dutch pull out their forces from that area this year as expected and no other country rushes in forces to fill the breach.

Nevertheless, the offensive around Marjah could prove to be a game changer if NATO can exploit its gains, establish a reasonably effective local Afghan administration and convince the people there that the allies have no intention of ceding vast areas of the country to the militants.

Once the area around Marjah is secured - a process that could still take weeks - NATO and its Afghan partners plan to shift eastward to a far bigger challenge - Kandahar, the second largest city in the country and the economic and cultural capital of the south.

The city was the Taliban's headquarters until the city fell to U.S.-led forces in 2001. But with only 1,000 Canadian troops to protect the city and the surrounding area, the insurgents have managed to make significant inroads, controlling villages to the north and west of Kandahar and expanding their influence into numerous neighborhoods in the urban center itself.

To reverse the trend, NATO is boosting its presence in the Kandahar area to 6,000 troops in the coming months - many of them Americans ordered to Afghanistan as part of President Barack Obama's troop surge. Thousands more are expected to join in an offensive widely expected this summer.

If the Kandahar area can be secured, NATO hopes to establish an arc of stability extending from Helmand in the southwest all the way to Kabul in the northeast.

That would enable the Afghan government to expand its influence in parts of the country which have been the most estranged and - if all goes to plan - convince many Afghans that their future lies with the government and not the insurgents.

Bolstering the capacity and efficiency of Afghan local government remains the key.

"Stabilizing Afghanistan requires an approach that looks beyond just the provision of physical security and the reform of military and police forces to one that enables local communities and the government to resolve local conflicts," the private United States Institute of Peace said in a report this month.

That's a tall order in a country so poor that local administrators earn little and have even fewer resources to spend. Villagers say one of the attractions of the Taliban was their ability to resolve local disputes and maintain law and order - without the bribes and delays that plague the Afghan administration.

"Even if the coalition achieves limited tactical successes, the Taliban will quickly replace the fighters it loses, and it can easily target the `traitors,'" Gilles Dorronsoro, an Afghan expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote this month. "These coalition tactics are not new and have never worked before."

Still, the new campaign may already be producing results by making the leadership in Pakistan reconsider its long-standing ties with the Taliban, whose leaders found refuge on Pakistani soil when they were ousted from power. Pakistan maintained those ties even after 2001 as leverage in case the Taliban ever regained a measure of power.

In recent weeks, however, several key Taliban leaders have been picked up in Pakistan, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the movement's No. 2 figure detained in Karachi. Although Pakistan's motives are unclear, it appears the government is rethinking its strategy, pondering whether the relationship with the Taliban has outlived its usefulness.

Analyst Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote that progress in setting back the Taliban "may well convince Pakistan that the Afghan Taliban will not be making a significant comeback."

"Accordingly, Islamabad might no longer see any reason to indulge the Taliban, and could instead seek to shut them down," he wrote.


Robert H. Reid is AP chief of bureau in Kabul and news director for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Taliban Resistance Strong In Southern Afghanistan

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.


February 22, 2010
by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson

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.

Battle for Marja not only militarily significant

A year ago, the mention of Marja, a speck on the map in southern Afghanistan, would have drawn befuddled stares in the Pentagon.



By Greg Jaffe and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 22, 2010

Today the town of 50,000 is the target of the largest U.S.-NATO military operation since 2001. U.S. commanders are describing the dusty Afghan outpost as a "cancer," a key center of opium production in Afghanistan's poppy belt and an area critical to the Taliban's power.

Marja is indeed a Taliban stronghold, and the resistance there is real. Nine U.S. troops have been reported killed from roadside bombs and sniper fire since the offensive began a week ago. Dozens have been injured.

But in purely military terms, sending 11,000 U.S. and Afghan troops to defeat a few hundred Taliban fighters in Marja won't change much in Afghanistan. The greater significance of the battle is in how it is perceived in the rest of Afghanistan and in America.

The campaign's goals are to convince Americans that a new era has arrived in the eight-year-long war and to show Afghans that U.S. forces and the Afghan government can protect them from the Taliban. It allows Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander, who months earlier described conditions in the country as "grave and deteriorating," to make a clean break from past failures.

"You want to be able to define your narrative, and we've had trouble doing that in the past," said Mark Moyar, who has served as a civilian adviser to U.S. commanders in Afghanistan. McChrystal is under pressure to show progress fast: President Obama has directed that U.S. troops begin to withdraw in July 2011.

In recent days, U.S. commanders in Kabul and Washington have gone to great pains to describe the Marja offensive as a new beginning. "This is the start point of a new strategy," one senior military official told reporters on Thursday. "This is our first salvo."

Such declarations aren't new in military history. When Gen. Creighton Abrams took command of troops in Vietnam from Gen. William Westmoreland, he began by refocusing the U.S. war effort on a handful of rural villages. Although the campaign showed some success, it could not arrest the growing skepticism about the war in the United States or prevent the North Vietnamese army from overrunning the South.

In Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus pushed his forces into a few especially violent neighborhoods in the south and in Baghdad to show that the additional U.S. troops could stem the sectarian bloodletting gripping the capital.

Military officials in Afghanistan hope a large and loud victory in Marja will convince the American public that they deserve more time to demonstrate that extra troops and new tactics can yield better results on the battlefield. Although Obama has set a date to begin a pullout, he has not said how quickly the troops will leave. Success in southern Afghanistan would almost certainly mean a slower drawdown.

The other group McChrystal wants to influence is the Afghan people and the Taliban, who saw the July 2011 withdrawal deadline as a sign of wavering U.S. will. "This is all a war of perceptions," McChrystal said on the eve of the Marja offensive. "This is all in the minds of the participants. Part of what we've had to do is convince ourselves and our Afghan partners that we can do this."

A swift victory over the Taliban in Marja, followed with a robust development effort, could sway some Afghan fence sitters.

"Marja is not the single most important geographical point in Afghanistan that will turn around the war," said Thomas Ruttig, a former United Nations official and co-director of Afghanistan Analysts Network. "It's not the battle of Stalingrad. It's more like a symbol."

When McChrystal took over command of NATO forces in June, some of his closest advisers argued that U.S. troops should not even be in Marja or the surrounding central Helmand province. Nearby Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, has been the epicenter of the Taliban movement for more than two decades and should be the focus of U.S. efforts, these officials insisted.

Shifting the U.S. focus, however, would have been a logistical nightmare. The Marines had been working for months to build Camp Leatherneck, their sprawling base in the desert, and were on the verge of launching their first big attack to wrest the towns of Nawa and Garmsir in the central Helmand valley from Taliban forces. Those operations, which took place last summer and fall, have been relatively successful in pushing out the Taliban.

Marja also seemed far more likely than Kandahar to deliver a quick military and political win for McChrystal. One big obstacle to securing Kandahar is its tangled political rivalries. Among the local power brokers is Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Ahmed Karzai has been dogged by accusations of being a drug kingpin and, simultaneously, a paid CIA asset. He has denied both allegations.

"There are issues there which need to be solved, particularly in terms of governance and in terms of the political equilibrium that exists there," British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the top NATO commander in southern Afghanistan, told reporters last week.

In Marja and surrounding Helmand province, U.S. officials have built a close relationship with the local governor, Gulab Mangal, who has a reputation as a clean and effective technocrat. His cooperation boosts the likelihood that money set aside for development projects in Marja will not be siphoned off by corruption.

Even if U.S. troops succeed in driving out the Taliban and establishing an effective local government, the overall success or failure of U.S. efforts in southern Afghanistan will be determined by what Carter called "the next challenge for us."

That will be the battle for Kandahar.

US-led troops make 'steady progress' in Marjah

US-led forces fighting to clear a Taliban stronghold in south Afghanistan are making "steady progress", the most senior US military commander says.

Adm Mike Mullen said the operation in the town of Marjah in Helmand province was "messy... but that doesn't mean that it's not worth the cost".


Monday, 22 February 2010

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Operation Moshtarak in Helmand was proceeding slower than expected.

About 15,000 Nato and Afghan troops are involved in the 10-day old offensive.

Earlier, the Afghan government condemned a Nato air strike in neighbouring Uruzgan province which killed at least 27 civilians.

Nato has launched an inquiry into the attack, and the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, has apologised to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

'Slow pace'
Mr Gates, speaking at the Pentagon alongside Adm Mullen, said that the slow pace of Moshtarak should not affect future operations against Afghan militants.

"Even though it's going a little slower than expected, I haven't seen anything that indicates it has had any impact on the future planning that General McChrystal is doing for subsequent operations," he said.

"The situation remains serious but is no longer deteriorating," he added.

When Operation Moshtarak began, British and Afghan troops advanced swiftly through the district of Nad Ali meeting little resistance.

But US Marines and Afghan forces have encountered stiff resistance in Marjah to the south-west. Their progress has also be hindered by a large number of improvised bombs.

"As you've all been seeing, we're making steady, if perhaps a bit slower than anticipated, progress," Adm Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said.

"By all accounts the Taliban's resistance has been at best disjointed, but we have experienced difficulties. In some places the enemy fights harder than expected. The IEDs [improvised explosive devices] he has planted along the roads and at intersections, though crude, are still deadly."

Adm Mullen also expressed regret for Sunday's deadly Nato airstrike in Uruzgan province - not connected to Moshtarak.

Nato said it had hit a suspected insurgent convoy, but troops then found "a number of individuals killed and wounded", including women and children.

The Afghan government condemned the attack as "unjustifiable" and "a major obstacle" to effective counter-terrorism efforts.

Gen McChrystal, who has made winning Afghan hearts and minds a priority in ending the Taliban insurgency, said it was a "tragic loss of innocent lives".

"I have made it clear to our forces that we are here to protect the Afghan people, and inadvertently killing or injuring civilians undermines their trust and confidence in our mission," he said in a statement.

Suicide attack

In another development, a suicide attack in the eastern province of Nangahar on Monday killed at least 15 people including influential Afghan tribal chief Mohammad Haji Zaman.

Correspondents say the former mujahideen warlord played an important role in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in 2001 but was suspected of having allowed Osama Bin Laden to flee to Pakistan.

Marjah offensive: New Afghan governor takes office as battle rages

Less than two weeks into the Marjah offensive in Afghanistan, an Afghan governor flew into town on Monday and began holding meetings.

Kabul, Afghanistan
The shots haven’t even died away in one of NATO’s biggest offensives of its nine-year war in Afghanistan, but US State Department officials are already rushing in Afghan government staff as part of the ambitious next phase of Operation Moshtarak.


By Julius Cavendish Correspondent / February 22, 2010

The speedy rollout in Marjah of the new US strategy to “clear, hold, and build” is part of the renewed US strategy of wresting momentum from the Taliban. But some experts warn there is no way to install good government overnight.

Ten days into the fight – with US Marines and their Afghan counterparts still advancing on Taliban fighters holed up in the north and west – Marjah’s new subdistrict governor was brought in and held a shura, or council, with local elders in the town center.

Haji Zahir will hold a flurry of similar meetings with other community representatives as soon as he is properly installed, possibly before the end of the week, in makeshift offices while the real ones are cleared of bombs and refurbished.

Civilian stabilization and governance advisers will assist him as he seeks to extend his reach as far and as quickly as possible. In the northern part of Nad-i-Ali, the district to which Marjah belongs, fighting has slackened sufficiently for development specialists to start rolling out “schools-in-a-box.” Repairs to irrigation canals are also under way.

Window of opportunity
Everyone from lowly subdistrict administrators to the government ministries in Kabul is involved in planning Marjah’s future, Western officials are keen to emphasize.

“We’ve planned to have all this in place very quickly partly because we – the Afghan government and Western advisers – feel like we have a window in which to win over the local population,” says Bay Fang, a State Department spokesperson in southern Afghanistan.

“Installing a subdistrict administrator along with governance and stabilization advisers allows the work of government to start straight away. Because basically we want to show the people that the government can deliver basic services and is a viable alternative to the Taliban.”

According to the new population-centric counterinsurgency strategy championed by top commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the real battle for Marjah – and for the rest of Afghanistan – lies in governance and security, not gunfights.

Operation Moshtarak is “in many ways … a model for the future: an Afghan-led operation supported by the coalition, deeply engaged with the people,” McChrystal told reporters on Sunday.

Short timetable
The rush to roll out a functioning local government may also reflect the tight deadline that coalition forces face in Afghanistan. Large amounts of territory remain to be cleared of insurgents, developed, and restored to Afghan sovereignty before President Barack Obama’s July 2011 deadline for a drawdown of US troops.

Operation Moshtarak is the first phase of an 18-month campaign plan mapped out by McChrystal. The focus of coalition and Afghan forces will soon switch to the neighboring province of Kandahar, where the Taliban movement spluttered to life in the early 1990s, and where power has traditionally resided in southern Afghanistan.

There, as in Marjah, troops will try to clear out the insurgents and install a new government. But the battle to win hearts and minds can be easily set back by civilian casualties. According to the Afghan government, a US airstrike on Sunday killed at least 27 civilians on the border of Uruzgan and Day Kundi Provinces – NATO’s third botched bombing raid in seven days. Afghan government ministers called the strike “unjustifiable.”

Not everyone is convinced by the rapid effort to impart good governance in Marjah.

“Is [Operation Moshtarak] going to address one of the root causes of this insurgency – bad governance and exclusionary politics? That’s at the heart of it,” says a Western analyst in Kabul, who asked to go unnamed.

“What can the West bring? More resources? Yes. Better politics? Unlikely,” he says. “At the end of the day people want local leaders they can trust. That can’t be delivered overnight. That takes years. It isn’t that this operation is without value but we’ve got to get away from the idea that we can just parachute in a ready-made government.


Hundreds give fallen Canton Marine a hero's welcome

Lucy Smithers didn’t know Marine Cpl. Jacob Turbett, hadn’t ever met him or anyone who knew him and knew nothing about Monday’s show of support for the fallen Marine until reading the local paper Sunday night.

Please click above link for photos.

By Brad Kadrich • Observer Staff Writer • February 22, 2010

Yet there was Smithers, with her friend and fellow Westland resident Gerry Spino, holding an American flag while standing on Ford Road in a driving snowstorm and paying her respects to the 2007 Canton High School graduate killed in Afghanistan.

“It’s about patriotism,” said Smithers, who said the weather never discouraged her from participating. “He gave his life for our country. This was the least I could do for him.”

Smithers and Spino were among hundreds of supporters who lined the roadways along Canton Center and Ford Road Monday morning as Turbett’s body was escorted from Willow Run Airport, where it had been brought from Dover Air Force Base, Del., on its roundabout journey to his final resting place.

Visitation for Turbett will be noon-9 p.m. today and 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Tuesday. Services are set for 1 p.m. Tuesday at the L.J. Griffin Funeral Home, 42600 Ford Road. Turbett will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., March 9.

A combat engineer, Turbett was felled by a single gunshot wound Feb. 13. For the hundreds who lined the road Monday, it was their best chance to pay respects to a young man who gave the ultimate sacrifice for his country.

Canton’s veterans groups made their way to Willow Run in the snow to accompany Turbett on his final trip home. The procession was escorted by both Van Buren and Canton Township Police.

The veterans’ color guard felt a particular need to take part in honoring the young man.

“He’s a veteran, and this is our way of honoring his service and his sacrifice,” said Army Cpl. Bob Lamoreux, who served in the infantry in Vietnam in 1968. “It’s especially important for Vietnam vets, because it’s a way of honoring him the way we were never honored.”

Citing the veterans’ adopted motto, “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another,” a rally against the way Vietnam veterans feel they were treated when they came home, Lamoreux said the turnout for Turbett was especially satisfying considering the weather.

“I thought it was tremendous,” Lamoreux said. “It shows (Canton) supports our veterans. You don’t have to support the war, but you do have to support the soldiers.”

The crowd wasn’t all veterans, though. Friends and family also turned out. Jordan Stambaugh, who met Turbett during her freshman year and said she was in Turbett’s wedding party, remembered Turbett as “a great guy.”

“I wanted to show my respect,” said Stambaugh, a Canton resident. “He was an amazing guy and a great, great friend.”

The show of support – the scores of people lining the street, most of them waving an American flag, was overwhelming to Turbett’s family, many of whom have served their country, including his sister, Jamie, who is in Navy boot camp now.

Sheila Turbett, Jacob’s mother and a resident of Redford Township, said the support was greatly appreciated and, under different circumstances, would have included Jacob himself.

“We couldn’t stop crying,” Sheila Turbett said of the trip from Willow Run to Canton. “Jake would have liked knowing there was that much support for the military. He’d have been out there with them if it had been someone else.”

Turbett is survived by his wife, Crystal - on his Myspace page, he called her “the best thing that ever happened to me” - whom he married in July 2008; his mother, Sheila; his father, Richard ; sister Jaime Turbett; stepbrother, Joseph Marsh;. grandparents, aunts and uncles.

"I thought it was tremendous,” Lamoreux said. “It shows (Canton) supports our veterans. You don’t have to support the war, but you do have to support the soldiers.”

The crowd wasn’t all veterans, though. Friends and family also turned out. Jordan Stambaugh, who met Turbett during her freshman year and said she was in Turbett’s wedding party, remembered Turbett as “a great guy.”

“I wanted to show my respect,” said Stambaugh, a Canton resident. “He was an amazing guy and a great, great friend.”

The show of support – the scores of people lining the street, most of them waving an American flag, was overwhelming to Turbett’s family, many of whom have served their country, including his sister, Jamie, who is in Navy boot camp now.

Sheila Turbett, Jacob’s mother and a resident of Redford Township, said the support was greatly appreciated and, under different circumstances, would have included Jacob himself.

“We couldn’t stop crying,” Sheila Turbett said of the trip from Willow Run to Canton. “Jake would have liked knowing there was that much support for the military. He’d have been out there with them if it had been someone else.”

Turbett is survived by his wife, Crystal - on his Myspace page, he called her “the best thing that ever happened to me” - whom he married in July 2008; his mother, Sheila; his father, Richard ; sister Jaime Turbett; stepbrother, Joseph Marsh;. grandparents, aunts and uncles.

[email protected] | (313) 222-8899

Progress in Marjah, But Civilian Trust Elusive

MARJAH, Afghanistan—Ten days into the fight for Marjah, U.S. and Afghan troops continue to seize ground, often battling the Taliban from one mud-walled compound to the next. But progress has been slower in winning over local civilians, many of whom are unsure which side will make life safer for their families.


FEBRUARY 22, 2010

The Marjah offensive—the biggest since the Taliban regime fell in 2001—is being conducted on fronts both military and social.

It's a high-stakes operation. Kabul's international backers have ready tens of millions of dollars in aid for Marjah, and the Afghan authorities have promised to make the town of 75,000—which has been under Taliban rule for years—a model of good government once the fighting stops.

In essence, Marjah is the test case for U.S. President Barack Obama's argument that more troops and smarter counterinsurgency tactics can salvage the Afghan war.

The town measures roughly six miles by 12 miles, most of it thinly inhabited compounds and farm fields, sprouting with alfalfa, opium poppy and other crops.

A relatively small portion of that expanse is under military control, but U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers dominate the most densely populated areas already and are now pressing outwards, a few hundred yards at a time. Senior commanders are pushing field officers to pick up the pace and establish a sufficient security bubble to allow Afghan government officials and aid workers to get to work.

"We'll be in the attack," in the days ahead, said Lt. Col. Cal Worth, commander of the 1,500-soldier 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. "He'll have a choice of whether he wants to fight, put down his weapons or fade away into the desert," he says of the Taliban.

Many Taliban have apparently chosen the first option, with firefights and ambushes daily occurrences. As Marines pushed east from the Koru Chareh bazaar on Sunday, bullets began snapping around their heads, signaling the start of a three-hour running firefight. Marines sprinted through furrowed fields and splashed across irrigation canals under fire, eventually calling in a missile strike on an insurgent stronghold.

As the shooting tapered off, and a sandstorm kicked up, the Marines spotted six or eight unarmed men leaving the area. The troops say the insurgents frequently drop or stash their weapons when they're done fighting for the day, knowing the American and Afghan forces won't shoot unarmed people.

The Marines virtually always end up on top in such direct fights, though they have also suffered steady casualties. The tougher challenge is engaging in combat while also winning over the locals. Many residents have left town to avoid the fighting, perhaps leaving a teenage son to watch their property.

"For the next 100 or 200 meters everything is fine," Rahim Khan, a 31-year-old diesel generator mechanic, told Marines patrolling through the Koru Chareh bazaar. "But after that people are still scared, and they won't come out of their houses."

Mr. Khan said the locals are worried that the Taliban will use their homes as firing positions, drawing the Marines' fire in return.

Marines around the commercial district held two meetings with local shopkeepers over the weekend. The Marines learned afterwards that three Taliban ((EDS: unarmed, so no action taken)) were among the 50 locals who attended.

Nonetheless, some 10 merchants opened their shops and stalls on Monday, although the U.S. and Afghan troops were the bulk of the few shoppers. Much of the produce – tangerines, bananas and apples from Pakistan – had gone bad during the battle.

"All I want is security to return to Marjah," Abdul Achakzi, a farm worker, told a Marine patrol.

During the Marines' push east, one young man, Khan Mohammed Noorzai, complained that the troops had kicked in four doors in his family compound. Lt. Col. Worth advised him to go to the Marine outpost to receive compensation for the broken locks.

"Aren't they going to arrest me?" Mr. Noorzai asked.

"No, no, no," the colonel replied. "Not unless you're carrying a weapon or making bombs."

At the bazaar on Monday, shopkeepers asked passing Marines when they would get compensation for broken locks, crushed display stands and other damage. Mr. Khan sought compensation for his prize Jersey cow, who produced 40 kilograms of milk a day before the troops shot her during a firefight, he said.

"It's going to be a few stressful months trying to satisfy people and convince them we're here to help," said Cpl. Douglas Woltz, a 25-year-old from Hampstead, Md.

The colonel describes the locals he has met as "very pragmatic and stoic," but not yet friendly. Some Marjah residents say they fear both the Taliban and the troops—and they still resent the way government officials trampled on tribal traditions in the past.

"They know we are now the strongest tribe," Lt. Col. Worth said. But "trust is a long way away."

The troops' mission continues to be complicated by the array of homemade bombs the insurgents hide around town.

Over the weekend, the colonel's convoy hit a small one while traveling a route that had been cleared of booby traps just 24 hours earlier. Nobody was hurt, and explosives specialists detonated a second bomb buried nearby.

Near the Koru Chareh bazaar, insurgents packed a yellow plastic jug with homemade explosives and floated it down an irrigation canal, detonating it next to a U.S. armored vehicle. The bomb caused no damage.

On Saturday, just as officers were meeting at the Loy Chareh market with local farmers, the Afghan Civil Order Police discovered a 100-pound bomb on the roof of a shop. The device—packed with auto parts, nuts and bolts—was set to detonate if someone opened the shop door or moved it from the roof. Explosives experts say it would have inflicted mass casualties on troops and civilians alike.

The Marines also spotted two insurgents traveling along a ditch when the improvised explosive device they were carrying went off, apparently killing them both.

"That's the kind of IED I like," said Capt. Ryan Sparks, commander of the battalion's Company B.

Write to Michael M. Phillips at [email protected]

Reporter's diary: Inside Operation Moshtarak

For more than a week, CNN International Correspondent Atia Abawi has been embedded with U.S. Marines who are working alongside Afghan soldiers to rout out Taliban forces from the southern Afghan province of Marjah. Abawi filed this inside look at Operation Moshtarak:

It's been over a week now since Operation Moshtarak began here in southern Afghanistan. The city of Marjah shakes with the sound of improvised explosive devices, most of them set off by controlled explosions. Between IED blasts, the air is filled with the sounds of whizzing bullets, booming mortars, clacking helicopters, and other noises of war that I can't even express in writing.


CNN correspondent Atia Abawi
February 22nd, 2010

The U.S. Marines and the Afghan Army are fighting a fierce battle against the Taliban inside Marjah while other NATO forces are in the surrounding towns in villages. The story started well before the launch of Operation Moshtarak on February 13. In fact, journalists - aware of the impending operation - began deploying to Helmand province at the beginning of the month.

Before Marjah

"I'm scared as f**k!" one Marine told me as he headed out, days before the operation started. "And I'll tell you now, we all feel this way."

I instantly connected with that emotion.

For over a week, journalists camped together shared our concerns about the impending military strike, not knowing why we were brought in so early or why we were given the OK to report so much on the operation.

The fear mainly stemmed from the fact the Taliban knew what was about the cross those city lines. NATO commanders have said for many months that Marjah would be the next major battle of the war.

And they've made sure that we, the media, passed the message along to our audiences.

At Camp Leatherneck, print journalists, photographers and TV journalists arriving from all over the world shared one big tent. Some were veterans and some were newbies. But one thing almost everyone had in common was that this was the first time we were all actually a bit nervous of what was ahead on our military embeds.

And as odd as it sounds, there was comfort in knowing you are not alone in feeling that way. But those nerves didn't stop us from wanting the story.

We all eventually separated to join our units and learn about the mission ahead. The CNN team was about to embed with the 1st Battalion 6th Marines, Alpha Company. We were told this was the main company in the battle for Marjah.

Entering Marjah

It was hard not to look around at the faces sitting near me as we sat on the CH-53 transport helicopter with the Marine unit heading into the city. The unit was made up mostly of young Marines in their late teens and early 20s, but also veterans – the ones the young guys look up to.

Their expressions did not show fear or excitement; the faces I read were those of acceptance – accepting the unknown of what they were about to encounter. The men weren't cocky, as infantrymen are sometimes thought to be. But at the same time they weren't showing their nerves.

You could tell that prayers were abundant and their minds were racing with thoughts of their wives, girlfriends, parents, siblings or children.

I remember feeling one-third fear of what was ahead and two-thirds of something I can't describe.

Talking to the Marines on that day, they said they were expecting to be surrounded by Taliban small arms fire the second they stepped off the bird.

As our helicopter was flying overhead I was half hoping we would get there already so we could face whatever was there. The other half of me was hoping we'd be called back to the airfield.

When the bird landed, a Marine interpreter, Solomon, helped put my extremely heavy bag on my back. The pack was so much easier to carry without a flak vest and trudging through a muddy field in the black night.

All I kept thinking was, "Head down, head down" to make sure I didn't hit the rotor blade. And as I ducked with my heavy bag, I fell. And I wasn't alone. The Marines carrying all their heavy equipment and weapons didn't have an easy time either: the first four members of Alpha Company that were wounded were the result of the tricky terrain and the heavy packs they were carrying.

But luckily the Taliban were not firing, at least not when the sun was still down. Marines used night-vision goggles and Afghan soldiers walked blindly.

The explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team went ahead of everyone scanning the fields for IEDs - the Taliban weapon of choice and a very effective tool of engagement for them. IEDs are the number one killer of NATO troops in Afghanistan.

We stood in the muddy field in freezing temperatures, huddling together to stay warm as we waited for word on when we could move again. The night was so bitterly cold that one Marine was medevacked out to be treated for hypothermia.

When the hot sun began to rise over the horizon, the crackles of AK-47s could be heard from various locations. The Taliban's targets were in sight and the bullets were flying.

Our initial reaction was to get to the ground – and we did. Our second reaction was to run – but we couldn't. Running through the empty fields of Marjah would be gambling our lives. You don't know when your next step could be your last because of the threat of those unseen IEDs.

The EOD team who went ahead of us were the ones taking the gamble, as their IED detective dogs sniffed the fields for potential bombs.

When it was all clear, we went running across the muddy fields as the Taliban continued to fire from their perspective areas.

The fire increased as the sun continued to rise. Crackles of fire erupted from various parts of the city as the Taliban woke up to the fact that D-day was here and the Marines had arrived.

And that's when the real fighting began and has yet to end. We are in week two of Operation Moshtarak, and yet the battle for Marjah is nowhere near over.
Posted by: CNN correspondent Atia Abawi

Noah Pier

Lance Corporal
Noah Miles Pier
Noah, 25, of Charlotte, NC, died while protecting freedom on February 16, 2010 in Marjah, Afghanistan. Born on July 28, 1984 in Fairfax, VA, Noah and his family relocated to Charlotte in March of 1995. Noah was an avid outdoorsman and was involved in the Police Explorers Program at CMPD as a teenager. He loved American Freestyle Martial Arts and earned a black belt rank. Noah fell in love with his childhood sweetheart Rachel, whom he was to marry when he returned home.


Noah is survived by his parents, Mark and Vikki Pier; his fiancee, Rachel Black; his brothers and sisters, Erin (Gary) Stalnaker, Katti (Dean) Bieck, Tara (Airman 1st Class Vermaine) Shelton, Mark Jr., Shawn, Luke, Nathan, Jacob and Ethan; nieces and nephews, Sydney, Soffi, Vermaine, Jr, Gavin and Noalani; grandparents, Burnice and Georgia Herring; future in-laws, DeWitt and Eileen Black; as well as numerous extended family members.
At Noah's request, memorials may be made to The Luke Pier Foundation, P.O. Box 88, Paw Creek, NC 28130-0088.
Funeral Service will be held on Tuesday, February 23, 2010 at 1:00 p.m. at Forest Hill Church 7224 Park Road Charlotte, NC 28210. Burial will follow at Arlington National Cemetery.
The United States Marine Corps and McEwen Pineville Chapel are assisting the family. Online condolences may be left at www.mcewenpinevillechapel.com.

February 21, 2010

Next big combat mission in Afghanistan will target Kandahar

KABUL, Afghanistan — The current U.S.-led military operation in Helmand province is a trial run for what could be the decisive clash with the Taliban in Afghanistan this summer in the area that is its spiritual home — Kandahar .


By Saeed Shah, McClatchy Newspapers Saeed Shah, Mcclatchy Newspapers – Sun Feb 21, 3:47 pm ET

Officials at the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force say that the focus of the coalition will shift from Helmand to Kandahar — the big prize for both the Taliban and the coalition. Kandahar city is home to around 1 million people, while Marjah, the target of the massive ongoing offensive in Helmand, is an obscure dusty town of 85,000 inhabitants that had turned into a Taliban stronghold.

A senior ISAF official, who didn't want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said: "This moves to Kandahar . That's the next main objective."

Kandahar is Afghanistan's political powerhouse. It was the seat of the former Afghan royal family and the base for Taliban founder Mullah Omar during his movement's reign from the mid-'90s to 2001. President Hamid Karzai's family also comes from Kandahar , where his controversial brother Ahmad Wali Karzai heads the provincial council.

The Taliban's top priority is to take Kandahar , and the ISAF has been slow to counter it up to now, fielding a severely under-manned presence that many experts believe was a strategic mistake.

" Kandahar means Afghanistan . If we have a peaceful Kandahar , we will have a peaceful Afghanistan ," Tooryalai Wesa, governor of Kandahar province, said in an interview. "The history and politics of Afghanistan is always determined from Kandahar ."

Yet until recent months, a combat force of only 1,000 Canadian troops was in place to defend Kandahar . That allowed the Taliban to control large parts of the province and reach into the provincial capital with a step-by-step plan to capture Kandahar city. Districts around Kandahar , including Zhari and Panjwai, also have a strong Taliban presence, with their shadow courts and other extremist institutions.

The troop deployment in Kandahar is being ramped up rapidly and should reach some 6,000 this spring. Thousands more likely would be deployed to begin a major offensive in the province in early summer.

Coalition officers describe the Marjah operation, now into its second week, as a "confidence builder" for Kandahar now that extra troops for Afghanistan have been committed.

General David Petraeus , who heads the Army's Central Command and oversees U.S. strategy in Afghanistan , said Sunday on "Meet the Press" that the Marjah campaign is only "the initial salvo" in a larger 12-18 month offensive that aims to drive out the Taliban and "clear, hold and build" stability in those areas.

There are 15,000 troops involved in the Marjah offensive, the largest of the war. Captain Scott Costen , a spokesman for the ISAF's regional command in the south, confirmed that an operation for Kandahar was being designed.

"The scale of what you will see in the Kandahar operation will be comparable to the scale you see in Helmand," said Costen. "We're still in the planning stages."

Some experts believe that the Kandahar offensive would need to be even bigger than the current operation in Helmand, because the Taliban is much more spread out in Kandahar and more integrated into the community. Without the big concentration of fighters in one spot, as in Marjah, the operation will have to be targeted over a much bigger area. Fighting is likely across much of the province and into militant hideouts in the neighboring province of Uruzgan.

" Kandahar (operation) is imminent," said Khalid Pashtoon, a member of parliament for Kandahar . "If they (ISAF) don't come to Kandahar , all the operations mean nothing. The Taliban are so proud of being from Kandahar . Once you demoralize them there, then automatically the Taliban will be compelled to reconcile."

Unlike Marjah, which was almost entirely in the hands of the Taliban , the situation in Kandahar is much more contested, with both government and insurgents present. Kandahar city is ostensibly in government hands, but the Taliban run a campaign of assassination and intimidation there and periodically stage attacks.

"We're not going to see a Marjah-style operation in Kandahar because it's much more ambiguous. Kandahar city in particular is complex. I get the sense that (ISAF) commanders aren't really sure what they should do there," said Carl Forsberg , an analyst at the Washington -based Institute for the Study of War who specializes in Kandahar .

Forsberg said that NATO chose not to give precedence to Kandahar over Helmand, perhaps because of Helmand's dominant role in the drug trade.

In districts around the city, a particularly violent group of young Taliban commanders terrorize locals, including the 23-year shadow district governor of Zhari, Mullah Esmat, also known as Mullah Zerghai, and the 22-year-old-year shadow district police chief of Zhari, Mullah Gul Mohammad.

"The younger generation (of Taliban ) are very ruthless people," said Hajji Mohammad Khan, a tribal elder from Zhari district. "The Americans don't recognize them. They just stand there when the Americans pass."

The Marjah operation, now in its second week, claimed its thirteenth ISAF casualty on Sunday. The main points of the town are under the control of NATO and Afghan troops. ISAF said Sunday that there was "determined resistance" in some areas and the operation would take at least 30 days to complete. On Saturday, President Karzai warned that NATO must do more to protect civilians there.

( David Goldstein contributed to this story from Washington .)

Afghan leader urges coalition troops to curb civilian deaths

President Hamid Karzai's emotional appeal before lawmakers comes after a report that a man was mistakenly killed a day earlier in the operation to oust the Taliban from Marja.

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan - Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday made an emotional appeal for coalition troops to strive to prevent civilian deaths as a major offensive in the south by U.S., British and Afghan troops entered its second week.


By Laura King
February 21, 2010

The president's remarks, in a speech to Afghan lawmakers, came as Western military officials announced that troops involved in the fighting for the Taliban stronghold of Marja had shot and killed an Afghan man a day earlier, mistakenly believing he was menacing a patrol with a makeshift bomb.

NATO says 16 civilians have been accidentally killed by Western troops in the Marja offensive, which began in the early hours of Feb. 13. Afghan human rights groups put noncombatant deaths at about two dozen.

Thousands of Afghan civilians, frightened by the fighting, have fled their homes in and around the town, finding shelter elsewhere in Helmand province. But many residents say insurgents have prevented them from leaving, warning that there are buried bombs everywhere.

Karzai, addressing parliament as it opened its winter session, held up a picture of an 8-year-old girl he said was the only survivor after 12 of her family members were killed when NATO rockets hit a home on the second day of the offensive.

"We need to reach the point where there are no civilian casualties," the Afghan president said.

U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, ordered troops to exercise all possible care. Field commanders say they are doing their best to follow strict rules of engagement.

Karzai has often angrily rebuked Western forces over civilian deaths and injuries. In Saturday's speech, however, he thanked McChrystal for helping keep the civilian toll low.

A joint force led by U.S. Marines is still struggling to gain full control of Marja, which for years has been a Taliban stronghold. Scattered battles raged again Saturday, military officials said, with coalition troops taking fire from Taliban snipers and uncovering more buried bombs.

A statement from the International Security Assistance Force of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization described the latest clashes as "difficult," particularly to the northeast and west of Marja, and noted that "insurgent activity is not limited to those areas."

A Marine spokesman said the offensive was moving forward.

"It's a slow, deliberate process," Marine spokesman Lt. Josh Diddams said. "We're still working to clear parts of the city."

In his speech, Karzai again urged low-level Taliban fighters to lay down their weapons and rejoin Afghan society.

"End this war. Return to your homes and help rebuild," said the Afghan leader, whose efforts to woo disaffected fighters have recently won the backing of international allies.

Officials in the Karzai government have expressed hope that a recent string of setbacks to the Taliban leadership may encourage low-level fighters to leave the insurgency. The Taliban's military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was captured this month in Pakistan, and several other senior figures, including the Taliban "shadow governor" of Kunduz province, were also recently arrested there.

[email protected]

Times staff writer Tony Perry in Nawa, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

As Marja assault progresses, coalition considers challenges in rebuilding area

MARJA, AFGHANISTAN -- On the satellite photographs of Marja that Marines scrutinized before launching a massive assault against the Taliban a week ago, what they assumed was the municipal government center appeared to be a large, rectangular building, cater-cornered from the main police station.


By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 21, 2010

Seizing that intersection became a key objective, one deemed essential to imposing authority and beginning reconstruction in this part of Helmand province once U.S. and Afghan troops have flushed out the insurgents.

But when Marine officers reached the area, they discovered that two-dimensional images can be deceiving. What they had thought was the flat roof of the municipal building turned out to be a concrete foundation, and the police station was a bombed-out schoolhouse.

Although thousands of Marines and Afghan soldiers remain engaged in a grueling fight against Taliban holdouts concentrated in southern Marja, top commanders and civilian stabilization advisers face an even more daunting task: how to establish basic local governance and security in a place where there are no civil servants, no indigenous policemen and apparently no public buildings.

"The real challenge is still ahead of us," said John Kael Weston, the State Department representative to the Marine brigade conducting the Marja operation. "We're just in the opening act."

How that effort plays out here will amount to the first major test of President Obama's new counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, providing insight into whether more U.S. military forces and civilian specialists will be able to turn around a foundering, eight-year-old war.

The Marines involved in the operation are among the 30,000 additional troops Obama authorized in December. If they and their civilian advisers succeed in pacifying Marja with a new local government and reconstruction projects -- a goal that could take months to achieve -- top U.S. commanders hope it could help reduce insurgent activity in the country's violence-racked south and provide a model of sorts for other areas.

Surmounting skepticism

The commanders said the fighting so far has been intense -- eight Marines and hundreds of insurgents have been killed -- but reasonably straightforward: Buildings must be searched, roads de-mined, bunkers destroyed and snipers targeted. They expressed confidence that the coalition forces will control all of the key roads and bazaar areas by the end of the month.

"We're moving steadily forward," said Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, who heads the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade and is commanding the operation.

Efforts to clear militants from other parts of Marja will continue, but Nicholson said the troops will start to concentrate on protecting streets and markets, anticipating that building a bubble of security will give residents enough confidence to identify Taliban members to the Marines. They also hope the changes will lead some low-level fighters to lay down their weapons.

Generating that confidence, however, could take time. On Friday, the Marines sought to convene a meeting of residents at the mosque next to the Loy Chreh bazaar, a crowded, ramshackle place that once teemed with opium merchants who bought poppy paste from local farmers and resold the contraband to drug processors. Now it is abandoned.

The meeting was scheduled for 8 a.m. At 7:45, Lt. Col. Cal Worth pulled on his body armor in preparation for the 50-yard walk to the mosque.

"Inshallah" -- God willing -- "there will actually be people out there," he said, peering down the street toward the mosque from his battalion's headquarters. But nobody was there.

Fifteen minutes later, he looked again. Again, nobody.

He repeated the routine a few more times before deciding at 9:15 to set off. On his way, he encountered two middle-aged men heading for the Marine base. They wanted to know when they could return to their stalls in the market to salvage a few goods.

He told them the market would be reopened soon and encouraged them to come back to work. The men were noncommittal.

"The Taliban are still here," one of the men said.

"We're expanding security as fast as we can," said Worth, commander of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment.

The battalion's base is at the site of the original Loy Chreh bazaar, which was reduced to rubble in an airstrike after a Special Forces raid last spring. Soldiers swooped in, killed several Taliban commanders, arrested numerous others and then left. British soldiers did the same thing in 2008. Both times, the insurgents regrouped.

"We don't want you to come here and fight and then leave," the man said.

"We understand that is what happened in the past," Worth said. "We're going to be here for many months."

The men nodded, but they remained skeptical.

"We're afraid of the Taliban, and we're afraid of the Marines," the second man said.

Nobody showed for the meeting at the mosque. But Worth's conversation in the street eventually drew 20 men and boys. As Marines handed out bottles of water and small boxes of breakfast cereal to the children, the men fired questions at Worth and the commander of a 170-member paramilitary police unit assigned to help guard the market and surrounding areas.

"We need you to be patient," the police commander, Gulam Sakhi, told them. "We are trying our best."

A key challenge

Nicholson wants his Marines to open two main bazaars this week. He also thinks it will be safe enough around the site of the hoped-for municipal center by the end of this week for a team of four U.S. and British civilian stabilization advisers to begin working on governance and development projects.

The civilian specialists already have identified 33 potential quick-impact projects to help the local population -- including fixing schools and drilling wells -- and have received authorization to spend almost $1 million in military funds on such activities.

U.S. diplomats in Kabul have told Afghan President Hamid Karzai that his administration also must help rebuild Marja by deploying a contingent of civil servants to deliver basic services.

The civilian team's most important immediate task, however, will be to assist the newly appointed district governor, Haji Zahir, who recently returned to Afghanistan after 15 years in Germany. Zahir plans to make his first trip to Marja in the coming days.

A key challenge for the stabilization team and Marine commanders will be transforming Zahir, who does not hail from Marja and knows few people there, into an influential local figure. Helmand provincial governor Gulab Mangal selected him for the post largely because he is a friend, but in meetings of tribal elders before the operation, he was primarily a backbencher.

The man with the most sway in Marja is Abdul Rahman Jan, the former police chief in Helmand. His officers in Marja were so corrupt and ruthless -- their trademark was summary executions -- that many residents welcomed the Taliban as a more humane alternative.

Although Jan, who has extensive ties to narcotics traffickers, was removed from his post in 2005 after pressure from the British government, which was then about to send forces to Helmand, he remains close to Karzai.

Jan injected himself into discussions with tribal leaders in the run-up to the current operation. U.S. and British diplomats say they think he will seek to influence the shape of the future Marja government and police force, in an effort to protect his interests in the area.

"Karzai wants A.R.J. to be the guy calling the shots in Marja, not Haji Zahir," said a Western diplomat familiar with the issue. "That makes building an effective, stable government there a very challenging proposition."

U.S. officials have made it clear in private meetings with Afghan officials that Jan will not be allowed to reconstitute his police militia. The Marines intend to set up a new police department, drawn in part from men selected by tribal leaders. Recruits will be screened for past violations and will undergo weeks of training at the main Marine base in Helmand.

U.S. officials think most Marja residents would rather not have Jan call the shots in the area. They are hoping Zahir will win over the population and mute Jan's influence, but they are not certain that will occur.

"Marja will be a test for everyone," Weston said. "It's a test of the U.S. government's ability to help build local government in Afghanistan. It's a test of the Karzai government's [willingness] to be responsive to what its population needs. And it's a test of whether the Afghan people will take responsibility for their future."

Afghans Voice Their Fears Amid Marja Campaign

MARJA, Afghanistan — Since the American-led offensive into the last large Taliban enclave in Helmand Province began nine days ago, local Afghans have faced a dangerous and uncertain world.


Published: February 21, 2010

Their homes are now in a region where the Marines have established a presence, the Taliban have moved into the shadows as a potent guerrilla force, and the Afghan government insists it will soon provide services and bring Marja into the national fold.

All the while, in northern Marja, the fighting grinds on at a pace of several firefights a day — a climate that has displaced many civilians and kept others hiding inside. Abdul Ajahn, an elder here, voiced a lingering fear.

“If the Taliban shoots from that side, and you are on this side, and I am in between?” he said to the Marines at a meeting arranged by a commander and local elders over the weekend. “Then I am sure you will shoot me.”

One by one at the meeting, attended by the elders of several rural villages and the leaders of Company K, Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, the elders asked questions and expressed worries, summarizing local reactions to an offensive that so far had frightened and disoriented them.

How can farmers water and feed their livestock or work on crops without risking being shot? When will it be safe enough to visit the bazaar, which has been all but closed? When will searches of their homes stop? Can the mullah move through the village before dawn to open his mosque for morning prayer?

If the meeting was any indication, the Marines face local Afghans deeply worried for their safety and suspicious of American actions, even as the elders expressed an interest in collaborating with development projects once security conditions improve.

But first things first.

One elder, Yamatullah, a man with a long, fine goatee, asked the Marines to respect the people’s possessions. On many days since the Marines landed by helicopter, firefights have led to Marines chasing Taliban gunmen, often into the mud-walled compounds that ring local homes. The Marines have also conducted deliberate sweeps. “We are innocent people,” Mr. Yamatullah said. “We have a lot of expensive things in our homes. Please do not break our things or take them.”

The Marines said they would try not to disturb anyone’s homes or goods. They also told the elders that once the fighting subsided, Marja would enjoy many services and development opportunities it had lacked: police protection, mosque repair, school and medical care.

About an hour into the meeting, long bursts of rifle fire and the thump of a machine gun could be heard a few kilometers away. A Marine reconnaissance unit was in a fight.

The shura, as the meeting was called, continued nonetheless. The Marines said they wanted to keep hearing from the elders.

One man, Izmarai, vented at the Marines for setting up an outpost at a home he said he owned. He demanded they leave.

“If you want to arrest me, arrest me,” he said. “If you want to shoot me, shoot me now. You say you want to make peace and security. Then why did you make your compound in my home, and between my home and my field? Did you ask me? No.”

Mr. Izmarai was so angry that at one point he tossed stones at First Lt. Cory J. Colistra, the company’s executive officer. The Marines promised the man they would not stay on his property long. They offered to pay rent.

Mr. Izmarai was unimpressed. After the shura ended, he at first refused to shake the Marines’ hands. But later he returned, saying his presentation had been a performance. There were Taliban members at the meeting, he said, and he spoke as he did to impress them. The Marines said they were not sure what to believe. Was he telling the truth? Or playing both sides?

By this time, midday Saturday, the company had returned to the current day-to-day fight. Third Platoon set out to set up an overnight patrol base. The Taliban were waiting. A firefight ensued. A Marine was struck by a bullet in the leg; he was evacuated and in good condition.

On Sunday, the fighting was more intense. Second Platoon left its patrol base to clear an area north of a bridge that the company seized last week. It came under machine-gun fire. A Marine was shot in the hip. (The names of both Marines have been withheld pending notification of their families.)

The Marine’s bleeding was difficult to stop. The corpsman who tried to save him lost the man’s pulse, then managed to resuscitate him. He kept the man alive until a helicopter could land and carry him to a military hospital. The platoon continued its sweep. Company K felt a surge a relief.

About an hour later the radio brought grim news. The wounded Marine had died.

In all but one of the nine days Company K has been clearing a small portion of Marja, there have been multiple skirmishes. And at times two or more fights have occurred simultaneously, as patrols in different places have clashed with separate groups of Taliban. Most have not resulted in American casualties. The Taliban have often bounded away as the Marines massed supporting fire or brought in air support.

But eight members of Company K and two Afghan Army soldiers have been struck by bullets in six different engagements. Two Marines and one Afghan soldier have died. The Taliban have suffered much heavier losses. Yet they continued through the weekend to fire at most of the company’s patrols.

The civilians, meanwhile, sought cues as to what to do. So far, the small number of Afghans tending crops in the fields or looking after livestock, or even walking along roads and trails, suggested that local Afghans were not convinced that it was safe enough here to resume their routines.

Marines target Taliban holdouts in Marjah

Fighter jets, drone and attack helicopters focus on part of city

MARJAH, Afghanistan - Outnumbered and outgunned, Taliban fighters are mounting a tougher fight than expected in Marjah, Afghan officials said Sunday, as U.S.-led forces converged on a pocket of militants in a western section of the town.


Associated Press
updated 6:05 p.m. CT, Sun., Feb. 21, 2010

Despite ongoing fighting, the newly appointed civilian chief for Marjah said he plans to fly into the town Monday for the first time since the attack to begin restoring Afghan government control and winning over the population after years of Taliban rule.

With fighter jets, drones and attack helicopters roaring overhead, Marine and Afghan companies advanced Sunday on a two-square-mile (5.2-square-kilometer) area where more than 40 insurgents were believed holed up.

"They are squeezed," said Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, commander of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. "It looks like they want to stay and fight but they can always drop their weapons and slip away. That's the nature of this war."

U.S. officials signaled their intention to attack Marjah, a major Taliban supply and opium-smuggling center, months ago, apparently in hopes the insurgents would flee and allow the U.S.-led force to take over quickly and restore an Afghan government presence.

Bombs, booby traps
Instead, the insurgents rigged Marjah with bombs and booby traps to slow the allied attack, which began Feb. 13. Teams of Taliban gunmen stayed in the town, delivering sometimes intense volleys of gunfire on Marine and Afghan units slogging through the rutted streets and poppy fields.

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said the U.S. and its allies had expected the Taliban to leave behind thousands of hidden explosives, which they did. But they were surprised to find that so many militants stayed to fight.

"We predicted it would take many days. But our prediction was that the insurgency would not resist that way," Azimi told The Associated Press in Kabul.

In a statement Sunday, NATO acknowledged that insurgents were putting up a "determined resistance" in various parts of Marjah, although the overall offensive is "on track."

Marine spokesman Lt. Josh Diddams said Sunday that Marines and Afghan troops were continuing to run into "pockets of stiff resistance" though they were making progress. Diddams said no area is completely calm yet although three markets in the town — which covers about 80 square miles (207 square kilometers) — are at least partially open.

"Everywhere we've got Marines, we're running into insurgents," Diddams said. In many cases, the militants are fighting out of bunkers fortified with sandbags and other materials.

Before the assault, U.S. officers said they believed 400 to 1,000 insurgents were in Marjah, 360 miles (610 kilometers) southwest of Kabul. About 7,500 U.S. and Afghan troops attacked the town, while thousands more NATO soldiers moved into other Taliban strongholds in surrounding Helmand province.

It was the largest joint NATO-Afghan operation since the Taliban regime was ousted from power in 2001.

Moving slowly
NATO's civilian chief in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, said the military operation was moving slowly "because of essentially the ruthlessness of the opponent we face and the rules that we've set for ourselves" to protect civilians.

"We could have swept through this place in a couple of days but there would have been a lot of casualties." he said.

NATO said one service member died in a roadside bombing Sunday, bringing the number of international troops killed in the operation to 13. At least one Afghan soldier has been confirmed dead. Senior Marine officers say intelligence reports suggest more than 120 insurgents have died.

The Marjah operation is a major test of a new NATO strategy that stresses protecting civilians over routing insurgents quickly. It's also the first major ground operation since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 reinforcements to Afghanistan.

In a setback to that strategy, the Dutch prime minister said Sunday that his country's 1,600 troops would probably leave Afghanistan this year. Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende spoke a day after his government collapsed when a coalition partner insisted the Dutch troops leave in August as planned.

Most Dutch troops are stationed in Uruzgan province, which borders Helmand to the north. Afghan officials expressed concern that Taliban fighters driven out of Helmand could regroup in Uruzgan without a robust NATO presence.

During Sunday's fighting, Marines found several abandoned Kalashnikov rifles along with ammunition hidden in homes, suggesting that insurgents intended to blend into the local population and fight back later.

Drone pilots have a front-row seat on war, from half a world away

In a low, tan building in Nevada, Air Force personnel sit in padded chairs and control aircraft over Iraq and Afghanistan. They are 7,500 miles away, yet feel more affected by war than ever.

Reporting from Creech Air Force Base, Nev. - From his apartment in Las Vegas, Sam Nelson drove to work through the desert along wind-whipped Highway 95 toward Indian Springs. Along the way, he tuned in to XM radio and tried to put aside the distractions of daily life -- bills, rent, laundry -- and get ready for work.


By David Zucchino
February 21, 2010

Nelson, an Air Force captain, was heading for his day shift on a new kind of job, one that could require him to kill another human being 7,500 miles away.

Seated in a padded chair inside a low, tan building, he controlled a heavily armed drone aircraft soaring over Afghanistan. When his shift ended, he drove 40 minutes back through the desert to the hustle and neon of Las Vegas.

Drone pilots and crews are the vanguard of a revolution in warfare, one that the U.S. military and intelligence agencies have bet on heavily. The first Predator carrying weapons was rushed to Afghanistan just four days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Today, the Air Force is spending nearly $3 billion a year buying and operating drones, and is training pilots to fly more unmanned than manned aircraft. Demand is so strong that even non-pilots such as civil engineers and military police are being trained.

More than 7,000 drones of all types are in use over Iraq and Afghanistan. The planes have played an integral part in the offensive now being carried out in Marja, Afghanistan, by U.S. Marines and British and Afghan troops.

The Pentagon has adapted consumer-driven technology such as satellite television and digital video to give pilots, combat troops and commanders at headquarters a real-time look at the enemy on computer screens. For the first time in warfare, troops on the ground can see the enemy miles away on live video feeds.

Drone strikes in Pakistan are part of a separate CIA program that has killed more than two dozen senior Al Qaeda and Taliban figures, including two leaders of the Pakistani Taliban in the last six months.

But the attacks also kill civilians, inflaming the sentiment that the United States is fighting an undeclared, illegal war from the skies over that country. Some critics say the problems are so serious that the entire program is counterproductive and should be shut down.

This is combat in the age of video games and virtual reality. Even though drone pilots operate from half a world away, they are as engaged in deadly combat as any pilot inside an airplane.

A drone pilot can fire on an insurgent dug into the Afghan hills and be home in time for a backyard barbecue. In just an hour or two, the pilot can go from a heated argument with a spouse to a tense radio conversation with an amped-up soldier pinned down by weapons fire.

"On the drive out here, you get yourself ready to enter the compartment of your life that is flying combat," said retired Col. Chris Chambliss, who until last summer commanded drone operations at Creech Air Force Base, the command center for seven Air Force bases in the continental U.S. where crews fly drones over Iraq and Afghanistan. "And on the drive home, you get ready for that part of your life that's going to be the soccer game."

Drone crews don't put their lives at risk. Instead, they juggle vast streams of video and data. With briefings both before and after their missions, their workdays typically stretch to 10 or 11 hours. Many of the pilots are experienced military fliers, but the camera operators tend to be much younger -- often only 19 or 20, and new to the stresses of combat.

Just like troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, drone crews have access to chaplains, psychologists and doctors. They are taught to keep an eye on one another for signs of stress.

The psychological challenges are unique: Pilots say that despite the distance, the video feed gives them a more intimate feel for the ground than they would have from a speeding warplane. Some say they would prefer to be in Afghanistan or Iraq to avoid the daily adjustment from the soccer field to the battlefield.

After his stint in Nevada flying drones, which the military refers to as "remotely piloted aircraft," Nelson recently transferred to a crew at an air base in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Crews there and in Iraq, often battling high winds and freezing temperatures, control the drones on takeoff and landing, then hand them off to the U.S.-based teams.

While still in Nevada, after arriving for his shift on a mild day bathed in brilliant sunshine, Nelson received a battlefield briefing and then opened the door to his office -- the ground control station. He settled into the cockpit seat, known to pilots as the "Naugahyde Barcalounger," facing computer screens displaying live images from the mountains of Afghanistan -- color during the day, black-and-white at night.

As in any other cockpit, he had readouts for engine speed and temperature, altitude, fuel, pitch and roll angles, as well as other flight data.

At his fingertips were two keyboards. He could type messages in chat rooms connecting him to scores of military personnel and analysts worldwide, and he could call up maps, satellite images and intelligence reports. He talked by radio with ground commanders and troops who saw the same live images on their laptops and hand-held radios.

Inside the climate-controlled ground station, Nelson, a slender 30-year-old, spent the next six hours amid the hum of computer servers and the occasional click of keyboards.

Early in the shift, a roadside bomb exploded in the Afghan night. Using a throttle and joystick, Nelson maneuvered a 36-foot-long Reaper drone armed with Hellfire missiles and 500-pound bombs to a mountain valley in eastern Afghanistan, where a plume of black smoke rose over the site.

A convoy of Humvees had stopped a safe distance away, the vehicles a ribbon of boxy shapes on the screen as the Reaper soared several thousand feet overhead.

For the next hour, Nelson watched until the vehicles crept past the bomb site and safely reached their base. Then he flew on to his next assignment, watching another convoy miles away.

Next to Nelson, who flew C-5 cargo planes in Iraq before volunteering to pilot drones, was Tech. Sgt. Jim Jochum, who operated the cameras. An intelligence coordinator, whose job is to study the imagery, was posted next door.

Locked in on a mission, they often forget they're in Nevada. Capt. Mark Ferstl, a former B-52 pilot, said drone pilots typically feel more intimately involved in combat than they did when they sat in actual cockpits.

"When I flew the B-52, it was at 30,000 to 40,000 feet, and you don't even see the bombs falling," Ferstl said. "Here, you're a lot closer to the actual fight, or that's the way it seems."

Nelson recalled one instance when he received an urgent radio call from a ground controller whose unit was under fire.

"You could tell he was running, and you could hear shots being fired at the enemy," Nelson said. He tracked the insurgents and targeted them for two F-16 fighter planes that attacked and killed them, he said.

"Just hearing the voice of the [controller] running, excited, tension in his voice, just asking for any air support, anywhere, hearing the gunfire, it felt good to be able to help him out," Nelson said.

As Predator drones and the larger and more powerful Reapers became prevalent in the Afghan and Iraq wars, the Air Force took pilots away from manned aircraft to fly them. Many were reluctant to switch.

"From a personal reward standpoint, it's way more fun to climb up the ladder, throw the white scarf around your neck, and get into an F-16 cockpit," said Chambliss, a former fighter pilot who volunteered to fly drones. "But from a combat effectiveness standpoint, it's not even close.

"You can look at guys walking down a road and tell whether any of them are armed," he said. "You can zoom in from an ultra-wide to a road intersection" to look for bombs.

Though more than 95% of their missions involve gathering intelligence or watching over troops, pilots sometimes must decide whether to open fire. They operate under the same rules as pilots of fighter jets or attack helicopters. Only after going through a long checklist of safeguards are they cleared to push a black button on the throttle and squeeze a gray trigger on the joystick to release a bomb or missile.

The pilots call out "Three, two, one, rifle!" as the weapon launches and "Splash!" when it hits its target.

The job also involves confirming deaths, by drone or manned aircraft. Then crew members focus on corpses and ruined buildings.

"You see a lot of detail," Chambliss said. "We feel it, maybe not to the same degree as if we were actually there, but it affects us. Part of the job is to try to identify body parts."

A 50-year-old senior master sergeant and camera operator said veteran personnel keep an eye on young crew members for signs of stress.

"They're continually reminded that they're not just sitting outside Las Vegas doing a job," said the sergeant, who for security reasons identified himself only by his first name, Ralph. "I talk to these youngsters quite often, especially after they've seen their first shot, to make sure they don't keep things bottled up and are able to decompress."

Col. Dale Fridley, a 50-year-old former F-15 pilot, said one of his most rewarding moments as a drone pilot came without firing a shot.

After a U.S. military vehicle broke down in the desert in Afghanistan's Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold, the rest of the convoy returned to base.

The stranded soldiers were able to sleep while Fridley's drone stood watch overhead, awaiting a repair crew's arrival in the morning.

"And that," Fridley said, "was something that was never, ever possible before."

david.zucchino @latimes.com

First in a series of occasional articles about America's remote-controlled warfare.

IJC Operational Update Feb. 21

KABUL, Afghanistan – An Afghan-international security force detained a militant while pursuing a Taliban facilitator in the town of Alikhel, in the Muhammad Aghah district, Logar province this morning.


ISAF Joint Command
Courtesy Story
Date: 02.21.2010
Posted: 02.21.2010 08:00

A joint security force went to a compound after intelligence found militant activity. During the search one militant was detained.

A separate Afghan-international force captured a Taliban facilitator and another militant in the village of Zur Bazar, in the Khogyani district, Nangarhar province last night.

During the search of a compound the facilitator, associated with several rocket attacks on Afghan and coalition forces, was captured. When confronted he identified himself.

Several weapons, including automatic rifles, ammunition and a quantity of drugs were found.

In a separate operation another Afghan-international force detained several suspected militants while pursuing a facilitator in east Kandahar city last night.

An Afghan-international force killed several militants while pursuing a Taliban commander near Kalacheh in Shah Wali Kot district, Kandahar province yesterday.

The combined force targeted a pair of vehicles after intelligence indicated militant activity. During the operation, militants in the vehicle attempted to fire at the combined force. The force returned fire, killing the militants.

A search of the vehicles revealed AK-47's and pistols.

An ANSF-ISAF patrol detained several suspected insurgents and discovered a weapons cache in Nad-Ali district, Helmand province yesterday.

The weapons cache consisted of four hand grenades, two AK-57 rifles, six magazines of ammunition, one carbine rifle, 300 large-caliber machine gun rounds, and IED components. The weapons were buried in what is believed to be an insurgent staging area.

The suspects all tested positive for explosive residue and are being held for questioning by Afghan forces.

A joint Afghan international patrol detained a suspected insurgent after observing him digging in a ditch in Chorah district, Uruzgan province yesterday.

After investigating, the force discovered five 82 mm mortar rounds and a rocket where the man was digging.

An ISAF force detained a man after the search of a compound in Nurgaram district, Nuristan province yesterday revealed weapons and ANSF uniforms.

The cache consisted of a 107 mm rocket, three hand grenades, assorted IED components, 100 small arms rounds, and ANA and ANP uniforms.

The rocket was destroyed by explosive ordnance disposal.

No Afghan civilians were harmed during any of these operations.

Military sweep of Marja focuses on pocket of 'determined resistance'

Marines and Afghan troops fight to clear holdout insurgents from one corner of the city in southern Afghanistan. NATO says there is another casualty among Western troops, bringing the total to 13.

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Nawa, Afghanistan -- Backed by fighter jets and attack helicopters, U.S. Marines and Afghan troops closed in on an insurgent-ridden sector of Marja on Sunday, the ninth day of a coalition bid to wrest control of the southern Afghan town from the Taliban.


By Tony Perry and Laura King
February 21, 2010 | 8:16 a.m.

The fighting, concentrated in northwestern Marja, took place amid what NATO called "determined resistance" from holdout fighters in various locations in and around the town. Advancing coalition troops faced a continuing threat from small-arms fire and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, the Western military said in a statement.

"We're still pushing through the city," said Lt. Josh Diddams, a Marine spokesman. Some of the remaining pockets of insurgents consist of only a handful of fighters, but at least 40 -- a relatively large concentration -- are thought to be holed up in the town's northwestern quarter, the Associated Press reported.

NATO said Sunday another service member was killed in connection with the offensive, bringing the number of Western troop fatalities to 13. At least eight were Marines.

The battle of Marja is the largest coalition assault since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban. NATO commanders want to break the insurgents' grip on the town and its environs as part of a larger effort to establish government authority for the first time in years in a strategic swath of troubled Helmand province.

NATO said the operation remained "on track," although commanders conceded last week that clearing operations will take a month or more, somewhat longer than originally envisioned.

In coming days, however, the coalition expects the town will be secure enough to bring in a newly appointed Afghan governor, marking a symbolic shift away from the military confrontation and toward job creation, school openings and the setting up of other long-absent public services.

The military said in a statement that route clearance -- ridding the roads of one buried bomb after another -- was improving freedom of movement for local people. Many Marja residents have been pinned down in their homes for days by the fighting or have fled to other parts of the province.

Shops are slowly reopening as well, field commanders and local officials said.

Although the Marja offensive is concentrated in the district of Nad Ali, where the town is located, related operations are taking place across Helmand, the insurgency's traditional heartland.

NATO forces on Sunday reported the capture of a Taliban commander and another insurgent in a shootout in Kajaki district, in the east of Helmand, which left one of the suspects wounded. Both of the men arrested Friday were thought to have helped plant IEDs and plan attacks.

In another operation last week that was tied to the Marja offensive, coalition forces in Sangin district, also in Helmand's east, captured three Taliban fighters and seized nearly 150 detonators for use in bombmaking.

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Afghans frustrated in bid to remake Taliban-free towns

Nawa's district governor, upset by the unresponsive provincial government, pleads with residents not to become disenchanted and ally with insurgents.

Reporting from Nawa, Afghanistan — Haji Abdul Manaf, the district governor for this region of Helmand Province, was incensed.


By Tony Perry
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
February 21, 2010 | 5:37 a.m.

An employee from the agricultural ministry of the provincial government refuses to come to Nawa unless he is assured a desk and a telephone at the district headquarters, where desks and phones are in short supply.

Improving the crop yield and persuading the farmers to plant wheat rather than the poppies that produce heroin are key points in the U.S.- NATO coalition's plans to upgrade the standard of living in this farmbelt in southern Afghanistan.

But for months, Manaf has been unable to get the support he wants from the provincial government.

"I don't know what to do," Manaf complained to a gathering of U.S. and British civilian aid workers.

The story of the agricultural employee and the desk and phone is not unusual. Although there have been improvements recently, the relationship between the district government and the provincial government in Lashka-Gar is tenuous.

The improvements in Nawa since the Marines chased the Taliban from control last summer are noticeable and significant: the bazaar reopened, a clinic established, a school refurbished and opened, a community council formed, irrigation canals cleaned, and Afghan police patrolling the streets and back roads.

Just hours after the Marines and Afghan army began an offensive to drive the Taliban from the community of Marja, a Marine officer told several hundred Afghan men that the goal is to provide the people of Marja with the same peace and prosperity now being enjoyed in Nawa.

But rifts between the locals and the provincial government cover nearly all services and are hampering plans to make Nawa into a showpiece of the permanent improvements that can occur when the Taliban are no longer in charge.

"What we have to do is improve all these ministries," said Ian Purves, part of the multinational Provincial Reconstruction Team assigned to Nawa.

At a Saturday shura at a school being refurbished, Manaf pleaded with residents not to become disenchanted with his district government and switch allegiance to the Taliban. "What has the Taliban ever done for you?" he said. "Nothing. They burned this school."

The Afghan government, prodded by U.S. and British governments, has a plan for Marja, where Marines and Afghan soldiers are fighting to rest control from the Taliban, designed to eliminate some of the frustration and discontent that comes from the slow, incremental pace seen in Nawa.

Called the District Development Plan, or "government in a box," it calls for a local government structure to be established as soon as the fighting stops, with strong and permanent links to the provincial government, which largely controls the money.

"The government has realized they need to get a governmental presence more quickly in order to deliver basic services," said Purves.

The same strategy is being used in the Nad-e-Ali area, where British and Afghan forces are on an offensive similar to that in nearby Marja. Officials have announced that 2,000 people have already registered for a "work for cash" program, two schools have reopened, and nearly a thousand residents have received aid.

Given the high profile of the push into Marja, the post-combat phase of establishing a government has taken on added significance, officials concede. Slowness, they said, could undercut attempts to win the confidence of Marja residents and could frustrate impatient outsiders, like the U.S. government.

The same concern has been expressed by those working in Nawa.

In his final report to his superiors, Marine Capt. Frank "Gus" Biggio, the Washington lawyer and Marine reservist who headed a civil-affairs squad in Nawa until last December, warned that "one of the biggest threats to Afghanistan's future is not so much the drug trade, Taliban influence or corruption at the higher levels of government but rather the patience and persistence of her foreign partners."

In a reference to Nawa that might also apply to Marja, Biggio noted: "There are daunting challenges ahead in this country."

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Marines Converge On Taliban Holdouts In Marjah

NATO Forces Face 'Determined Resistance'

MARJAH, Afghanistan -- Marines and Afghan units converged Sunday on a dangerous western quarter of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, with NATO forces facing "determined resistance" as their assault on the southern town entered its second week.



ALFRED de MONTESQUIOU, Associated Press Writer
POSTED: Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Marjah operation is a major test of a new NATO strategy that stresses protecting civilians over routing insurgents as quickly as possible. It's also the first major ground operation since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 reinforcements to Afghanistan.

In a setback to that strategy, the Dutch prime minister said Sunday that his country's 1,600 troops would probably leave Afghanistan this year. Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende spoke a day after his government collapsed when a coalition partner insisted the Dutch troops leave in August as planned.

Fighter jets, drones and attack helicopters flew over Marjah, as Marine and Afghan companies moved on a 2-square-mile (5.2-sq. kilometer) area of the town where more than 40 insurgents have apparently holed up.

"They are squeezed," said Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, commander of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. "It looks like they want to stay and fight but they can always drop their weapons and slip away. That's the nature of this war."

Insurgents are putting up a "determined resistance" in various parts of Marjah, though the overall offensive is "on track," NATO said Sunday, eight days after thousands of Afghan and international forces launched their largest joint operation since the Taliban regime's ouster in 2001.

Late last week, Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, head of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, said he believed it would take at least 30 days to complete securing the Nad Ali district and Marjah in Helmand province, a hub for a lucrative opium trade that profits militants.

Once the town is secure, NATO plans to rush in a civilian Afghan administration, restore public services and pour in aid to try to win the loyalty of the population and prevent the Taliban from returning.

NATO said one service member involved in the Marjah offensive was killed Sunday in a roadside bombing in southern Afghanistan, bringing the number of allied soldiers killed in the operation to 13. One Afghan soldier also has been killed. Senior Marine officers say intelligence reports suggest more than 120 insurgents have died.

NATO also said two service members were killed Saturday -- one by rocket or mortar fire in eastern Afghanistan and another in a bombing in the south. Those fatalities was not related to the Marjah area fighting, NATO said. Their nationalities were not given.

Marine spokesman Lt. Josh Diddams said that the Marines and Afghan troops are continuing to run into "pockets of stiff resistance" though they are making progress. "We've established a presence," he said.

Diddams said no area is completely calm yet although three markets in town are at least partially open.

"Everywhere we've got Marines, we're running into insurgents," Diddams said. In many cases, the militants are fighting out of bunkers fortified with sandbags and other materials.

On Sunday, Marine squads in the western section of Marjah used missiles to destroy a large, abandoned school compound that had been booby-trapped with explosives in Marjah. The school had been shut down two years earlier by the Taliban, residents told Marines.

"They said they would kill the father of any child that went to school," said farmer Maman Jan, deploring that his six children were illiterate.

Marines also found several abandoned Kalashnikov rifles along with ammunition hidden in homes. Sporadic volleys of insurgent machine-gun fire rang out through the day.

"They shoot from right here in front of a house, they don't care that there are children around," said Abdel Rahim, a Kuchi nomad.

On Sunday, Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said that they had been more prepared for large numbers of planted bombs than for the sniper shooting and sustained firefights that have characterized the last few days of the Marjah operation.

"We predicted it would take many days. But our prediction was that the insurgency would not resist that way," he said. Azimi said progress through the contested areas is slow so that troops can clear bombs and take care to prevent civilian casualties.

He said the operation has always been planned to last a month and noted some aspects are ahead of schedule, including the deployment of Afghan police units to the town.

On Saturday, President Hamid Karzai urged NATO to do more to protect civilians during combat operations to secure Marjah, although he noted the military alliance had made progress in doing that -- mainly by reducing airstrikes and adopting more restrictive combat rules.

NATO forces have repeatedly said they want to prevent civilian casualties, but acknowledged that it is not always possible. On Saturday, the alliance said its troops killed another civilian in the Marjah area, bringing the civilian death toll from the operation to at least 16.

Karzai also reached out to Taliban fighters, urging them to renounce al-Qaida and join with the government.

But the process of reconciliation and reintegration is likely to prove difficult.

On Sunday, Mohammad Jan Rasool Yar, spokesman for Zabul province, said authorities arrested 14 police in the Shar-e Safa district on Saturday who had defected to the Taliban's side last week and were found on a bus heading to Pakistan.

NATO said two insurgents, including a suspected Taliban commander, were captured Friday in northern Helmand province. The men are believed to be involved in making roadside bombs. They, along with three others earlier in the week, had been caught as part of an operation to break up the Taliban's weapons supply line.


Associated Press Writers Amir Shah and Tini Tran in Kabul contributed to this report.

February 20, 2010

Taliban Resistance Stalls New Rule in Marjah

MARJAH, Afghanistan—The Taliban grenade that whizzed overhead was John Kael Weston's first indication that this town might not be ready for an influx of diplomats, agriculturalists and economic-development specialists.


FEBRUARY 20, 2010

The U.S. State Department official visited Marjah on Friday to see whether the week-old allied military offensive had made enough progress to allow the U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan government to launch their main mission: Reintroducing Afghan civilian rule to a town that has been under Taliban control for years.

Six coalition soldiers were killed Thursday and one on Friday in relation to the operation, bringing the total to 12 casualties since the beginning of the Marjah operation. NATO said four of the casualties resulted from small-arms fire and three from improvised explosive devices, or IEDS.

In Marjah, the coalition plans to spend tens of millions of dollars to repair battle damage, provide quick jobs and reverse years of government and Taliban neglect. The Afghan government has an official, Haji Zahir, waiting in the wings to take up the post as town administrator. But he hasn't visited yet.

Coalition officials such as Mr. Weston, the State Department liaison to the Marine task force leading the offensive, had envisioned Mr. Zahir going to work in what were once the government offices in Marjah. But they turned out to be little more than a clump of ruins where the locals held a weekly outdoor market before the fighting began.

Nearby is a former school, now in ruins and occupied by Marines who have built sandbag barricades to absorb regular Taliban attacks.

Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marine task force, came away from Friday's visit persuaded that it would be at least another week before the civilian surge could match the military surge in Marjah.

"Is there a good part of town?" he asked with dismay as he came upon the old government center.

Mr. Weston, wearing a flak jacket over his gray trousers and buttoned shirt, was surprised that almost no Marjah residents were wandering the streets. "Where are the Afghans?" he asked. "The Afghans have to be here first."

The residents of central Marjah have mostly been trying to stay out of the crossfire. Twenty or so men and boys emerged Friday morning for an informal meeting with the Marines and Afghan soldiers and police at the badly damaged Loy Chareh bazaar.

The troops encouraged them to return to work, promising that the area of Marjah now under Marine control would expand over the coming days.

Some locals complained that they were frightened both of the harsh justice of the Taliban and of being mistaken for Taliban by the troops. At the same time, they were running low on food and wanted to see the shops open again.

"We're stuck in the middle here," a resident told Lt. Col. Cal Worth, commander of 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. "We're scared of the Taliban, and we're scared of you, too."

The local men offered mixed reports of life under Taliban rule. A Kabul-educated doctor said the Taliban showed great respect for tribal leaders, and virtually eliminated crime.

But the Taliban implemented no public works, allowing the town's network of irrigation canals—built with U.S. aid in the 1950s—to fill with trash and weeds. The insurgents took food from the local farmers. " 'I'll do jihad with my head,' " the doctor quoted the fighters as saying. " 'You do jihad with your food.' "

The Taliban executed three tribal elders who had cooperated with the government, according to the doctor. "Two guys on motorcycles would show up in the night," said a local welder.

There were no formal courts or prisons. Death was the punishment that fit any crime, said the welder.

"We're willing to die to clear these villages," Col. Worth said, eliciting nods of approval.

The colonel urged the men to prohibit their sons from fighting alongside the Taliban. He instructed them to use the main roads to travel, approaching Afghan police checkpoints openly and slowly during the day. Eager to avoid fatal misunderstandings, Col. Worth repeatedly told the Afghans to pay close attention to warnings from the troops.

While the Americans and Afghans talked, a U.S. ground-attack plane strafed targets not far away, the sound of its Gatling guns ripping through the air.

While resistance within the city and around it remained serious, the coalition said it is pushing ahead with plans to deploy government and civil services that it had prepared in advance of the operation, in what it has dubbed its "government-in-a-box" program.

NATO said it had already opened two "schools-in-a-box" in the district, Nad-e Ali, each providing support for a teacher and 25 students. The coalition said it has also begun trying to establish a deputy district governor's office.

Coalition funding that will accompany the new government will be spent on projects aimed at jump-starting the local economy and trying to connect the people of Marjah to the new Afghan administration. Already, there are 2,500 Afghan civilians working in a national agricultural program in safer parts of Nad Ali district.

Write to Michael M. Phillips at [email protected] and Alan Cullison at [email protected]

Afghan Civilian Accidentally Killed in Helmand

KABUL, Afghanistan – A civilian was killed in Nad-e Ali yesterday morning after an ISAF patrol believed he was carrying an IED toward them.


ISAF Joint Command
Courtesy Story
Date: 02.20.2010
Posted: 02.20.2010 03:38

According to initial reports, the patrol warned the individual by waving their hands, providing verbal warnings and firing small pen flares into the air. The man dropped the box, turned and ran away from the patrol, and then for an unknown reason turned and ran toward the patrol at which time they shot and killed him.

After a search of the individual it was determined the box, which appeared to be filled with IED-making materials, was not an IED. The unit involved will conduct a shura with local leaders to discuss how to minimize future incidents such as this and a condolence payment will be offered to the family according to local customs.

"This is truly a regrettable incident, and we offer our condolences to the family," said Navy Capt. Jane Campbell, ISAF Joint Command spokesperson.

Londonderry Marine, 21, killed in Afghanistan

He died 'doing something respectful'

LONDONDERRY — A 21-year-old Londonderry Marine was killed by enemy fire Wednesday in Afghanistan.


Published: February 20, 2010
By Eric Parry
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Pfc. Eric Currier was killed in Helmand Province. Currier's brother, Brent, 19, said Eric was shot in the chest by an enemy sniper.

He was the son of Holly Boudreau of Londonderry and Russell Currier Jr. of Methuen. He was the stepson of Kevin Boudreau of Londonderry.

Eric was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C.

"He was bounding to the next barrier," said Brent, an Army private.

Brent, wearing military fatigues at the family's Londonderry home yesterday afternoon, said Eric joined the military in March and was deployed to Afghanistan on Jan. 6.

"He always wanted to do something respectful for the family," Brent said.

The brothers were like minded. Brent joined the Army just a few months after Eric enlisted in the Marines. Brent was sent home Thursday from training in California to be with his family. He was preparing to be deployed in June.

He said Eric was working as a carpenter until he decided to enlist last year.

"I haven't shed a tear because I knew he was happy to do what he was doing," Brent said of his brother.

Brent said Eric was well aware of the dangers he faced when he enlisted and when he was deployed.

The family was told of Eric's death Wednesday night. His parents traveled to Delaware yesterday to retrieve his body, accompanied by with Eric's wife, Kaila.

Kaila and Eric were married in September in North Carolina, where they recently purchased a home in Holly Ridge.

Friends and family members yesterday recalled Eric as likeable, a person they all admired and learned something from.

When he was deployed, Brent said, Eric was promoted to be the person to lead other soldiers and give commands. The job suited him, Brent said, because of the way he taught the people around him.

"Eric taught people to be a better person every day," said Chris Healy, a family friend who looked up to Eric.

Brent said his older brother was like a father figure to him and his six other siblings, who range in age from 7 to 23. He was always there to talk to about anything.

"He would do anything for his family," said Dilan Currier, 17.

The last time the family saw Eric was at Christmas, just days before his deployment. He was a little quieter than usual, Brent said, but was happy to be going to Afghanistan.

"He felt the people there needed him for a good reason," Brent said.

When he was home on leave, family members said, Eric enjoyed hunting and fishing.

His grandfather, Russ Currier Sr., said yesterday he started taking Eric on fishing trips when he was just 3 years old.

"He loved to be outdoors," his grandfather said.

Family members said Eric was a skilled hunter and almost always came home with a kill.

Brent said he and his older siblings grew up in Methuen, but the family moved to Londonderry about eight years ago.

Eric was a 2007 graduate of Londonderry High School's adult education program.

Principal Jason Parent said Eric was well respected as a student.

"He had a lot of friends and the faculty all thought very highly of him," Parent said.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Taliban put up stiff resistance to U.S.-led offensive in Afghanistan

Marjah, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Foreign and Afghan forces encountered stiff resistance Saturday as their offensive in southern Afghanistan entered its second week, and a civilian was mistakenly shot dead.


February 20, 2010

"It is moving slowly but surely. The Marines are making some headway," said CNN correspondent Atia Abawi, who is embedded with U.S. Marines in and around Marjah in southern Afghanistan. "The Taliban are putting up quite a resistance."

She said the militants, who usually operate in squads of 10 to 14 fighters, don't have the weaponry and technology that the U.S. troops have, but they are able to put up a tough fight from fortified compounds and even civilian homes.

"The firefights have been going on all week long," Abawi said.

Operation Moshtarak, aimed at ousting the Taliban from their stronghold in Helmand province, is being conducted in and around the Marjah area by predominantly American and Afghan troops. British troops and their Afghan partners have been concentrating in the Nad Ali district. Troops are working to oust the Taliban and establish Afghan control.

Abawi said Marines have been creating a forward operating base "to prove to the people of Marjah as well as to the Taliban and insurgency in the area that they're here to stay" and hope to bring "normalcy" to the area.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force said on Friday the battle against the Taliban remains "difficult" in the northeast and west of Marjah, and insurgent activity is not limited to those areas.

British forces say Taliban resistance has increased in recent days, and that has slowed progress, despite strides.

On Friday, British officials said more than two-thirds of the Moshtarak clearance phase is completed. But British Maj. Gen. Gordon Messenger said with that effort, "resistance in that area has increased. We did expect the enemy to up the level of resistance, and that has happened.

"ISAF and Afghan forces are being directly targeted more now than they were before, but the enemy is still uncoordinated."

Messenger said providing extra security to key roads between Nad Ali and Lashkar Gah, Helmand's capital, are high priorities.

"Freedom of movement is vital so that locals can go about their business without fear of IEDs on the road and so we can bring key supplies into the area, and so the Afghan governors can get out to do their business," Messenger said.

Watch why some call the operation a publicity stunt

Foreign and Afghan forces have taken pains to avoid civilian casualties in the operation. Civilian deaths and injuries during the Afghan war during airstrikes, raids and so-called "escalation of force" confrontations at checkpoints have undermined NATO efforts to get Afghans on their side.

But despite such efforts, such casualties have occurred in Moshtarak, with the latest coming on Friday, when coalition troops shot dead a man they mistook for a militant.

ISAF said the incident occurred in Nad Ali on Friday when an ISAF patrol thought he might have been carrying a bomb in a box.

"The patrol warned the individual by waving their hands, providing verbal warnings, and firing small pen flares into the air. The man dropped the box, turned and ran away from the patrol, and then for an unknown reason turned and ran toward the patrol, at which time they shot and killed him," ISAF said in a news release.

Later, troops discovered that there was no bomb material. Troops will meet with local leaders to discuss how to avoid such incidents, and a condolence payment will be offered to the victim's family.

"This is truly a regrettable incident, and we offer our condolences to the family," said Navy Capt. Jane Campbell, ISAF Joint Command spokeswoman.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai addressed the issue in parliament on Saturday, acknowledging efforts to improve but stressing that more has to be done.

"Regarding the civilian causalities in airstrikes and operations, the NATO and coalition forces have tried to conduct their operations carefully and responsibly to avoid civilian casualties," he said. "As a result civilian casualties have decreased. Our goal is to completely avoid the civilian casualties."

Marines Do Heavy Lifting as Afghan Army Lags in Battle

ARJA, Afghanistan — As American Marines and Afghan soldiers have fought their way into this Taliban stronghold, the performance of the Afghan troops has tested a core premise of the American military effort here: in the not-too-distant future, the security of this country can be turned over to indigenous forces created at the cost of American money and blood.


Published: February 20, 2010

Scenes from this corner of the battlefield, observed over eight days by two New York Times journalists, suggest that the day when the Afghan Army will be well led and able to perform complex operations independently, rather than merely assist American missions, remains far off.

The effort to train the Afghan Army has long been troubled, with soldiers and officers repeatedly falling short. And yet after nearly a decade of American and European mentorship and many billions of dollars of American taxpayer investment, American and Afghan officials have portrayed the Afghan Army as the force out front in this important offensive against the Taliban.

Statements from Kabul have said the Afghan military is planning the missions and leading both the fight and the effort to engage with Afghan civilians caught between the Taliban and the newly arrived troops.

But that assertion conflicts with what is visible in the field. In every engagement between the Taliban and one front-line American Marine unit, the operation has been led in almost every significant sense by American officers and troops. They organized the forces for battle, transported them in American vehicles and helicopters from Western-run bases into Taliban-held ground, and have been the primary fighting force each day.

The Afghan National Army, or A.N.A., has participated. At the squad level it has been a source of effective, if modestly skilled, manpower. Its soldiers have shown courage and a willingness to fight. Afghan soldiers have also proved, as they have for years, to be more proficient than Americans at searching Afghan homes and identifying potential Taliban members — two tasks difficult for outsiders to perform.

By all other important measures, though — from transporting troops, directing them in battle and coordinating fire support to arranging modern communications, logistics, aviation and medical support — the mission in Marja has been a Marine operation conducted in the presence of fledgling Afghan Army units, whose officers and soldiers follow behind the Americans and do what they are told.

That fact raises questions about President Obama’s declared goal of beginning to withdraw American forces in July 2011 and turning over security to the Afghan military and the even more troubled police forces.

There have been ample examples in the offensive of weak Afghan leadership and poor discipline to boot.

In northern Marja, a platoon of Afghan soldiers landed with a reinforced Marine rifle company, Company K, Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, which was inserted by American Army helicopters. The Marine officers and noncommissioned officers here quickly developed a mixed impression of the Afghan platoon, whose soldiers were distributed through their ranks.

After several days, no Marine officer had seen an Afghan use a map or plan a complicated patrol. In another indicator of marginal military readiness, the Afghan platoon had no weapons heavier than a machine gun or a rocket-propelled grenade.

Afghan officers organized no indirect fire support whatsoever in the week of fighting. All supporting fire for Company K — airstrikes, rockets, artillery and mortars — was coordinated by Marines. The Afghans also relied entirely on the American military for battlefield resupply.

Moreover, in multiple firefights in which Times journalists were present, many Afghan soldiers did not aim — they pointed their American-issued M-16 rifles in the rough direction of the incoming small-arms fire and pulled their triggers without putting rifle sights to their eyes. Their rifle muzzles were often elevated several degrees high.

Shouts from the Marines were common. “What you shooting at, Hoss?” one yelled during a long battle on the second day, as an Afghan pulled the trigger repeatedly and nonchalantly at nothing that was visible to anyone else.

Not all of their performance was this poor.

Sgt. Joseph G. Harms, a squad leader in the company’s Third Platoon, spent a week on the western limit of the company’s area, his unit alone with what he described as a competent Afghan contingent. In the immediacy of fighting side by side with Afghans, and often tested by Taliban fighters, he found his Afghan colleagues committed and brave.

“They are a lot better than the Iraqis,” said the sergeant, who served a combat tour in Iraq. “They understand all of our formations, they understand how to move. They know how to flank and they can recognize the bad guys a lot better than we can.”

Capt. Joshua P. Biggers, the Company K commander, said that the Afghan soldiers “could be a force multiplier.”

But both Marines suggested that the Afghan deficiencies were in the leadership ranks. “They haven’t had a chance yet to step out on their own,” Sergeant Harms said. “So they’re still following us.”

Shortfalls in the Afghan junior officer corps were starkly visible at times. On the third day of fighting, when Company K was short of water and food, the company command group walked to the eastern limit of its operations area to supervise two Marine platoons as they seized a bridge, and to arrange fire support. The group was ambushed twice en route, coming under small-arms fire from Taliban fighters hiding on the far side of a canal.

After the bridge was seized, Captain Biggers prepared his group for the walk back. Helicopters had dropped food and water near the bridge. He ordered his Marines and the Afghans to fill their packs with it and carry it to another platoon to the west that was nearly out of supplies.

The Marines loaded up. They would walk across the danger area again, this time laden with all the water and food they could carry. Captain Biggers asked the Afghan platoon commander, Capt. Amanullah, to have his men pack their share. He refused, though his own soldiers to the west were out of food, too.

Captain Biggers told the interpreter to put his position in more clear terms. “Tell him that if he doesn’t carry water and chow, he and his soldiers can’t have any of ours,” he said, his voice rising.

Captain Amanullah at last directed one or two of his soldiers to carry a sleeve of bottled water or a carton of rations — a small concession. The next day, the Afghan soldiers to the west complained that they had no more food and were hungry.

It was not the first time that Captain Amanullah’s sense of entitlement, and indifference toward his troops’ well-being, had manifested itself. The day before the helicopter assault, at Camp Leatherneck, the largest Marine base in Helmand Province, a Marine offered a can of Red Bull energy drink to an Afghan soldier in exchange for one of the patches on the soldier’s uniform.

Captain Amanullah, reclining on his cot, saw the deal struck. After the Afghan soldier had taken possession of his Red Bull, the captain ordered him to hand him the can. The captain opened it and took a long drink, then gave what was left to his lieutenant and sergeants, who each had a sip. The last sergeant handed the empty can back to the soldier, and ordered him to throw it away.

The Marines watched with mixed amusement and disgust. In their culture, the officers and senior enlisted Marines eat last. “So much for troop welfare,” one of them said.

Lackluster leadership took other forms. On Friday night, a week into the operation, Captain Biggers told the Afghan soldiers that they would accompany him the next day to a large meeting with local elders. In the morning, the Afghans were not ready.

The Marines stood impatiently, waiting while the forces that were said by the officials in Kabul to be leading the operation slowly mustered. Captain Biggers, by now used to the delays, muttered an acronym that might sum up a war now deep into its ninth year.

“W.O.A.,” he said. “Waiting on the A.N.A.”

Marines Near Marjah Hold First Meeting With Elders, Kill Taliban Attackers

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan – A patrol of Marines and Sailors of Combined Anti-Armor Team 1 and Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, held their first impromptu meeting with village elders in the "Five Points" area Feb. 14, and only moments later came under hostile fire from Taliban attackers.



Regimental Combat Team-7, 1st Marine Division Public Affairs RSS
Story by Sgt. Brian Tuthill
Date: 02.20.2010
Posted: 02.20.2010 11:45

Five Points is a small farming community between the cities of Nawa and Marjah where a junction of major roads connects northern Marjah with eastern Helmand Province. Charlie Co. Marines and Afghan national army soldiers conducted a helicopter-borne assault to seize the area Feb. 9, ahead of the start of Operation Moshtarak in Marjah.

Marines had not yet had an opportunity to meet with village elders here due to daily engagements with Taliban forces during patrols in the area.

During the meeting, three elder Afghan men sat down to talk with Marines and said they were glad Marines and Afghan national security forces had come to the area.

"We are happy you're here for our security," said one of the men. "The Taliban come in our homes and make us feed them. We have barely enough food for our own families. We just want to live in peace."

Marines invited the three men and other elders from the area to an upcoming meeting to address concerns from the local population and begin establishing Afghan governance here. One concern immediately brought up was the reopening of the village marketplace, which Marines temporarily closed as they established their encampment nearby.

"We will open the market back up soon, and with your help, we will bring work and prosperity to this area like we have in Nawa," said Capt. Stephan P. Karabin, commanding officer of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, to the men.

As soon as the group had stood to shake hands and say their goodbyes, machine gun and small-arms fire sounded nearby, and whizzing bullets were heard flying overhead.

The elder men quickly left for the safety of their homes as Marines began to fire at the Taliban attackers. The engagement ended soon after when a Marine F/A-18 Hornet flying overhead dropped a 500-pound bomb on the Taliban's position.

"Even though we're not part of the main assault in Marjah, we're fighting the Taliban here," said Cpl. Matthew W. DeLair, a 21-year-old radio operator with Charlie Co., 1/3.

"The morning that the main assaults kicked off in Marjah, we could see and hear bombs hitting targets there and in a way I wanted to be part of it," said DeLair, from Kauai, Hawaii. "We're Marines, we run toward the sounds of gunfire – we live for that. But I don't regret it, because we're getting some out here every day, and I'm sure we'll see a lot more action."

DeLair and other Marines operating in the Five Points area say they have high expectations for success in the area as they eliminate Taliban influence in the area.

"I think once we get our faces out there a little more, people will see we're here to fight the Taliban for them and they'll come around just like they have in Nawa," DeLair said.

Family calls fallen Marine 'our hero'

Charlottean Noah Pier killed in Afghanistan, fighting for a cause "he believed in."

Lance Cpl. Noah Pier always wanted to be a Marine, and his family said they'll miss his "laughter and love of life."


By April Bethea
[email protected]
Posted: Saturday, Feb. 20, 2010

Pier "was our son, brother, grandson, uncle and cousin. He believed in what he was fighting for and he died for your freedom," the family said in a statement late Thursday.

Pier, 25, of Charlotte, died Tuesday while serving in Afghanistan in the combat offensive in Helmand province, the Department of Defense said this week. He was a machine gunner assigned to the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.

Pier, who joined the Marine Corps in 2007, had served one previous tour in Iraq and deployed to Afghanistan in November.

Here is his family's statement:

"Lance Cpl. Noah Miles Pier was our son, brother, grandson, uncle and cousin. He believed in what he was fighting for and he died for your freedom. Noah proudly served his country in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. The oldest of 10 siblings and the first grandson on both sides of the family, Noah always wanted to be a Marine.

"Noah was such a happy man and he loved to laugh. He greatly anticipated coming home from Afghanistan to marry his childhood sweetheart, Rachel Black. His laughter and love of life will be sorely missed.

"Noah will be escorted home to Charlotte by family member (gunnery sergeant) Michael L. Kiernan, U.S.M.C.

"Noah will be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. Charlotte services are pending.

"We truly appreciate the outpouring of support from our friends and neighbors in the Charlotte-area.

"Lance Cpl. Noah Miles Pier, our hero."

Afghan police deployed in wake of NATO offensive

MARJAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan police were deployed on Saturday in an area recaptured from the Taliban by U.S. Marines this week, in the early phase of a plan to put the country firmly under the control of Afghan authorities.


Sat Feb 20, 2010 2:13pm GMT
By Golnar Motevalli

Nearly 200 Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP) arrived in the town of Marjah in Afghanistan's violent southern Helmand Province, which until the start of a U.S.-led NATO offensive a week ago was the last big Taliban bastion there.

NATO a week ago launched Operation Mushtarak in Marjah, a big opium poppy production centre, aiming to flush out militants and then leave Afghan police and authorities in charge.

The offensive is the first since U.S. President Barack Obama sent an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan to tame the Taliban ahead of a planned U.S. troop drawdown in 2011.

The crux of the plan is for Afghan authorities to win support from a public that has long viewed the government as incapable and police as corrupt.

"We are here to bring peace and security to your town, we want to help you," Captain Mohammad Kazem, commander of a company of Afghan police, told residents of Marjah who gathered in the bazaar of Koru Chareh on Saturday.

U.S. Marines in Koru Chareh faced stiff resistance from the Taliban in the first few days of their assault on Marjah. A week later they still take regular potshots from snipers and every day they find insurgents planting bombs on nearby roads.

A Marine air assault killed six militants spotted planting bombs on Friday, and two more were killed when the bomb they were planting exploded accidentally, a Marine officer said.


The arrival of Afghan police in Marjah, which had been held by the Taliban and described by NATO commanders as a festering sore where there had been no government presence, was broadly welcomed by villagers in Koru Chareh's bazaar.

"I've seen plenty of Taliban in Marjah before. It's good the police have arrived," 45-year-old Jumegol Abdolah told Reuters.

The operation to secure Marjah is a major test for NATO and President Hamid Karzai's government, which is under pressure from Western leaders to provide its own security ahead of a July 2011 deadline for the start of withdrawal by U.S. troops.

"I'm happy that they (the police) have come. They have to work with us and cooperate and bring security," 22-year-old farmer Taj Mohammad told Reuters.

Afghans in dangerous provinces like Helmand have complained about police in the past, accusing them of stealing and extortion through "taxes" on civilians.

"If the Afghan army or Afghan police want money from you, you can complain to us and tell us. You should inform us that someone is doing this to you," Kazem told the meeting on Saturday. "We're here to help you, to work with you."

Kazem said his officers were trained in Kabul and came from 34 different Afghan provinces.

"Those problems from before were because the police were local and locally hired. My company has men from all over Afghanistan and we are here just for peace and security," he told Reuters.

Despite the remaining pockets of resistance in Marjah, the bazaar in Koru Chareh was the scene of the first meeting between civilians and the U.S. Marines' Bravo Company, First Battalion, Sixth Marines, which cleared the town of Taliban insurgents.

The Marines want to re-open the bazaar and are encouraging shopkeepers, many of whom have been holed up in their homes because of the fighting, to return to the market.

"It is my hope that this village becomes the jewel of Marjah," Bravo Company's commander, Captain Ryan Sparks, told villagers through a translator.

(Writing by Bryson Hull; editing by Andrew Roche)

In Marja, it's war the old-fashioned way

MARJA, AFGHANISTAN -- They had slogged through knee-deep mud carrying 100 pounds of gear, fingers glued to the triggers of their M-4 carbines, all the while on the lookout for insurgents. Now, after five near-sleepless nights, trying to avoid hypothermia in freezing temperatures, the grunts of the 1st Battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment finally had a moment to relax.



By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 20, 2010

As the sun set Thursday evening over the rubbled market where they set up camp, four of them sat around an overturned blue bucket and began playing cards. A few cracked open dog-eared paperbacks. Some heated their rations-in-a-bag, savoring their first warm dinner in days. Many doffed their helmets and armored vests.

Then -- before the game was over, the chapters finished, the meals cooked -- the war roared back at them.

The staccato crack of incoming rounds echoed across the market. In an instant, the Marines grabbed their vests and guns. The 50-caliber gunner on the roof thumped back return fire, as did several Marines with clattering, belt-fed machine guns. High-explosive mortar rounds, intended to suppress the insurgent fire, whooshed overhead.

And so went another night in the battle of Marja.

The fight to pacify this Taliban stronghold in Helmand province is grim and grueling. For all the talk of a modern war -- of Predator drones and satellite-guided bombs and mine-resistant vehicles -- most Marines in this operation have been fighting the old-fashioned way: on foot, with rifle.

hey hump their kit on their backs, bed down under the stars in abandoned compounds and defecate in plastic bags.

"This isn't all that different from the way our fathers and grandfathers fought," said Cpl. Blake Burkhart, 22, of Oviedo, Fla.

The battlefield privation here is unlike much of the combat in Iraq, which often involved day trips from large, well-appointed forward operating bases. Even when Marines there had to rough it, during the first and second campaigns for Fallujah, they didn't have to walk as far and they remained closer to logistics vehicles.

In Marja, U.S. military commanders figured, the best way to throw the insurgents off-balance and avoid the hundreds of homemade bombs buried in the roads was to airdrop almost 1,000 Marines and Afghan soldiers. That provided an element of surprise when the operation commenced, and it allowed the forces to punch into the heart of Marja. But it also meant they would have to tough it out.

Because they had to stuff their packs with food, water and ammunition, sleeping bags and tents were left behind. That seemed fine, because summer temperatures in southern Afghanistan often reach 140 degrees. But at this time of year, the mercury can dip -- and it did during the first days of the mission, to freezing temperatures at night.

Huddled under thin plastic camouflage poncho liners, the Marines lucky enough to get a few hours of sleep in between shifts of guard duty huddled close together, sometimes spooning one another, to keep warm.

It didn't always work. In those first days, more Marines were evacuated for hypothermia than for gunshot wounds. One grunt in the battalion's Alpha Company proudly displays the frostbitten tip of his middle finger as his battlefield injury.

In the mornings and evenings, the Marines huddle around small fires they build, fueled by stalks of dried poppy, the principal cash crop in Marja. But in some platoon bases, nighttime fires have been banned because they make it too easy for Taliban snipers to aim.

The snipers have become the principal concern for the troops here, not the seemingly pervasive roadside bombs, in part because there is less driving than in other missions. More Marines have died from gunshot wounds than blasts in the first days of the operation.

As a consequence, body armor and helmets are a must-wear, except when in a patrol base with thick brick walls. Even then, mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades are a constant threat.

Marines who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan call the Marja operation more intense than anything else they've encountered, save for the battles in Fallujah.

"This place is crazy," said one sergeant as he ran to respond to the attack on Thursday evening. "It's more intense than anything you could have imagined."

The intensity is sharpened by the lack of any relaxation. It's all combat, all the time.

The laptops and DVD players that some Marines brought are packed in duffel bags and footlockers, which will be delivered at some point. Could be days. Could be weeks.

There is technology out here, but it is all in the service of war. Each company has a few laptops connected to high-powered satellite antennas, which commanders use to view live, streaming footage from unmanned aircraft flying overhead. It allows a bird's-eye glimpse of the battlefield in a way their infantry units could only dream of a few years back.

But for the average grunts, all they have is what they could carry. And those who borrowed a book from the chapel library at the base before they were dropped into Marja -- well, nobody has really had time to read.

Same for showering. That is, if there were showers or places to bathe. "Hygiening" in the morning means a quick scrubbing with a baby wipe. Full ablutions are weeks away. In the meantime, everyone smells equally rank.

The lack of hot water hasn't kept the Marines from shaving. The Corps' style -- high-and-tight haircuts and cleanshaven faces -- is enforced out here, no matter how rough the conditions.

The one edict most openly flouted is with regards to the possession of pets. Every patrol base, no matter how small, seems to have attracted at least one stray dog in search of food, water or just companionship. The outpost that was attacked has a tiny puppy, dubbed Furball, who is fed a generous daily allotment of packaged tuna and chicken found in some ration bags.

The rations, which are called MREs -- for Meals Ready to Eat -- are pretty much all anyone has to eat, other than the last bits of Corn Nuts or beef jerky squirreled away in a rucksack. The choices range from a boneless pork rib to a beef enchilada to vegetable lasagna. Regular meals, which require a base with a kitchen, a dining hall and contract labor, may never come to Marja. The Marines here have been told to get used to meals in a bag for months.

None of this seems to bother anyone out here. There's a bit of harrumphing here and there -- the lack of hot coffee and the shortage of cigarettes prompt regular complaints -- but all say this is why they got into the Corps.

After Thursday's attack, which lasted 90 minutes before a volley of mortar shells and rockets presumably wiped out the insurgents who had been shooting, the Marines returned to their designated corners of the base in the darkness. Dinner was cold, and the cards were scattered. But nobody cared. All they wanted to do was talk about the fighting, and the one Marine who had been wounded by a Taliban sniper.

"This is better than 'Call of Duty,' " said Lance Cpl. Paul Stephens, 20, of Corona, Calif., referring to a series of shoot-'em-up video games.

"This is what it's all about," Cpl. Mina Mechreki added. "We didn't join the Corps to sit around. This is what we came out here to do."

February 19, 2010

IJC Operational Update, Feb. 19

KABUL, Afghanistan – An Afghan-international patrol found a weapons cache in the Nurgaram district of Nuristan province last night.


ISAF Joint Command
Courtesy Story
Date: 02.19.2010
Posted: 02.19.2010 02:11

The cache consisted of 12 107mm rockets, two rocket-propelled grenades and two 75mm recoilless rifle rounds.

In the Garm Ser district of Helmand yesterday, an Afghan civilian told a joint patrol about a weapons cache buried in a field. The patrol found the cache containing 22 mortar rounds.

Another Afghan-international security force in Garm Ser found a weapons cache yesterday containing 12 recoilless rifle rounds, eight mortar rounds, an illumination round and a weapons tripod.

In the Nad-e Ali district of Helmand yesterday, a joint patrol with Operation Moshtarak found a cache containing 4.5 kilograms (10 lbs.) of rocket propellant, a pressure plate and two mortar rounds.

Another Afghan-international security patrol in the same district received a tip from an Afghan civilian about a cache yesterday. The cache contained 20 pressure plates, command wires and explosives.

An Afghan civilian led a joint patrol to a weapons cache in the Maidan Shahr district of Wardak province yesterday. The cache contained four 122mm rockets.

All of the weapons found have or will be destroyed.

Marine recalls the fight for Iwo Jima

Today is the 65th anniversary of the U.S. landing

Salt water drops sprayed over the gray gunnels of the landing craft and darkened the green uniform of U.S. Marine Corps Pfc. Clarence Robinson. He eyed the black sands ringing the shore of Iwo Jima, a pork-chop-shaped spit of sulfur-belching volcanic rock sprouting from the Pacific Ocean.


February 19, 2010 12:05:00 AM
TERRY BARNER / News Herald Photographer

For 30 minutes, Robinson and a company of Marines had huddled in the boat and watched as three other waves of landing craft and their Marines were deposited onto the beach. Many were then mowed down by the dug-in Japanese defenders during the epic World War II battle in the Pacific Ocean near Japan.

It was 65 years ago today.

A ‘string bean’ at war

As the landing craft neared the shore, Robinson gripped his M-1 rifle and snugged up the straps of his 40-pound backpack, which contained the rash of 18 vacuum tubes known as a SCR300 radio, the world’s first “walkie-talkie.”

“It was chaos … there were fireworks all around; planes were flying overhead and dropping bombs,” the 84-year-old Robinson recalled during a July 2009 News Herald interview. “Those of us who had never been in combat before were standing up (in the boat) watching until the small arms fire started landing around us, and we realized we were in a war and we needed to get our heads down.”

Robinson was born Oct. 30, 1925 in Powder Springs, Ga. His father and grandfather were sharecroppers in the rural west-Georgia town. Nearing his 18th birthday in 1943, Robinson finally got his parents’ signatures on military enlistment papers. Ten other teens in his high school did the same.

After basic training in Camp Pendleton, Calif., Robinson volunteered for the Marine Raiders, whose job was to sabotage enemy equipment on Japanese-held Pacific islands. He then joined the newly organized 5th Marine Division and trained on the volcanic black sands of Big Island of Hawaii, not knowing which Pacific Island the group they would be invading.

As the radio operator for the company commander, Robinson’s job was to wear the radio into battle so the commander could relay enemy troop positions and his unit’s casualty information to other commanders. During the next month, Robinson, a 19-year-old, 175-pound “string bean,” would carry the radio and its huge antenna into battle knowing the enemy would instantly place his body in their gun sights rather than other Marines alongside him because of the radio’s battlefield importance.

As Robinson’s boots sank into the black sands of Iwo Jima on the morning of Feb. 19, 1945, dozens of other Marines lay dead and dying on the shoreline in front of him. The first wave had come ashore unchallenged and walked onto the beach thinking the Japanese had withered during 74 straight days of American bombing. The Marines were largely blind to the 11-mile labyrinth of Japanese tunnels dug into the rock and containing hidden artillery and machine guns. The Japanese simply waited until the beach was full of Marines and equipment before cutting them down.

“(It was) chaos out there in the beginning, until they got those Japanese guns silenced,” Robinson said.

Shots in the dark

The Marines also had to deal with the fury of the island itself. The black, volcanic sand was warm with sulfur fumes rising from it everywhere. “ ‘Iwo’ means ‘sulfur,’ and ‘Jima’ means ‘island,’ and that’s really true of that island — it’s full of sulfur,” Robinson said while talking about scavenging for cardboard or wood to shore up the sides of their collapsing foxholes.

After landing on the southern end of the island, Robinson’s company turned north and west to secure one of three airfields. These were the invading force’s chief targets because Japanese planes launched from them were attacking American B-29 bombers as they flew toward the Japanese mainland. Once Iwo Jima was conquered, the B-29 could then fly from the island with fighter plane protection to bomb Japan.

During the darkness of the second or third night, the stillness was broken by a wall of screaming Japanese who ran from their bunkers in mass toward Robinson’s group in a suicidal “banzai charge.”

“Our men just mowed them down. None of them lived through it. They just killed them all,” Robinson said.

Although images of Iwo Jima are often masses of Marines firing into pillboxes with flamethrowers and grenades, Robinson’s closest brush with death was one-on-one against a single Japanese soldier while Robinson was returning alone with supplies to his company on the front lines.

“This Japanese soldier got to shooting at me,” Robinson recalled. “I jumped into a shell hole to get out of his (rifle) sights. I didn’t know where he was. I got a running start out of that hole. He started shooting at me. He probably shot at me 15 or 20 times and never touched me. God was taking care of me, I know that. By the time I got back to my company from all that running I was give out. My tongue was hanging out.”

“I never killed anybody that I know of,” Robinson said. “I shot two or three times. That was not my job.”

He also said there was a higher power protecting him: “God was with me. I was on (Iwo Jima) 33 days and did not get a scratch.”

During liberty in Honolulu, Robinson got to see the remains of the battleship USS Arizona and others ships that had been sunk in nearby Pearl Harbor. He then boarded a troop ship with a battalion of 1,000 other Marines and the ships zigzagged westward through the Pacific to avoid Japanese submarines on the way to Saipan. From there, he transferred to a smaller LST ship for the journey to Iwo Jima.

'We had to fight'

Like many of the Marines on the island, Robinson didn’t see the iconic event of the battle: the American flag raising atop Mt. Suribachi on the fifth day of the battle. The photo of that event earned a Pulitzer Prize for the photographer, Joe Rosenthal, who captured the moment in black and white.

“As soon as they raised the first flag, the 3-by-5 (foot), they broadcast it on the radio. I looked around and I saw it, and it looked like it was 3 or 4 inches high,” he said.

A second, larger U.S. flag was ordered flown atop the mountain, which is the moment Rosenthal froze with his Speed Graphic camera. However, Robinson said there wasn’t a radio message then and he didn’t know there was a second flag flown until years after leaving the Marines.

“I wasn’t paying any attention to that flag after that. I was watching what I was doing and going forward up the island,” he said.

When the battle ended, 21,703 Japanese soldiers had died along with 6,825 U.S. Marines. One of Robinson’s best friends, Allen Strasburger, died during the battle. Robinson later honored Strasburger by naming his first-born son Allen.

After a month on Iwo Jima, Robinson was sent to Hawaii to train for the invasion of Japan. His company “pitched a big party” following the Japanese surrender on V-J Day, but Robinson learned the 5th Marine Division still would be sent to Japan for a different mission: to destroy guns and munitions hidden in the mountains and win over Japanese hearts and minds on the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu.

Three months after an atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki ending the war, Robinson rode through the town and witnessed the devastation through an opening in the back of a canvas-covered troop carrier.

“There were people lined up along the streets. It was a terrible sight to see, these little kids with malnutrition, their little bellies swollen up,” Robinson recalled.

“They were told we would kill them all when we got over there, but they found out we had some kindness in us,” Robinson said. After cleaning out weapons and dumping them offshore, Robinson had a good perspective of what could have happened if the U.S. had to repeat Iwo Jima on Kyushu.

“If we would have had to invade Japan, they would have slaughtered us,” he said.

Robinson was honorably discharged from the Marines at age 20 and went home to Georgia. He later married and had three children.

“I could not remember a time when I didn’t want to be a marine and a policeman,” Robinson said. “Most kids say that, but they change their minds. But I never changed my mind.”

He walked into the Marietta, Ga., Police Department station in August 1946. Even though the police chief told Robinson only the bad things about police work, Robinson was hired and worked there until he retired as assistant chief in 1980.

He was working at a Marriot hotel as director of security when his first wife, Dorothy, died. He remarried, and he and Ethel Robinson moved to Panama City.

Robinson volunteered at St. Andrew Baptist Church’s benevolence center and took recordings of the church’s worship services to elderly homebound members. After his second wife died, he moved back to Georgia to be near remaining family members in 2009.

In 1995, Robinson returned to Iwo Jima for the 50th anniversary of the battle. For the first time, he went to the top of Mt. Suriba-chi and stood face to face with about 150 Japanese veterans making the same remembrance.

“I still get choked up and tears flow … remembering what went on. In 50 years, your feelings were not as strong as they were in those days,” Robinson said slowly, followed by a long pause.

“I’m human, and I carried a grudge against the Japanese race for a long time. I’m not holding any malice anymore,” he said.

As the numbers of Marines in his 5th Division reunions dwindle, Robinson has opened up about his experiences to his family and others.

“I asked my oldest son one time, ‘Have I bored you with all this war stuff?’ He said ‘No, I had to pull it out of you,’” Robinson said.

Asked what he’d like the generation fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to learn from Iwo Jima, Robinson was quick to respond.

“I can’t imagine what it would be like if I didn’t have the freedoms I have here," he said. We need to fight if necessary to preserve those freedoms. We had to fight to get them, and we need if necessary to fight to keep them.”

Troops Face Pockets of Resistance in Marjah

MARJAH, Afghanistan—The Taliban grenade that whizzed overhead was John Kael Weston's first indication that this embattled town might not be ready for an influx of diplomats, agriculturalists and economic-development specialists.


FEBRUARY 19, 2010

The State Department official visited Marjah Friday to see whether the week-old allied military offensive had made enough progress to allow the U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan government to launch their main mission: Reintroducing Afghan civilian rule to a town that has been under Taliban control for years.

Instead, Mr. Weston found the battle still under way and the town so devastated by years of war and neglect that it was hard to imagine scores of civilians setting up shop there very soon.

"I don't think we're there yet," he told Sgt. Rian Madden, an infantryman grimy from a week of firefights.

"I think that's a pretty fair assessment," the sergeant responded blandly.

Afghan and NATO forces continued to push through the Taliban stronghold of Marjah Friday, and were encountering "determined pockets of resistance" in northern and eastern parts of the city, the NATO coalition said.

Six coalition soldiers were killed in shootouts or in explosions in the past day, bringing the total to 11 casualties since the beginning of the Marjah operation.

NATO declined to give details of the latest casualties, saying only that three were killed by small arms and three by improvised explosive devices, or IEDS. All were killed in the southern part of Afghanistan, NATO said.

In Marjah, the coalition plans to spend tens of millions to repair battle damage, provide quick jobs and reverse years of government and Taliban neglect. The Afghan government has an official, Haji Zahir, waiting in the wings to take up the post as town administrator. But he hasn't visited yet.

Coalition officials such as Mr. Weston, the State Department liaison to the Marine task force leading the offensive, had envisioned Mr. Zahir going to work in what were once the government offices in Marjah. But they turned out to be little more than a clump of ruins where the locals held a weekly outdoor market before the fighting began.

Nearby is a former school, now in ruins and occupied by Marines who have built sandbag barricades to absorb regular Taliban attacks.

Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marine task force, came away from Friday's visit persuaded that it would be at least another week before the civilian surge could match the military surge in Marjah.

"Is there a good part of town?" he asked with dismay as he came upon the old government center.

Mr. Weston, wearing a flak jacket over his gray trousers and buttoned shirt, was surprised that almost no Marjah residents were wandering the streets. "Where are the Afghans?" he asked. "The Afghans have to be here first."

The residents of central Marjah have mostly been trying to stay out of the crossfire. Twenty or so men and boys emerged Friday morning for an informal meeting with the Marines and Afghan soldiers and police at the half-destroyed Loy Chareh bazaar.

The troops encouraged them to return to work, promising that the area of Marjah now under Marine control would expand over the coming days.

Some locals complained that they were frightened both of the harsh justice of the Taliban and of being mistaken for Taliban by the troops. At the same time, they were running low on food and wanted to see the shops open again.

"We're stuck in the middle here," one bearded local told Lt. Col. Cal Worth, commander of 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. "We're scared of the Taliban, and we're scared of you, too."

The local men offered mixed reports of life under Taliban rule. A Kabul-educated doctor said the Taliban showed great respect for tribal leaders, and virtually eliminated crime.

But the Taliban implemented no public works, allowing the town's network of irrigation canals—built with U.S. aid in the 1950s—to fill with trash and weeds. The insurgents took food from the local farmers. "I'll do jihad with my head," the doctor quoted the fighters as saying. "You do jihad with your food."

They executed three tribal elders who had cooperated with the government, according to the doctor. "Two guys on motorcycles would show up in the night," said a local welder.

There were no formal courts or prisons. Death was the punishment that fit any crime, said the welder.

"We're willing to die to clear these villages," Lt. Col. Worth said, eliciting nods of approval.

The colonel urged the men to prohibit their sons from fighting alongside the Taliban. And he instructed them to use the main roads to travel, approaching Afghan police checkpoints openly and slowly during the day. Eager to avoid fatal misunderstandings, Lt. Col. Worth repeatedly told the Afghans to pay close attention to warnings from the troops.

While the Americans and Afghans talked, a U.S. ground-attack plane strafed targets not far away, the sound of its Gatling guns ripping through the air.

While resistance within the city and around it remains serious, the coalition said it is pushing ahead with plans to deploy government and civil services that it had prepared in advance of the operation, in what it has dubbed its "government in a box" program.

NATO said it had already opened two "schools-in-a-box" in Nad-e Ali, each providing support for a teacher and 25 students. The coalition said it has also begun trying to establish a deputy district governor's office.

Write to Michael M. Phillips at [email protected] and Alan Cullison at [email protected]

US Marines seize Taliban headquarters, IDs, photos

MARJAH, Afghanistan – After a fierce gunfight, U.S. Marines seized a strongly defended compound Friday that appears to have been a Taliban headquarters — complete with photos of fighters posing with their weapons, dozens of Taliban-issued ID cards and graduation diplomas from a training camp in Pakistan.


By ALFRED de MONTESQUIOU, Associated Press Writer Alfred De Montesquiou, Associated Press Writer - February 19, 2010

Insurgents who had been using the field office just south of Marjah's town center abandoned it by the end of the day's fighting, as Marines converged on them from all sides, escalating operations to break resistance in this Taliban stronghold in southern Helmand province.

Marines from Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines fought their way south from the town center Friday after residents told them that several dozen insurgent fighters had regrouped in the area.

Throughout the day, small groups of Taliban marksmen tried to slow the advance with rifle fire as they slowly fell back in face of the Marine assault.

"They know that they are outnumbered ... and that in the end they don't have the firepower to compete with us conventionally," said Capt. Joshua Winfrey of Tulsa, Okla., commander of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines.

As the Marines advanced, they found rows of abandoned bunkers dug alongside an irrigation canal that the Taliban had used to fire on them the day before. Located at a crossroads, the five abandoned bunkers, camouflaged under a layer of mud, looked out across an open field. In the near distance, large stones had been set up to help the Taliban site in on their targets.

Just behind the bunkers, the Marines found a compound, surrounded by a mudbrick wall, typical of family homes in the town.

Inside the compound, where a few chickens still wandered, Marines uncovered dozens of Taliban-issued ID cards, official Taliban letterhead stationery and government stamps.

They also found graduation diplomas from an insurgent training camp in Baluchistan, an area of southern Pakistan that borders Helmand province, along with photos of fighters posing with AK-47 assault rifles.

The insurgents had fled with their weapons and ammunition. The Marines said they'd been coming under fire all day — but never saw any of the elusive gunmen, who retreated to resume hit-and-run tactics using snipers and small gun squads to harass Marine lines.

Lima Company's advance was part of a move by several Marine companies to converge on a pocket of Taliban fighters from all four directions. The Marines believe they've cornered what appeared to be a significant Taliban fighting force.

"It seems that it's their last stand," Winfrey said.

NATO said one service member died Friday in a small-arms attack but did not identify the victim by nationality.

Six coalition troops were killed Thursday, NATO said, making it the deadliest day since the offensive began Feb. 13. The death toll for the operation stands at 12 NATO troops and one Afghan soldier. Britain's Defense Ministry said three British soldiers were among those killed Thursday.

No precise figures on Taliban deaths have been released, but senior Marine officers say intelligence reports suggest more than 120 have died. The officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

The Marjah offensive is the biggest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and a test of President Barack Obama's strategy for reversing the rise of the Taliban while protecting civilians.

Marjah, 360 miles (610 kilometers) southwest of Kabul, has an estimated population of 80,000 and had been under Taliban control for years.

Before dawn on Saturday, about two dozen elite Marines were dropped by helicopter into an area where skilled Taliban marksmen were known to operate, an officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

A NATO statement said troops were still meeting "some resistance" from insurgents and that homemade bombs remain the key threat.

At a briefing in London, Maj. Gen. Gordon Messenger said the militant holdouts don't threaten the overall offensive but will take time to clear out.

"The levels of resistance in these areas has increased but not beyond expectation. We expected after the enemy had time to catch its breath, they would up the level of resistance, and that's happened," he said.

As U.S. and Afghan troops moved south Friday, they continued to sweep through houses, searching for bombs and questioning residents.

One man came forward and revealed a Taliban position a mile (1.6 kilometers) away. The man, who was not identified for security reasons, said he was angry because insurgents had earlier taken over his home.

He gave U.S. forces detailed information, saying more than a dozen Taliban fighters were waiting to ambush troops there. The position was rigged with dozens of homemade bombs and booby-traps, he said.

Outside of Marjah, U.S. and Afghan troops, backed by Stryker infantry vehicles, pushed into a section of mud-walled compounds that had been occupied by the Taliban in the Badula Qulp region, northeast of town.

Hit with small arms fire, the troops retaliated with machine guns and fired off a missile at a house where insurgents were believed to be hiding, and the militants quickly withdrew.


Associated Press writers Sylvia Hui in London, Rahim Faiez in Helmand province, Noor Khan in Kandahar and Tini Tran in Kabul contributed to this report.

Marines in Marja focus on sniper threat

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — Following the deadliest day yet for coalition forces seeking to drive the Taliban from the town of Marja in southern Afghanistan, U.S. Marines took aim Friday at the threat posed by insurgent snipers.


By Laura King
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
February 19, 2010 | 5:25 a.m.

Surprisingly accurate fire by Taliban marksmen, together with intricate webs of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, has slowed the progress of the offensive, now in its seventh day. Commanders say key goals are being met, but acknowledge that clearing operations will probably take weeks.

Amid what a military statement described as "determined pockets of resistance" by insurgents in and around the town, six service members from NATO's International Security Assistance Force were killed Thursday by explosions and small-arms fire. That doubled the coalition death toll for the offensive so far, bringing it to 11 Western troops and one Afghan soldier.

Taliban sharpshooters had long had a reputation for being anything but. But coalition field officers say they have been encountering snipers considerably more skilled than those seen previously -- in part, perhaps, because the insurgents had many months to prepare for this battle.

The Marines heavily publicized plans to seize Marja, in hopes that less committed insurgents would leave, and civilians in the area would be spared an even bigger battle. As it is, the offensive is the largest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that drove the Taliban from power.

The assault began Saturday with troops being airlifted over Taliban front lines and miles of minefields and dropped inside the town. On Friday, that tactic was repeated, on a much smaller scale, when elite Marine reconnaissance squads were airdropped into areas behind Taliban lines where snipers were known to be operating, the Associated Press reported.

Scattered clashes, mainly small-scale firefights and ambushes, continued throughout the day Friday, the military said.

Coalition officials hope attention can be shifted soon from the military phase of the operation to governance-building. As soon as Marja is deemed secure enough, a newly appointed deputy district governor will be brought in to begin overseeing the restoration of public services. During the time that the town has been a Taliban stronghold, schools closed and government authority vanished.

Elsewhere in Nad Ali district, where Marja is located, the military said "stabilization projects" such as repairing canals and opening schools have begun. Military officials have also been attending shuras, traditional tribal gatherings where local decision making occurs.

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In Afghanistan, Marines handling detainees by the book

The Marines have been ordered not to treat Afghans roughly. When making an arrest, they are instructed to ask their suspect to voluntarily go with them. Most do.

Reporting from Spin Ghar, Afghanistan - The three men were blindfolded, their hands bound in front of them with plastic flex cuffs, and each was in the firm grip of a Marine. Their loose-fitting clothes were faded and dusty, their thick beards beginning to show gray.


By Tony Perry
February 19, 2010

They had been spotted outside the town of Marja in southern Afghanistan carrying a shovel near a spot where a roadside bomb had been planted. They had a suspiciously large amount of cash, and two of them had tested positive for explosive material on their hands.

So the Marines brought them to this outpost of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. From here, the men will be taken to battalion headquarters.

It's a common scene throughout Helmand province: Marines, a bit like cops on the beat, returning from patrol with detainees to be questioned and possibly transferred to the Afghan national police or the holding area at the battalion headquarters, Forward Operating Base Geronimo.

The Marines have been warned: Any rough treatment or even harsh language aimed at a detainee is forbidden. When making an arrest, they are instructed to ask their subject if he will voluntarily go with them.

"We don't want any of our Marines to make a scene," said Capt. Yuri Paredes, commander of the battalion's Alpha Company. "People will think we're degrading them."

Cases of detainees resisting are few; even while protesting their innocence, most go without a struggle.

For the Marines, it's a test of their ability to follow orders and keep their anger in check. Most detainees are suspected of planting roadside bombs or taking sniper shots at troops.

"It's hard to put our feelings aside when these guys were shooting at Marines," Staff Sgt. Jason Moore said. "But we do it; that's what makes us better than them."

Moore was loading the three suspects into a Marine vehicle designed to withstand the blast of roadside bombs. He saw the oddity of it: putting detainees in a vehicle meant to keep them safe if the vehicle strikes a bomb planted by militants.

"Yeah, it's weird, isn't it?" Moore said.

Two of the three had protested, through an interpreter, that they were mere cabdrivers. They had been searched and their possessions put in plastic bags: candy, hand cream, matches, a flash drive and several hundred dollars in Afghan currency.

"That's too much money for farmers or cabdrivers," Moore said.

True to their institutional culture, the Marines have a lengthy set of instructions on how to treat detainees. The procedures were rewritten after a detainee died in 2003 while in Marine custody in Iraq. Now, at each stop, as the detainees are being transferred, they are examined to spot any sign of rough treatment.

"The only way we'd rough them up is if they come at us," said Cpl. Jeffrey Rains, who deals with detainees brought to the Alpha Company outpost in the town of Nawa. "Otherwise, we want to make sure they leave in the same shape they arrived."

Detainees are cuffed with their hands in front -- not in back, which would be more uncomfortable during a bumpy ride over rutted roads. Except for the official photo for the record, no other photographs are permitted.

The Marines have 96 hours to question a detainee before either releasing him or transferring him to the Afghan national police. Some, upon release, are given money as compensation for being detained.

Within hours of the three being arrested, a tribal elder had come forward to vouch for them.

"It happens all the time. You detain someone, and suddenly an elder says he can find 25 guys who will say the guy was with them and is innocent," said Lt. Col. Matt Baker, commander of the 1st Battalion.

It's a tricky proposition: The Marines want to stop the proliferation of roadside bombs, but they also are currying favor with tribal elders, hoping to win their support against the Taliban.

The rules for detainees reflect the goals of the counterinsurgency campaign: Better to let a small-fry Taliban loose rather than risk alienating an influential mullah or tribal elder.

Baker ordered the three detainees released, but only after elders signed an agreement taking responsibility for the men's conduct.

"We told them: Any more trouble and we come after them, no second chances," he said.

"We'll see."

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If I can run a marathon, so can you!

Sue Castaneda will be instructing a four-session course on how to prepare yourself for a marathon.

Sue Castaneda accomplished her goal of running a marathon when she participated in the U.S. Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C. last October.


By Karen Cotton
Friday, February 19, 2010

This March she wants to encourage and instruct other beginning runners on how to make their dreams of running a marathon a reality.

Castaneda’s four-session long Laramie County Community College Life Enrichment course will start on March 4.

Students won’t run during her course, but they will learn about course mapping, the proper shoes and other marathon running tips.

Two of Castaneda’s classes will take place at LCCC.

“When I decided I wanted to run a marathon, I wanted to do it as a goal, and I only wanted to run one marathon,” Castaneda said.

A lot of people find it difficult to run to their mailbox, but with these courses Castaneda hopes to inspire people to run great distances, a little at a time.

She suggests that beginner runners should run further every week.

“Run 14 miles one week, then 15 the next week, then the week after that drop down to 11 miles, then you go back up to 17 and 18 miles and your mileage drops to 12,” she said. “It’s designed so you’re not having to constantly kill yourself every week.

“This shows you each week, ‘Yes I can do a little bit more,’ and then you get a break.”

Castaneda ran in the U.S. Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C., because she was inspired by her son, Sean, who is serving in the Marines.

“I’m not crazy about him going to the Marines, but once we went to his Marine graduation a few years ago, I can’t help but feel proud,” she said.

Her marathon goal was to earn the Eagle Globe and Anchor medal at the race.

“It looks like the U.S. Marine Corps emblem and a Marine gives you your medal,” she said.

She ran the marathon also to gain the health benefits from training for the race.

“Another thing that made me do it, was my sister passed away from cancer a year ago,” Sue said. “Little things make you keep doing it, even though you’re hot, sweaty and it hurts.

“But to get that medal was the main thing that I wanted.”

Here’s what you’ll learn in her class:

“I’m not running with people, but I will give people the tips and inspiration to get out there and run,” she said. “I’m not suggesting that everyone run a marathon, but this will inspire them to get out there and run.

“Running is good for you not only physically but emotionally, some would even say spiritually.”

Sue said she liked meditating while she ran and added, “I’m not a fast runner.”

Four or five people will talk about their own marathon experience during one of the class dates.

She also will share her marathon story.

“A marathon is just a goal to keep you training and nobody is running to win,” Sue said. “But the fact that you train and show up at the starting line makes you the winner. You did all of that to get there and you showed up and are doing it.”

It took Sue 18 weeks to train for her marathon and she used the Hal Higdon training plan.

One of her classes will take place at the Foot of the Rockies.

“Rick Bishop, the owner of Foot of the Rockies, will teach people about the proper shoes and inserts and why the right shoes are important for your feet, knees and hips when you run,” Sue said.

Another class will take place with Dr. Skip Ross at Smart Sports.

“He’ll talk about sports injuries and proper running technique and cross training,” she said.

On the last day of class Castaneda will talk about course mapping your run, running safely, running with music and the entire marathon training schedule.

“I’m hoping to inspire people to get out there and start slow,” Sue said. “No one has to run for speed. They just have to run the first time and then the next time.”

“If I can run a marathon, so can you”

With instructor Sue Castaneda

When: Four-session course, beginning March 4 on Thursdays, 7-8:30 p.m.

Where: First two classes take place at Laramie County Community College, 1400 College Drive

Cost: $20

More info: To register contact Life Enrichment at Laramie County Community College at 778-1236. www.lccc.wy.edu

Suggested reading: “The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer” by David Whitsett, Forest A. Dolgener and Tanjala Mabon Kole.

Marine Corps Marathon info: www.marinemarathon.com/page11.aspx

February 18, 2010

Marines dropped behind Taliban lines; NATO now controls key roads in Marjah but progress slow

MARJAH, Afghanistan - Two U.S. helicopters dropped elite Marine recon teams behind Taliban lines before dawn Friday as the U.S.-led force stepped up operations to break resistance on the seventh day of fighting in the besieged militant stronghold of Marjah.


February 18, 2010
By Alfred De Montesquiou, The Associated Press

About two dozen Marines were inserted into an area where skilled Taliban marksmen are known to operate, an officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

U.S. and Afghan troops encountered skilled sharpshooters and better-fortified Taliban positions Thursday, indicating that insurgent resistance in their logistics and opium-smuggling centre was far from crushed.

A Marine general said Thursday that U.S. and Afghan allied forces control the main roads and markets in town, but fighting has raged on elsewhere in the southern farming town. A British general said he expected it would take another month to secure the town.

NATO said six international service members died Thursday, bringing the number of allied troops killed in the offensive to 11 NATO troops and one Afghan soldier. The international coalition did not disclose their nationalities, but Britain's Defence Ministry said two British soldiers were among the dead.

No precise figures on Taliban deaths have been released, but senior Marine officers say intelligence reports suggest more than 120 have died. The officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to release the information.

Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of U.S. Marines in Marjah, told The Associated Press that allied forces have taken control of the main roads, bridges and government centres in Marjah, a town of about 80,000 people located 360 miles (610 kilometres) southwest of Kabul.

"I'd say we control the spine" of the town, Nicholson said as he inspected the Marines' front line in the north of the dusty, mud-brick town. "We're where we want to be."

As Nicholson spoke, bursts of heavy machine-gun fire in the near distance showed that insurgents still hold terrain about a half-mile (kilometre) away.

"Every day, there's not a dramatic change. It's steady," he said, noting that fighting continues to erupt.

The offensive in Marjah is the biggest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and a test of President Barack Obama's strategy for reversing the rise of the Taliban while protecting civilians.

Plans call for NATO to rush in a civilian administration, restore public services and pour in aid to try to win the loyalty of the population in preventing the Taliban from returning.

But stubborn Taliban resistance, coupled with restrictive rules on allies' use of heavy weaponry when civilians may be at risk, have slowed the advance through the town. The NATO commander of troops in southern Afghanistan, British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, told reporters in Washington via a video hookup that he expects it could take another 30 days to secure Marjah.

NATO has given no figures on civilian deaths since a count of 15 earlier in the offensive. Afghan rights groups have reported 19 dead. Since those figures were given, much of the fighting has shifted away from the heavily built-up area, where most civilians live.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly criticized the use of airstrikes and other long-range weaponry because of the risk to civilians. Twelve of the 15 deaths reported by NATO happened when two rockets hit a home on Sunday.

The allied troops have to go to great lengths to distinguish insurgents from civilians. Marines detained one man Thursday as he left a compound they had taken fire from. He had no weapon but a quick test found gunpowder residue on his hands - sufficient grounds to arrest him.

Soldiers tied the suspect's hands behind his back and covered his face with a shawl while he sat cross-legged on the ground waiting to be hauled away.

Throughout Thursday, U.S. Marines pummeled insurgents with mortars, sniper fire and missiles as gunbattles intensified. Taliban fighters fired back with rocket-propelled grenades and rifles, some of the fire far more accurate than Marines have faced in other Afghan battles.

The increasingly accurate sniper fire - and strong intelligence on possible suicide bomb threats - indicated that insurgents from outside Marjah are still operating within the town, Nicholson said.

There were also pockets of calm Thursday. Some families returned to their homes, their donkeys laden with their belongings. Several stores reopened in the bullet-riddled bazaar in the north of town, and customers lined up to buy goods for the first time in nearly a week.

One Marjah farmer said the Taliban broke into his home and used it to fire on the troops.

"We couldn't do anything when one of them was forcing his way into our house. What could we do?" said Sayed Wakhan, a sunburned, middle-aged opium poppy farmer in northern Marjah.

But Wakhan, who spoke to reporters as he mixed mud to make repairs on his house, also said he didn't trust the government forces who now occupy his neighbourhood.

"I have suffered at the hands of police, and I don't like the international forces coming into our area," he snapped. His remarks were a reminder of the tough job ahead for NATO and Afghan authorities in winning over locals used to an uneasy peace under the Taliban.

Also Thursday, a NATO airstrike in northern Afghanistan missed a group of insurgents and killed seven Afghan policemen, the Afghan Interior Ministry said.

A NATO statement acknowledged the report and said it and the ministry were investigating.

In eastern Afghanistan, eight Afghan policemen defected to the Taliban, according to Mirza Khan, the deputy provincial police chief.

The policemen abandoned their posts in central Wardak province's Chak district and joined the militants there, he said. One of them had previous ties to the Taliban, he said, but would not elaborate.

"These policemen came on their own and told us they want to join with the Taliban. Now they are with us," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Muhajid said.


Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Helmand province and Tini Tran and Heidi Vogt in Kabul contributed to this report.

Joint Force Finds Large Cache in Now Zad

KABUL, Afghanistan - An Afghan-international security patrol found a large weapons cache in the Now Zad District of Helmand last night.


ISAF Joint Command
Courtesy Story
Date: 02.18.2010
Posted: 02.18.2010 04:59

The cache contained 2,520 30mm rounds, 300 14.5mm rounds, three anti-aircraft weapons, 15 rocket-propelled grenades, 34 mortar rounds and other ammunition.

"The ability of our well trained soldiers to find items like these demonstrates their commitment to protecting the citizens of Afghanistan," said General Zahir Azimi, Afghan Ministry of Defense spokesman.

The cache was destroyed by an explosive ordnance disposal team.

Local Marine in Afghanistan: 'I just have to stay alive'

KABUL, Afghanistan - For the U.S. Marines, including Justin Blancas of Mount Prospect, who are deployed to the battlefields of southern Afghanistan, life is fragile and thoughts focus on the day they see their families again. But something about this war is different.


By Jason Gutierrez | Agence France-Presse
Published: 2/18/2010

They are now conducting an offensive on Marjah, one of the Taliban's big urban strongholds in the southern province of Helmand, but progress is slow with the militants preferring fight to flight.

The Marines will soon be joined by tens of thousands more soldiers, the lion's share of the 30,000-strong troop surge promised by President Barack Obama in December to try to turn around the grinding Afghan war.

Until then, the Marines are on their own. A foot patrol for one platoon of Marines one day ends with a dash under a hail of bullets across a heavily-mined poppy field.

The soldiers have been pinned down in a muddy mound, the thorny weeds cutting through skin. They recover soon enough, however, maneuvering away from the Taliban's crosshairs and driving them away with heavy machine-gun fire.

"I pray in the morning and at night, hoping that someone up there is looking after me," says Blancas, a 23-year-old lance corporal serving with the Marines 1st Battalion, 6th Regiment Alpha Company's 2nd Platoon.

"I have already made my peace with God because this war is different; it's not conventional.

"These Taliban have learned their lesson. They adapt as fast as we do, but we are bound by our strict rules. They are not," he says, panting after a 100-yard dash for cover behind an abandoned mud house. "It can be a death run like this every day."

The U.S. and NATO troop surge will the push the foreign force to 150,000 this year, but Afghan and Western officials are also talking about a political solution to end the Taliban-led insurgency as its enters its ninth year.

To force the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table, however, U.S. military officials have said there needs to be greater success on the battlefield - and this is where the Marines come in.

Yet the challenges on the ground are immense. Fields are littered with improvised explosive devices responsible for most of the deaths of foreign troops in Afghanistan, which hit a record 520 fatalities last year. The area is also filled with opium poppy, which bankrolls the Taliban movement.

The Marines' mission is to show U.S. strength, assist in installing government control in Helmand province and let the local population know they have arrived.

But Taliban militants harass the villagers at night, warning them of trouble if they help U.S. troops.

Under the cover of darkness, they also plant IEDs in fields the Marines have to cross.

Blancas, a father of a toddler, has armed himself with his assault rifle, two rosaries and prayer cards stuffed in his pockets. It all comes down to one simple thing, he says.

"We do what we have to do, but I plan to be out of the corps soon and be Daddy. I just have to stay alive till then."

Marines still looking over shoulder for Taliban

MARJAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - It's only been six days since NATO launched a major assault against the Taliban and some Afghans are already asking Marines when they can reopen their shops.


Golnar Motevalli, Reuters February 18, 2010, 9:12 pm

But it's hard to say whether that's a sign the Taliban had faded away, or just a false sense of security in Marjah, the heart of the last Taliban stronghold in Helmand, Afghanistan's most violent province.

Bravo Company of the First Battalion, Sixth Marines, has not had it easy since they were ferried in by helicopter on Saturday to launch one of the biggest NATO missions designed to help stabilize Afghanistan.

They have come under repeated heavy gunfire and faced highly skilled Taliban snipers. The fear of being blown up by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) -- some of the biggest killers in the conflict in Afghanistan -- has also bogged them down.

One Marine was killed on the first day of the operation with a single bullet to his heart. Another survived a close call when a bullet struck his helmet.

"We've secured the area of Koru Chareh (village) and are now working to open the bazaar back up. Today we've had local nationals requesting to know when they can open their shops again," said Marine Lieutenant Mark Greenlief.

NATO's largest assault in Afghanistan since the start of the war is aimed at driving the Taliban from their stronghold to make way for Afghan authorities to take over.

NATO said in a statement that a number of enemy fighters remaining in Marjah were engaging in direct combat, although combined forces have taken key areas.

Much of the success of the operation depends on winning the trust of civilians, by not only avoiding civilian casualties but by also listening to their every complaint.

Some have requested medical assistance. Those whose homes were damaged by bombs have been compensated, Marines say.


But the Taliban are not far away. And they have only one objective -- killing foreign forces to hold on to what Western countries say is a poppy cultivation center that funds their insurgency.

"We know the Taliban have pushed out of the village and are still operating around the area to our south, northeast and west," said Greenlief.

"But our main focus still remains on the people, improving their way of life and assisting them with their problems."

Marines are now comfortable enough to mount foot patrols. But the Taliban are unpredictable.

Marines have come across bullet casings from M-16 rifles -- a NATO weapon unlike the usual AK-47s the Taliban usually use -- suggesting the group has more sophisticated weaponry than previously thought.

"We still face a significant indirect fire and IED threat outside the pork chop," said Greenlief, referring to the area around Karu Chareh, shaped like a pork chop.

"As our company continues to increase its security in one area we will work to secure the rest of our battlespace."

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Bryson Hull and Ron Popeski)

February 17, 2010

Snipers Imperil U.S.-Led Forces in Afghan Offensive

MARJA, Afghanistan — In five days of fighting, the Taliban have shown a side not often seen in nearly a decade of American military action in Afghanistan: the use of snipers, both working alone and integrated into guerrilla-style ambushes.


Published: February 17, 2010

Five Marines and two Afghan soldiers have been struck here in recent days by bullets fired at long range. That includes one Marine fatally shot and two others wounded in the opening hour of a four-hour clash on Wednesday, when a platoon with Company K of the Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, was ambushed while moving on foot across a barren expanse of flat ground between the clusters of low-slung mud buildings.

Almost every American and Afghan infantryman present has had frightening close calls. Some of the shooting has apparently been from Kalashnikov machine guns, the Marines say, mixed with sniper fire.

The near misses have included lone bullets striking doorjambs beside their faces as Marines peeked around corners, single rounds cracking by just overhead as Marines looked over mud walls, and bullets slamming into the dirt beside them as they ran across the many unavoidable open spaces in the area they have been assigned to clear.

On Wednesday, firing came from primitive compounds, irrigation canals and agricultural fields as the bloody struggle between the Marines and the Taliban for control of the northern portion of this Taliban enclave continued for a fifth day.

In return, Company K used mortars, artillery, helicopter attack gunships and an airstrike in a long afternoon of fighting, which ended, as has been the pattern for nearly a week, with the waning evening light.

The fight to push the Taliban from this small area of Marja, a rural belt of dense poppy cultivation with few roads and almost no services, has relented only briefly since Company K landed by helicopters in the blackness early on Saturday morning. It has been a grinding series of skirmishes triggered by the company’s advances to seize sections of villages, a bridge and a bazaar where it has established an outpost and patrol bases.

Over all, most Taliban small-arms fire has been haphazard and ineffective, an unimpressive display of ill discipline or poor skill. But this more familiar brand of Taliban shooting has been punctuated by the work of what would seem to be several well-trained marksmen.

On Monday, a sniper struck an Afghan soldier in the neck at a range of roughly 500 to 700 yards. The Afghan was walking across an open area when the single shot hit him. He died.

The experience of First Platoon on Wednesday was the latest chilling example. The platoon, laden with its backpacks, was moving west toward the company’s main outpost after several days of operating in the eastern portion of the company’s area.

Marines here often stay within the small clusters of buildings as they walk, seeking the relative protection of mud walls. But it is impossible to move far without venturing into the open to cross to new villages. As First Platoon moved into the last wide expanse before reaching the command post, the Taliban began a complex ambush.

First bullets came from a Kalashnikov firing from the south, said First Lt. Jarrod D. Neff, the platoon commander. The attack had a logic: to the south, a deep irrigation canal separates the insurgents from anyone walking on the north side, where the company’s forces are concentrated. Vegetation is also thicker there, providing ample concealment.

There have been several ambushes in this same spot since the long-planned Afghan and American operation to evict the Taliban and establish a government presence in Marja began. Each time, the Marines and their Afghan counterparts have run through the open by turns, some of them sprinting while others provided suppressive fire.

The routine had been a long and risky maneuver by dashing and dropping, without a hint of cover, as bursts of machine-gun bullets and single sniper shots zipped past or thumped in the soil, kicking up a fine white powder that coats the land. At the end of each ambush, each man was slicked in sweat and winded. Ears rang from the near deafening sound of the Marines and Afghan soldiers returning fire.

As First Platoon made the crossing under machine-gun fire, at least one sniper was also waiting, according to the Marines who crossed. After the Taliban gunmen occupied the platoon’s attention to the south, a sniper opened fire from the north, Marines in the ambush said.

The Marine who was killed was struck in the chest as he ran, just above the bulletproof plate on his body armor, the Marines said. The others were struck in a hand or arm. (The names of the three wounded men have been withheld pending government notification of their families.)

All three were evacuated by an Army Black Hawk helicopter that landed under crackling fire.

Whoever was firing remained hidden, even from the Marines’ rifle scopes. “I was looking and I couldn’t see them,” said Staff Sgt. Jay C. Padilla, an intelligence specialist who made the crossing with First Platoon. “But they were shooting the dirt right next to us.” The sniper also focused, two Marines said, on trying to hit a black Labrador retriever, Jaeger, who has been trained for sniffing out munitions and hidden bombs. The dog was not hit.

The platoon was just outside the company outpost when the ambush began. A squad from Third Platoon rushed out and bounded across the canal, trying to flank the Taliban and chase them away, or to draw their fire so that First Platoon might continue its crossing. The squad came under precise sniper fire, too, while the company coordinated fire support.

First the company fired its 60-millimeter mortars, but the Taliban kept firing. Company K escalated after the Third Platoon commander reported by radio that several insurgents had moved into a compound near the canal.

The forward air controller traveling with Company K, Capt. Akil R. Bacchus, arranged for an airstrike.

About a minute later, a 250-pound GPS-guided bomb whooshed past overhead and slammed into the compound with a thunderous explosion.

“Good hit!” said Capt. Joshua P. Biggers, the company commander. “Good hit.”

After the airstrike, two pairs of attack helicopters were cleared to strafe a set of bunkers and canals that the Taliban fighters had been firing from.

They climbed high over the canal and bore down toward a tree line, guns and rockets firing. Explosions tossed soil and made the ground shudder. First Platoon pushed toward the outpost.

For all the intensity of the fighting in this small area of Marja, and in spite of the hardships and difficulties of the past several days, both Captain Biggers and the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, suggested Wednesday that the seesaw contest would soon shift.

Company K had been isolated for several days, and by daylight was almost constantly challenged by the Taliban. But on Wednesday morning, before the latest ambush, the battalion had cleared the roads to its outposts, allowing more forces to flow into the area, significantly increasing the company’s strength.

By evening, as Cobra gunships still circled, the results were visible to the Marines and insurgents watching the outpost alike. The company had more supplies, and its contingent of several mine-resistant, ambush-protected troop carriers, called MRAPs — each outfitted with either a heavy machine gun or automatic grenade launcher — had reached the outpost.

Colonel Christmas looked over the outpost’s southern wall at the vegetated terrain beyond the canal. “We’ll be getting in there and clearing that out,” he said.

US forces move swiftly to take control of region north of Marjah

US Marines moving from the north of Marjah have joined up with US troops who were dropped into the area by helicopter four days ago, helping to increase their control over a crucial area known as the “Pork Chop”.


February 17, 2010
Jerome Starkey and Deborah Haynes

Major-General Nick Carter, the British commander of Nato forces in southern Afghanistan, said that two thirds of the town of Marjah had been cleared but the remainder would take longer to purge of insurgents because of roadside bombs. British troops hold three quarters of their designated area, he added.

US troops, facing continued fire from the Taleban, fired smoke rounds to clear insurgents. When they moved through territory held previously by the Taleban the Marines found heroin with a street value of £300,000 and enough ammonium nitrate fertiliser to make 1,000lb of improvised bombs.

A statement by the Taleban, however, said that “the invading forces have made no spectacular advancement since the beginning of the operations. They have descended from helicopters in limited areas of Marjah and now are under siege. The invaders are not able to come out of their ditches.”

An Afghan human rights group said that 19 civilians had been killed in the operation. More details have also emerged of a separate incident on Monday in which the Nato International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) killed five civilians and injured two who they thought were placing a mine in Kandahar province.

“The joint patrol called for an airstrike,” Isaf said. “Following the strike the Afghan-Isaf patrol approached the scene and determined the individuals had not been emplacing an IED.”

General Carter said that a US missile system that killed 12 civilians on Sunday was back in use after an investigation showed that it had hit its intended target. It showed that the Taleban had been using civilian compounds to hide in, he said, and there had been no human error.

The Taleban’s leadership were “significantly dislocated” in the area, he added, with insurgents forming “disparate groupings”.

• The Taleban invited journalists to visit Marjah yesterday, claiming that Afghan and Nato forces were under siege (Jerome Starkey writes).

In an unusual intensification of the insurgents’ public relations efforts the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” issued an e-mail invitation to “all the independent mass media outlets of the world” in an attempt to break Nato’s stranglehold on reporter’s access to the front line.

Only a handful of journalists are embedded with US troops and the Taleban say that their reports are biased. A number of journalists who previously embedded with the Taleban were kidnapped.

Afghan army raises flag on embattled Taliban town

MARJAH, Afghanistan — Military commanders raised the Afghan flag in the bullet-ridden main market of the Taliban's southern stronghold of Marjah on Wednesday as firefights continued to break out elsewhere in the town between holed-up militants and U.S. and Afghan troops.


By ALFRED de MONTESQUIOU and RAHIM FAIEZ (AP) – February 17, 2010

About 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops are taking part in the offensive around Marjah, a town of about 80,000 people that was the largest population center in southern Helmand province under Taliban control. NATO hopes to rush in aid and public services as soon as the town is secured to try to win the loyalty of the population.

With the assault in its fifth day, an Afghan army soldier climbed to the roof of an abandoned shop and raised a large bamboo pole with Afghanistan's official green-and-red flag. A crowd including the provincial governor, a few hundred Marine and Afghan troops and handfuls of civilians — Afghan men in turbans and traditional loose tunics who were searched for weapons as they entered the bazaar — watched from below.

The market was calm during the ceremony and Marines there said they are in control of the neighborhood.

But the detritus of fighting was everywhere. The back of the building over which the flag waved had been blown away. Shops were riddled with bullet holes. Grocery stores and fruit stalls had been left standing open, hastily deserted by their owners. White metal fences marked off areas that had not yet been cleared of bombs.

Afghan soldiers said they were guarding the shops to prevent looting and hoped the proprietors would soon feel safe enough to return.

The Marines and Afghan troops "saw sustained but less frequent insurgent activity" in Marjah on Wednesday, limited mostly to small-scale attacks, NATO said in a statement.

Marine officials have said that Taliban resistance has started to seem more disorganized than in the first few days of the assault, when small teams of insurgents swarmed around Marine and Afghan army positions firing rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

The offensive in Marjah — about 380 miles (610 kilometers) southwest of Kabul — is the biggest assault since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and a major test of a retooled NATO strategy to focus on protecting civilians, rather than killing insurgents.

Helmand Gov. Gulab Mangal About 40 insurgents have been killed since the offensive began Saturday. Four NATO service members have been killed, and one Afghan soldier.

Even with caution on both the NATO and Afghan side, civilians have been killed too. NATO has confirmed 15 civilian deaths in the operation. Afghan rights groups say at least 19 have been killed.

Insurgents are increasingly using civilians as human shields — firing at Afghan troops from inside or next to compounds where women and children appear to have been ordered to stand on a roof or in a window, said Gen. Mohiudin Ghori, the brigade commander for Afghan troops in Marjah.

"Especially in the south of Marjah, the enemy is fighting from compounds where soldiers can very clearly see women or children on the roof or in a second-floor or third-floor window," Ghori said. "They are trying to get us to fire on them and kill the civilians."

Ghori said troops have made choices either not to fire at the insurgents with civilians nearby or they have had to target and advance much more slowly in order to distinguish between militants and civilians as they go.

One Afghan soldier said that he has seen many civilians wounded as they were caught in the crossfire.

"I myself saw lots of people that were shot, and they were ordinary people," said Esmatullah, who did not give his rank and like many Afghans goes by one name. He said some were hit by Taliban bullets and some by Marine or Army troops.

Taliban "were firing at us from people's homes. So in returning fire, people got shot," he said.

In northern Marjah, U.S. Marines fanned out through opium poppy fields, dirt roads and side alleys to take control of a broader stretch of area from insurgents as machine gun fire rattled in the distance.

The Marines found several compounds that had primitive drawings on their walls depicting insurgents blowing up tanks or helicopters, a sign that Afghan troops say revealed strong Taliban support in the neighborhood.

Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, commander of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, said security has improved enough in the north of town for Afghan police to step in. Other Marine units have taken control of main locations in the center of town.

"Bringing in the Afghan police frees up my forces to clear more insurgent zones," Christmas said.

Combat engineers were building a fortified base at the entrance of town for the police, who are expected to arrive Thursday.

Afghan police chosen for the task in Marjah were selected from other regions of the country instead of Helmand province, Marine officials said, in order to avoid handing over day-to-day security to officers who may have tribal or friendship ties to the Taliban.

Three convoys of police officers deployed to Marjah on Wednesday, the Helmand governor, Mangal, told reporters in Lashkar Gah, the nearby provincial capital, after the flag-raising. He did not say how many officers were in the convoys.

Mangal said the plan is that Afghan and allied troops will turn neighborhoods over to Afghan police as they are secured.

"Life is returning to normal," he said. "You can see the people are busy in their daily lives. Some shops are still closed but once they arrest the enemy, hopefully, the shops will reopen too."

Troops are encountering less fire from mortars and RPGs than at the start of the assault, suggesting that the insurgents may have depleted some of their reserves or that the heavier weapons have been hit, the Afghan brigade commander Ghori said.

But Taliban fighters have not given up. Insurgent snipers hiding in haystacks in poppy fields have exchanged fire with Marines and Afghan troops in recent days as they swept south.

A Marine spokesman said the zone appeared quieter Wednesday than on previous days, but was likely to flare up again.

"This thing is going to have peaks where we establish ourselves, and then they're going to make the next push into the city," Capt. Abraham Sipe said.

NATO said it has reinstated use of a high-tech rocket system that it suspended after two rockets hit a house on the outskirts of Marjah on Sunday, killing 12 people, including at least five children.

The military coalition originally said the missiles went hundreds of yards (meters) off target but said Tuesday that it determined that the rockets hit the intended target.

Afghan officials said three Taliban fighters were in the house at the time.

Faiez reported from Helmand province. Associated Press writer Heidi Vogt contributed to this report from Kabul

Michigan Marine killed in Afghanistan to be buried at Arlington

A Marine who graduated from Canton High School in 2007 and died recently in Afghanistan had known for years that he wanted to be in the military, according to one of his former teachers.


Posted: Feb. 17, 2010

Jim O’Connor said Cpl. Jacob Turbett was a good person, who truly owned his decision to join the military and knew what he was getting into. O’Connor taught auto technology and collision repair to Turbett for several years.

“He just had a great positive attitude. I don’t think he ever had a bad day … He chased his passion and that was to be a Marine,” O’Connor said.

Turbett, whose unit was based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., would have turned 22 next month. The military said his remains were returned to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware over the weekend.

His mother, Sheila Turbett, said that she’d spoken to her son a few days before he died, when he called her at work to say he and his fellow Marines in Afghanistan were waiting to go into the Taliban stronghold of Marjah. The invasion was repeatedly delayed, he told her, possibly because of weather.

Turbett’s wife, Crystal, told the Associated Press that the military notified her of his death Saturday.

His mother said he was killed by a single gunshot. “I was really shocked, obviously,” she said Tuesday.

The slain corporal came from a military family, according to Sheila Turbett. One of his grandfathers, two of his uncles and a cousin were in the Marines and another uncle was in the Navy. In fact, his sister, Jaime Turbett, enlisted in the Navy and started boot camp on Feb. 3, 10 days before he was killed.

Turbett himself did civil air patrol in high school for a couple years. His half-brother, Joe Marsh, is a sheriff’s deputy in Humboldt County, Calif.

“He was actually looking forward to going over there and fighting for his country,” his mother, Sheila Turbett, said about his tour of duty in Afghanistan.

He previously completed tours of duty in Bangladesh and Iraq and had been stationed in Okinawa, Japan.

Turbett, a Redondo Beach, Calif., native, had hoped to make the military a permanent part of his life.

“He was well-liked. He was a great worker, a really hard worker,” his mother said. “He wanted to fly airplanes and unfortunately, he never got the school grades good enough soon enough. He was planning on finishing up his tour of duty, finish up his four years and then was going to possibly get out, go to school and then go back into the military to try to get into flying.”

In his spare time, Turbett – Jake to his friends, Jakey to his mom – enjoyed playing video games, learning about airplanes and squirrel hunting.

“He was a quiet boy, kind of, but he was a jokester,” Sheila Turbett recalled. “He would be poking me – ‘Cut it out. Quit it. Leave me alone.’ He’d keep egging you on. He wouldn’t stop. He liked to see you laugh. He was a big family guy.”

Visitation will be Monday 12-9 p.m. at the L.J. Griffin Funeral Home, 42600 Ford Road in Canton, with a funeral the following day at 1 p.m. Turbett will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on March 9.

Afghanistan Operations Seize Suspects, Weapons

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Combined Afghan and international forces uncovered weapons caches and detained suspected insurgents during multiple operations in Afghanistan Feb. 17.


Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs
Courtesy Story
Date: 02.17.2010
Posted: 02.17.2010 02:06

A security force searched a compound in Logar province after reports indicated militant activity. While searching the compound, the force captured a Taliban subcommander responsible for the movement of weapons and leading explosive attacks against Afghan and coalition troops.

In another operation today, a force captured a few suspected insurgents in the Nimroz province while in pursuit of a Taliban commander operating in southern Farah province. The force detained an individual in an empty field on suspicion of supporting militant activities.

After detaining the individual, the force searched a nearby compound after reports indicated militant activity there and detained a pair of additional suspected insurgents. The force discovered Taliban paraphernalia and a type of handheld radio often used by militants for communication.

In Kandahar province today, a patrol found a weapons cache containing two artillery rounds, two grenades, an anti-tank mine, ammunition and a radio. The munitions will be destroyed.

In operations yesterday:

-- A security force searched a compound in Nimroz province after getting reports of militant activity. The force detained several militants, found weapons and a large amount of explosives and detonators during their search. Coalition experts detonated the explosives in place.

-- The Afghan national police discovered 55 pounds of explosive material in Kandahar province. Two insurgents were arrested. An investigation has been launched into the case.

-- A combined Afghan and International Security Force found and destroyed a cache of 18 mortar rounds, a grenade launcher and bomb-making materials in Helmand.

-- Afghan police discovered and diffused three mines in Uruzgan province. The remote-controlled mines had been placed by insurgents in different districts of the province.

-- A combined force on a routine patrol found four 40-pound bags of opium in Helmand, along with an assault rifle with ammunition magazines, a bayonet and a letter from an anti-Afghan-government organization.

-- An international patrol observed a group of suspicious individuals near the border in eastern Afghanistan. After receiving positive confirmation that the group consisted of insurgents, the patrol requested air support. Coalition aircraft dropped precision-guided munitions on insurgent locations. More than a dozen insurgents reportedly were killed.

Embattled Afghan Taliban rely on human shields

MARJAH, Afghanistan — Taliban fighters holding out in Marjah are increasingly using civilians as human shields, firing from compounds where U.S. and Afghan forces can clearly see women and children on rooftops or in windows, Afghan and U.S. troops said Wednesday.


By ALFRED de MONTESQUIOU and RAHIM FAIEZ (AP) – February 17, 2010

The intermingling of fighters and civilians also has been witnessed by Associated Press journalists. It is part of a Taliban effort to exploit strict NATO rules against endangering innocent lives to impede the allied advance through the town in Helmand province, 380 miles (610 kilometers) southwest of Kabul.

Two more NATO service members were killed in the Marjah operation Wednesday, the alliance said in a statement without identifying them by nationality.

Their deaths brought to six NATO service members and one Afghan soldier who have been killed since the attack on Marjah, the hub of the Taliban's southern logistics and drug-smuggling network, began Saturday. About 40 insurgents have been killed, Helmand Gov. Gulab Mangal said.

During Wednesday's fighting, Marines and Afghan troops "saw sustained but less frequent insurgent activity," mostly small-scale attacks, NATO said in a statement.

NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay told journalists in Brussels that most of the objectives have been achieved. "Perhaps the pocket in the western side of Marjah still gives freedom of movement to the Taliban, but that is the extent of their movement," he said.

This is the biggest offensive since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and a test of President Barack Obama's strategy for reversing the rise of the Taliban while protecting civilians.

As Marines and Afghan soldiers press their offensive, they have been forced to hold their fire because insurgents are shooting from inside or next to mud-walled compounds where civilians are present — and restraint slows their advance.

Brig. Gen. Mohiudin Ghori, the brigade commander of Afghan troops in Marjah, said in some cases women and children may have been ordered to stand on a roof or in a window of buildings where Taliban fighters are shooting.

Ghori said troops have to decide between firing on insurgents among civilians, or advance much more slowly to keep women and children out of the crossfire.

"They are trying to get us to fire on them and kill the civilians," Ghori said.

Journalists embedded with the Marines have seen such cases: a neighborhood is alive with children, then the next minute the streets are empty and gunshots ring out. As the troops advance, children reappear, peering and grinning through half-closed doors.

Rocket-propelled grenades have been fired from behind groups of civilians, who scamper away as the Marines point their weapons toward the source of fire. Marines have come under fire in poppy fields as they are being tended by farmers.

"I myself saw lots of people that were shot, and they were ordinary people," said Afghan soldier Esmatullah, who did not give his rank and like many Afghans goes by one name. Taliban "were firing at us from people's homes. So in returning fire, people got shot," he said.

NATO has confirmed 15 civilian deaths in the operation. Afghan rights groups say at least 19 have died.

Troops are forbidden to fire unless they identify a target displaying "hostile intent." Marines cannot shoot at fighting-age men walking out of a building used by snipers unless the men are carrying a weapon or have been seen dropping one.

Public outrage over civilian deaths last year prompted the top NATO commander, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to tighten the rules of combat, including curbs on airstrikes if civilians are at risk.

Afghan civilian deaths soared to 2,412 last year — the highest number of any year of the war, according to the U.N. But deaths attributed to allied troops dropped nearly 30 percent after the new rules were imposed, according to a U.N. report.

On Wednesday, an Afghan soldier climbed to the roof of an abandoned shop and raised his country's green-and-red flag before provincial officials, hundreds of Marine and Afghan troops and a few civilians.

The market was calm during the ceremony and the Marines said they were in control of the neighborhood.

Signs of fighting were everywhere. The back of the building with the flag had been blown away. Shops were riddled with bullet holes. Grocery stores and fruit stalls stood open, hastily deserted by their owners. White metal fences marked off areas not cleared of bombs.

Afghan soldiers said they were guarding the shops to prevent looting.

A Marjah resident at the flag-raising said the area around the market has been devastated by the assault.

"The Taliban fired a few shots and then the troops came and bombed the area," said Abdul Rasheed, a bearded, middle-aged man. "People fled their homes in a desert without food and water. Children and women are living in very hard conditions."

Once the town of 80,000 people is secure, NATO plans to rush in civil administrators to revive schools, health clinics and electricity in hopes of winning public support to discourage the Taliban from returning.

About 1,100 police, including 900 members of a paramilitary force, were sent to Marjah and the surrounding area Wednesday, Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said in a videoconference with journalists in Brussels.

Mangal, the Helmand governor, said the neighborhoods will be turned over to Afghan police as they are secured.

"Life is returning to normal," he said. "You can see the people are busy in their daily lives. Some shops are still closed but once they arrest the enemy, hopefully, the shops will reopen too."

The town is probably safe enough now for a deputy district chief to move in and start setting up the government, said State Department official Frank Ruggiero.

He told reporters in Kabul that one obstacle is that the Taliban planted bombs all over abandoned government buildings in Marjah, including inside the walls of the district center.

Faiez reported from Helmand province. Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann and Heidi Vogt in Kabul and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report

Utah Marine played role in capture of Taliban leader

HOLLADAY -- American and Pakistani forces captured one of Osama Bin Ladin's right-hand men in Pakistan this week. The U.S. military is calling his capture a turning point in the war, and a Marine from Utah played a big role in the arrest.


February 17th, 2010 @ 10:28pm
By Jennifer Stagg

Stephanie is never quite sure when she'll get a call from her son, Bryan. Satellite phone access is rare in Afghanistan, where he's serving. But Feb. 16 was a special day.

"Yesterday was my birthday, so he called me in the morning," Stephanie said.

The call started as they usually do, with a mother's first question about the safety of her son.

"I asked him, like I always do, ‘Are the bullets flying?' [He said,] ‘No, Mom. They're not flying. It's OK,'" she recalled.

Then Bryan had a birthday surprise.

"‘I was part of the team that captured a top Afghan, one of the Top 10 Taliban, 10 most-wanted men,' [he said]. I said, ‘Oh, my gosh!'" Stephanie said.

Bryan was one of about 15 U.S. Marines who captured Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a top leader for the Taliban in Afghanistan. He was found in Pakistan, and Bryan led Baradar out by his arm and into custody.

"I said, ‘Are you telling me that bullets weren't flying then?' And he said, ‘No, Mom. They were all asleep,'" Stephanie said.

Family members started searching online for news of the arrest, and came across a report from CNN. It had video of Bryan shortly after Baradar's capture.

"I couldn't be prouder. I couldn't be prouder. It's just so exciting!" Stephanie said.

When he comes home in May, Bryan will have more exciting news. He will be getting married Aug 6.

Bryan's call was the perfect present, but Stephanie said she has a birthday wish for her youngest child.

"I would say, like I always do, ‘Be safe. Be happy. Sleep as much as you can. And I hope you get a good square meal tonight, and I miss you, and I love you," Stephanie said.

Bryan is serving his second tour overseas. He plans to attend Utah Valley University when he comes back to finish his degree in criminal justice.

Marjah inroads slowed by new bombs

Lt Col Cal Worth, who commands one of two Marine battalions leading the offensive against Taliban fighters here, set off at 7am on Wednesday for the return journey to his battalion headquarters from a combat outpost less than four miles away.


By Rajiv Chandrasekaran in Marjah, Afghanistan
Published: February 17 2010 20:19 | Last updated: February 17 2010 20:19

In a place where homemade bombs are buried under seemingly every road, this trip was supposed to be safe and easy: A team of Marine engineers and ordnance-disposal experts had swept the route 48 hours earlier, unearthing and blowing up seven mines. But on Wednesday, Col Worth’s convoy had travelled less than a mile before the engineers discovered a mine on the rutted road. They would later find three more – all planted in the same intersection as the seven mines they found Monday.

Col Worth’s Sisyphean challenge of moving about in Marjah suggests that Taliban bombmakers, and those who burrow the devices into the dirt roads here, have not been cowed by the presence of two US Marine battalions and a large contingent of Afghan soldiers. Nor have scores of other insurgent fighters, who kept up a steady pace of attacks on coalition forces on Wednesday, firing assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at their bases and patrols.

Although US and Afghan forces have made steady inroads here since beginning the largest military operation of the war four days ago, they only control a few modest patches of this farming community, principally around the two biggest bazaar areas. Much of Marjah has not yet been patrolled by troops on the ground, and video images from surveillance drones have shown Taliban fighters operating with impunity in those places.

US and Nato commanders were not certain the insurgents who have lorded over Marjah for the past three years would stand and fight or flee to parts of Afghanistan with fewer international security forces. It now appears clear that many Taliban members here have opted to stay – at least for now.

That may mean many more weeks of arduous house-to-house clearing operations for the Marines and Afghan forces in this 155-square-mile area, making this a far more complex and dangerous mission than initially envisaged, and it could delay some efforts to deliver government services and reconstruction projects to the 80,000 people who live here.

“It’s early days yet,” said the British army’s Maj Gen Nick Carter, the overall commander of international forces in southern Afghanistan. “You’re dealing with a large area, with a lot of people in it. It’s going to take a while to clear it.”

Even if insurgents are not fleeing, they are also not winning any of their fights with the Marines. Dozens of militants – there is no authoritative count – have been killed since the operation began. Only One Marine has died.

Senior US military officials have been encouraged by the relatively low level of coalition casualties – more Marines have been evacuated for hypothermia and knee and ankle strains than for gun and bomb wounds – and by the fact that combat engineers have discovered dozens of roadside bombs before they have struck tactical vehicles.

The low level of injuries is due, in large part, to the Marines’ deliberate approach in moving about the area. Instead of driving all over hunting down insurgents, they have been moving in cautious convoys that are preceded by sophisticated minesweeping gear.

Marine commanders remain optimistic that their initial efforts at establishing bubbles of security around key commercial areas will have a catalyzing effect on the population and will result in residents identifying Taliban fighters, bomb locations and arms caches.

Thus far, however, most residents seem to be opting for a wait-and-see approach. Most roads used by the Marines have been devoid of people, save for a few curious gawkers. The bazaars are similarly abandoned, some so hastily that merchants left their onions and potatoes sitting atop wooden carts.

“When they see us providing security, we think they’ll choose the side they think will be victorious in the long term,” Col Worth said.

When Col Worth departed from his Bravo Company’s base next to the Koru Chreh bazaar at 7am, he figured he was giving himself more than enough time to make it back by 10am for what was to be the first meeting of shopkeepers and community leaders. Next up on his schedule, at noon, was a visit by the top Marine commander in Afghanistan and the governor of Helmand province.

By 9:30am, his convoy ground to a halt when the engineers found the first bomb at a the narrow intersection. where they had to turn south to the battalion headquarters. At 10:30am, while munching pretzels in his armoured truck, he received a radio message: The meeting of shopkeepers “was a no-show. Nobody came.”

He didn’t get an explanation. But a few shop owners have dropped by the battalion headquarters to inquire about the military operations and when it might be safe to reopen their stalls. Marine officers usher the visitors to an informal meeting area in the dilapidated compound they now call home: a plastic tarpaulin (for sitting on the floor, Afghan style) with a few treats in the center pulled from military rations — small boxes of Froot Loops, Nature Valley granola bars, New York Style mini bagel chips and Home Run peanuts.

When Gen Carter and the dignitaries arrived at his headquarters, Worth was still sitting on the road, waiting for the explosives-disposal experts to defuse the fourth bomb of the day. As the convoy parked on the road, the turret gunners spotted several men milling about in the bushes and Col Worth feared an ambush. To make matters worse, one of the trucks accidentally drove halfway into a canal, further exposing the forces.

The convoy finally got moving, before an attack could be mounted, but by then a group of Afghan soldiers had already raised their red, green and black flag in the bazaar for the dignitaries. The governor and the visiting generals walked around the rubbled market — large parts of which were destroyed by a US special forces airstrike in the spring of 2009 — and hailed the progress of the current mission.

“I have full confidence that Marja district will be very peaceful and it will be one of the best-developed district in Afghanistan,” said Helmand governor Gulab Mangal.

When Gen Carter was asked how long it would take to pacify Marjah, he said it was impossible to predict. “You can’t put a time on it ... You just have to take it slowly but surely, and the people will be won around in due course.”

Col Worth missed all of it. He arrived 30 minutes after they departed – and 7½ hours after he set off.

After the dignitaries left, the Afghan soldiers who raised their large, shiny tricolor pulled it down and replaced it with a smaller, faded one.

“It’s still dangerous in this area,” one soldier said. The Taliban “might burn it.”

February 16, 2010

Marines link up in Afghan Taliban stronghold

MARJAH, Afghanistan – Marines moving by land from the north linked up Tuesday with U.S. units that have faced nearly constant Taliban attack in the four days since they were dropped by helicopter into this insurgent stronghold in southern Afghanistan.


By ALFRED de MONTESQUIOU, Associated Press Writer Alfred De Montesquiou, Associated Press Writer - February 16, 2010

Also Tuesday, U.S. artillery fired non-lethal smoke rounds to disperse Taliban fighters in Marjah — the first time cannons have been used in the fight to drive the militants from their logistical and opium poppy-smuggling base. Commanders refused a Marine request to fire deadly high-explosive rounds because the unit on the ground could not be sure civilians weren't at risk.

The linkup between the two Marine rifle companies and their Afghan army partners will enable the U.S. to expand its control in Marjah, situated in Helmand province 380 miles (610 kilometers) southwest of Kabul.

Lima Company of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines moved through fields of hidden bombs and bobby traps and braved heavy sniper fire to join up with the same battalion's Kilo Company, which was airdropped into the town in the first hours of the operation Saturday.

Lt. Gordon Emmanuel, a platoon commander in Kilo Company, said the Marines landed without encountering Taliban fire but came under sustained attack as they fanned out from the landing zone.

"When it is daytime, there is nonstop contact until the sun goes down ... every day," Emmanuel said.

A Taliban spokesman, however, claimed that insurgents retain control of the town and that coalition forces who "descended from helicopters in limited areas of Marjah" were now "under siege."

Spokesman Tariq Ghazniwal extended an invitation by e-mail to foreign journalists to visit Marjah, saying the trip would "show who have the upper hand in the area."

About 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops are taking part in the big offensive around Marjah, which has an estimated 80,000 inhabitants and was the largest southern town under Taliban control. NATO hopes to rush in aid and public services as soon as the town is secured to try to win the loyalty of the population.

A top Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Razaq Akhund, dismissed the offensive as NATO propaganda and said on the group's Web site that Marjah was militarily insignificant.

He said the main goal of the offensive was to "restore the place of the defeated military general in Afghanistan," Gen. Stanley McChrystal, "even taking over a small village in Helmand temporarily and showing it to the Western world via video," according to a translation from the SITE Intelligence Group, which montors extremist messages.

NATO said a service member taking part in the Marjah operation was killed by a roadside bomb Tuesday — the third confirmed death among international forces since the attack on the town began. An American and a Briton were killed on Saturday.

NATO did not identify the latest victim by nationality. Afghan military spokesman Lt. Mohammad Esah said Tuesday one Afghan soldier died in the offensive. But he did not say when.

U.S. officials said Taliban resistance in Marjah seemed more disorganized Tuesday than in previous days, when small teams of insurgents swarmed around Marine and Afghan army positions firing rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

"We're not seeing coordinated attacks like we did originally. We're still getting small-arms fire, but it's sporadic, and hit-and-run tactics," said Marine spokesman Capt. Abraham Sipe. "As a whole, while there is still resistance, it is of a disorganized nature."

Nevertheless, Taliban have not given up. Insurgent snipers hiding in haystacks in poppy fields exchanged fire with Marines and Afghan troops as they swept south.

Insurgents tried but failed to shoot down an Osprey aircraft with rocket-propelled grenades as Cobra attack helicopters fired missiles at Taliban positions, including a machine gun bunker.

Marines and Afghan soldiers continued house-to-house searches, removing bombs and booby-traps as they moved through town. Inside some compounds Tuesday, squads found small doses of heroin, a Taliban photo album with fighters posing with AK-47s, and large propaganda wall paintings of insurgents shooting down helicopters.

Residents said they were scared to be seen with NATO forces. As Marines searched his compound, one man, Wali Mohammad, warned an AP reporter, "Don't take pictures or the Taliban will come back to kill me."

Mohammad said he strongly suspected insurgents would return to the area as soon as the Marines moved on. He said Taliban fighters had targeted U.S. and Afghan troops, firing from his neighbors' houses.

"When they come, we try to tell them not to use our house, but they have guns so they do what they want," the poppy farmer said.

Three more Afghan civilians were killed in the assault, NATO forces said, highlighting the toll on the population from an offensive aimed at making civilians safer.

The deaths — in three separate incidents — come after two U.S. missiles struck a house on the outskirts of Marjah on Sunday, killing 12 people, half of them children. Afghan officials said three Taliban fighters were in the house at the time.

NATO first said the missiles went 300 yards (meters) off target and hit the house. On Tuesday, however, British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, commander of NATO forces in the south, told reporters in London via a video link that the rockets hit the intended target.

As the NATO offensive aims to break the Taliban influence in southern Afghanistan, the militant group received another blow with the news of its top military commander's arrest in Pakistan.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the group's No. 2 leader behind Afghan Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and a close associate of Osama bin Laden, was captured in the port city of Karachi, U.S. and Pakistani officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information. The arrest appeared to have occurred as many as 10 days ago, and it was unclear if it had any effect on the Marjah battle.

The offensive is the biggest joint operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and is a major test of a retooled NATO strategy to focus on protecting civilians, rather than killing insurgents.

But in two incidents confirmed Tuesday, Afghan men came toward NATO forces and ignored shouts and hand signals to stop, NATO said. Troops opened fire and killed them. In the third incident, two Afghan men were caught in the crossfire between insurgents and NATO forces. Both were wounded and one died despite being given medical care, NATO said.

NATO has confirmed 15 civilian deaths, but an Afghan human rights group said Tuesday that it counted 19 civilians killed since the operation began. Four were caught in the crossfire when they left their homes.

"Their neighbors tell us that the bodies are outside and they want someone to pick them up. They say they're scared if they go outside they will also be shot dead," said Ajmal Samadi, director of Afghanistan Rights Monitor. It was unclear whether NATO or insurgent forces were to blame for the deaths, he said.

Elsewhere in Helmand province, NATO and Afghan forces killed more than 10 militants while pursuing a Taliban commander in Washir district, west of the Marjah area.


Associated Press writers Heidi Vogt in Kabul and Rahim Faiez in Helmand province contributed to this report.

Site of Marjah Government Offices Seized

MARJAH, Afghanistan—U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers seized the site of Marjah's government offices, setting the stage for Kabul to attempt to resume its authority in a town long run by the Taliban.


FEBRUARY 16, 2010

In a full day of skirmishing, the troops took a former police station in central Marjah, as well as the ruined foundations of the former government center.

"The government will return to Marjah, and in short order," predicted Lt. Col. Calvin Worth, commander of 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment.

Progress continued to be deliberate—at times slow—in the fourth day of what the U.S.-led coalition bills as its biggest offensive since the Taliban's fall in 2001, and a grand effort to oust insurgent fighters while restoring the credibility of the Afghan government.

On Tuesday, eight more civilians were killed in fighting in southern Afghanistan. Three died in shooting incidents in the assault on Marjah, while five others were killed in the province of Kandahar, where coalition troops erroneously decided that a group of Afghans were planting an explosive device along a trail.

On Tuesday, officials said that human error apparently led to a deadly missile strike on the outskirts of Marjah Sunday, killing 12 people, half of them children.

The first contingent of Afghan National Civil Order Police is expected to arrive in town and report for duty on Wednesday, weeks ahead of what coalition commanders originally envisioned. The force—considered more able and honest than the regular national police—will be the first evidence of Kabul's civil authority.

The U.S. and Afghan troops raised the Afghan flag above the old district center, which is now used as stalls for a weekly bazaar thought to bring the Taliban large of amounts of tax revenue.

Still, the fighting involved suggests that insurgents in southern Marjah are moving north to confront the coalition forces. "We still have a large number of enemy fighters in southern Marjah," Lt. Col. Worth said.

Meanwhile, British Major General Nick Carter, the allied commander of forces in southern Afghanistan, said the phase of Operation Moshtarak, as the massive offensive is known, is at as the "end of the beginning."

Maj. Gen. Carter, a British commander, said Marjah was two-thirds secured and cleared of insurgents. He said it will take "several days" to complete the operation and "days" to clear the area of improvised explosive devices.

"We have had some significant resistance from isolated groups of fighters," he said, adding that allied forces had found foreign fighters in the area, including Pakistan-based insurgents.

Speaking from Afghanistan via a video link, Maj. Gen. Carter said British and Afghan forces had now fully secured what he referred to as the 31 West and 31 East districts in the northeast part of the operating zone. Still, clearing IEDs was "a work in progress and will take some time to conclude," he said.

Further north in town, the arrival of reinforcements allowed the Marines on Tuesday to break the insurgents' stranglehold on an isolated U.S. outpost with relative ease.

Marines from the 1,500-strong 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, moved methodically through an insurgent warren, picking their way through homemade mines and ending the day in control of about one third of the neighborhood of low homes surrounded by cracked mud-brick walls.

At one point in a nearby bazaar, a lieutenant noticed new wire on an old pole. Further investigation revealed it was connected to eight mortar shells buried beneath 100 yards of road, intended to destroy multiple vehicles in a military convoy. Explosives teams detonated the booby-trap safely.

Just a day earlier, the area, called the Pork Chop for its shape on the map, had been a haven for insurgents, who used positions there to pepper the Marine outpost with sniper fire and rocket-propelled grenades. Since the offensive began on Saturday, insurgents had been moving each morning to fighting positions in the Pork Chop.

On Tuesday, it appeared that the large number of coalition troops and vehicles with heavy weapons prevented the insurgents from making their way there.

The Marine outpost abutting the Pork Chop and a neighboring bazaar, which had been virtually besieged on Monday, was peaceful the following day.

At day's end, the Marines fortified a new front line in the Pork Chop, to avoid risking mine injuries after dark. "I don't want to get into a situation I can't finish tonight," said Capt. Ryan Sparks, commander of the battalion's Company B.

—Alistair MacDonald in London and Alan Cullison in Kandahar, Afghanistan, contributed
to this article.

Write to Michael M. Phillips at [email protected]

Taliban commander captured in Pakistan: U.S. officials

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Taliban's top military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, has been captured in Pakistan in a joint raid by Pakistani and U.S. spy agencies, a U.S. official said on Monday, confirming a report of the capture in The New York Times.


Tue Feb 16, 1:03 am ET

Washington hopes the capture will at least temporarily weaken the Taliban-led insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan, where U.S. Marines are leading one of NATO's biggest offensives in the southern militant stronghold of Marjah.

"I would call it significant," another U.S. official said of Mullah Baradar's capture. "But even when you get their leaders, they've shown an amazing resilience to bounce back. It's an adaptive organization."

Both U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity.

The New York Times reported that the raid that apprehended Mullah Baradar was conducted by Pakistan's spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, and involved CIA operatives.

The ISI's role may signal a new level of Pakistani cooperation against Taliban leaders behind the Afghan insurgency. Pakistan has long resisted U.S. calls for a crackdown.

"We continue to look for opportunities to coordinate across the border," the second American official said. "We appreciate the help we get."

The White House, the CIA, and the Pentagon declined comment on the operation.

(Reporting by Adam Entous; Editing by Chris Wilson)

NATO's Afghan war effort likely to soon shift to Kandahar

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — If everything runs true to current form, Canadian Brig.-Gen. Daniel Menard will soon loudly announce a major combat operation in Kandahar that will look a lot like the one launched by NATO on Saturday in neighbouring Helmand — which came after weeks of very public propaganda about when and where it was going to take place.


By Matthew Fisher, Canwest News ServiceFebruary 16, 2010 12:18 PM

As the operation in central Helmand winds down, all eyes will inevitably turn to Kandahar, which is now the last major Taliban stronghold in the south.

Unlike the offensive next door, which involved Canadian helicopters but only had a tiny Canadian ground component, the upcoming operation in Kandahar will involve all of Canada's combat troops as well as a very large number of U.S. army forces.

The Taliban remains a significant menace in three districts in Kandahar: Panjwaii and Zhari, located next to each other in an area about a half-hour drive west of Kandahar City, and Arghandab, much of which is really a northern suburb of the provincial capital.

All three of these districts are under Canadian command, but almost all of the troops based in Zhari and Arghandab are American. Canadians alone are responsible for Panjwaii.

Until now, NATO has been cagey about exactly when and where it intends to launch the biggest operation seen to date in Kandahar.

But the alliance and its Afghan partners are in no rush; the successes in Helmand must first be consolidated and the conditions for success in Kandahar must be set.

With Afghanistan's parliamentary elections now slated for May — during the annual spring poppy harvest — regular troops rotations and the arrival of fresh U.S. troops that are part of President Barack Obama's last surge are also being factored in — meaning the Kandahar offensive is almost certain to begin by early summer.

Like the Helmand campaign, the showdown in Kandahar is likely to be preceded by a series of smaller, deliberate, "shaping" operations designed to establish the parameters for the bigger battle to follow.

It is also likely that there will be two offensives instead of one. Panjwaii and Zhari may be fought separately from Arghandab, although it is possible that both offensives may take place simultaneously.

As with previous Canadian offensives in Kandahar over the past four months, the next assault is likely to be widely telegraphed by Menard well in advance, and also by more senior generals in the south and in Kabul. It is a strategy that was first tried by Canadian Brig.-Gen. Jonathan Vance last year.

The purpose of announcing intentions in advance has been to give the Taliban a chance to flee, which is exactly what they have already done in recent months whenever NATO has made warlike noise.

According to the alliance, if the Taliban run, there are likely to be fewer civilian and coalition casualties and an easier path to achieving the clear, hold and build counter-insurgency strategy that has been NATO's official credo since U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal took over as top commander in Afghanistan early last summer.

The counter-argument is that the insurgents will simply wander off to rest in their sanctuaries in Pakistan, where they will wait on the margins for several years until the West wearies of the war and leaves, or they will return in small numbers to carry out terrorist attacks whenever it suits them.

That is why it is crucial for the Afghan government to immediately fill the void left by the departing Taliban, rushing in with services such as health care, education and economic development, as they are now trying to do in Helmand.

What happens in Helmand is likely to be repeated in Kandahar, too — meaning everything that goes on there is being closely scrutinized here.

With many of the Taliban in Helmand having already cut and run, the battle against U.S., British and Afghan forces there is entering a dangerous new phase.

To secure territory vacated by the insurgents, combat engineers and infantry have begun to pick through a maze of lethal booby traps and improvised explosive devices while at the same time defending themselves against a rear guard of well-concealed Taliban snipers.

It is this kind of dirty war that awaits Canadian troops when the weather turns warmer and NATO goes on the offensive in Kandahar.

Marines: Taliban resistance more disorganized

MARJAH, Afghanistan — U.S. and Afghan forces traded gunfire with insurgents shooting from haystacks in poppy fields in the Taliban stronghold of Marjah as they pressed ahead in NATO's assault on the militants' heartland in southern Afghanistan.


By ALFRED de MONTESQUIOU (AP) – February 16, 2010

Hoping to avoid prolonged gun battles, Marines called for long-range artillery support to disperse sniper squads harassing their advance into the town. For the first time since the offensive started Saturday, U.S. forces fired the non-lethal artillery "smoke shells" in a bid to intimidate enemy fighters who also lobbed rockets and mortars at them.

"We are trying not to be decisively engaged so we can progress, but we're having some difficulty right now," said Lima Company commander Capt. Joshua Winfrey.

Despite the continued firefights, Marine officials said the resistance was more disorganized than in previous days.

"We're not seeing coordinated attacks like we did originally. We're still getting small-arms fire but it's sporadic, and hit-and-run tactics," said spokesman Capt. Abraham Sipe. "As a whole, while there is still resistance, it is of a disorganized nature."

Three more Afghan civilians were killed in the assault, NATO forces said, highlighting the toll on the population from an offensive aimed at making them safer.

The deaths — in three separate incidents — come after two errant U.S. missiles struck a house on the outskirts of Marjah on Sunday, killing 12 people, half of them children. Afghan officials said three Taliban fighters were in the house at the time of the attack.

About 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops are taking part in the massive offensive around Marjah — the linchpin of the Taliban logistical and opium poppy smuggling network in the militant-influenced south.

As the assault aimed at breaking the Taliban stranglehold over the south continued, the extremist group received a blow with the news that its top military commander had been arrested in Pakistan.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the group's No. 2 leader behind Afghan Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and a close associate of Osama bin Laden, was captured in the port city of Karachi, U.S. and Pakistani officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information. The arrest appeared to have occurred as many as 10 days ago, and it was unclear if it had any effect on the Marjah battle.

The offensive is the biggest joint operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and a major test of a retooled NATO strategy to focus on protecting civilians, rather than killing insurgents.

But in two incidents confirmed Tuesday, Afghan men came toward NATO forces and ignored shouts and hand signals to stop, NATO said. Troops opened fire and killed them. In the third incident, two Afghan men were caught in the crossfire between insurgents and NATO forces. Both were wounded and one died of his injuries despite being given medical care, NATO said.

NATO has confirmed 15 civilian deaths, but an Afghan human rights group said Tuesday that they have counted 19 civilians killed since the beginning of the operation. Four of those were people who were caught in the crossfire when they left their homes.

"Their neighbors tell us that the bodies are outside and they want someone to pick them up. They say they're scared if they go outside they will also be shot dead," said Ajmal Samadi, the director of Afghanistan Rights Monitor. It was unclear whether NATO or insurgent forces were to blame for the deaths, he said.

Elsewhere in Helmand province, NATO and Afghan forces killed more than 10 militants as they chased a group of three vehicles in pursuit of a Taliban commander in Washir district, west of the area where the offensive is going on.

Firefights broke out as the troops chased the cars and they killed those inside the cars. The forces also came under fire from a nearby village, but NATO said it broke off the fight because it was worried about civilian casualties in the village.

In Marjah, Marine and Afghan squads skirted the booby-trapped streets of the town, pushing through more rural sections where fields of chest-high poppies grew amid irrigation canals.

But there they found insurgent snipers firing from haystacks built over small canals. It appeared that lone snipers were seeking to draw the Marine squads into areas where they could be targeted by larger Taliban units firing from nearby rooftops.

Squads with Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines fanned out in columns alongside an armored-vehicle convoy as they moved carefully through poppy fields. A mine-roller leading the way detonated planted bombs as it advanced.

The Marines' goal has been to link up with other companies that were airdropped into the city Saturday, but progress has been slow.

Residents said they were scared to be seen with NATO forces. One man, Wali Mohammad, warned an AP reporter, "Don't take pictures or the Taliban will come back to kill me," as Marines searched his compound.

Mohammad said he strongly suspected insurgents would return to the area as soon as the Marines moved on. He said Taliban fighters had targeted U.S. and Afghan troops, firing from his neighbors' houses.

"When they come, we try to tell them not to use our house, but they have guns so they do what they want," the poppy farmer said.

Afghan commanders spoke optimistically about the progress in Marjah, a town of about 80,000 people.

"It is very weak resistance, sporadic resistance by the enemy in some villages in the Marjah area," Chief of Army Staff Bismullah Mohammadi said. Other officials have said Taliban fighters were fleeing across the border and the town should soon be cleared of insurgents.

In a separate incident unrelated to the Marjah offensive, a NATO airstrike in neighboring Kandahar province killed five civilians and wounded two. NATO said they were mistakenly believed to have been planting roadside bombs.

NATO officials have reported only two coalition deaths so far — one American and one Briton killed Saturday.

Associated Press writers Heidi Vogt in Kabul and Rahim Faiez in Helmand province contributed to this report.

Marine from Canton Township killed in Afghanistan

Canton Township -- A Marine from Michigan who would have turned 22 on St. Patrick's Day has been killed in Afghanistan.


Last Updated: February 16.
Detroit News staff and wire reports

The remains of Cpl. Jacob H. Turbett were returned Monday to Delaware's Dover Air Force Base.

His wife, Crystal, said he grew up in Canton Township. She said the military told her he died Saturday.

Other details were not available, and his wife said funeral plans were incomplete.

Turbett wrote on his Facebook page that he was a 2007 graduate of Canton High School and was serving as a combat engineer. His unit was based at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Turbett had talked about joining the military early on, said Mark Pogliano, an assistant principal.

"That always sounded like his game plan," he said. "He took going into the service very seriously."

Later, after graduating and training, Turbett returned to the school for a visit wearing his uniform, Pogliano said. "He was a polite, quiet, nice young man."

Before serving in Afghanistan, Turbett was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, with the 9th Engineer Support Battalion. He also spent time in Iraq and Bangladesh, said Donald Brunson, who served with him.

Regardless of the setting, Turbett loved seeking diversions in his down time -- searching for a pizza place or playing "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero" video games. "He was always fun to be around," said Jeremy Roark, a corporal who served with him. "He was always having a good time."

Besides his wife, whom he wed in 2008, other survivors include his parents, Richard and Sheila; and two siblings, Joeseph and Jaime, according to his Facebook page.

In Afghanistan, Taliban fighters stepped up counterattacks Monday against Marines and Afghan soldiers in the militant stronghold of Marjah, slowing the allied advance on the third day of the offensive.

Also Monday, NATO said five civilians were accidentally killed and two wounded by an airstrike when they were mistakenly believed to have been planting roadside bombs in Kandahar province.

February 15, 2010

The Marines move on Marja: A perilous slog against Afghanistan's Taliban

MARJA, AFGHANISTAN -- For the Marines of Charlie Company's 3rd Platoon, Sunday's mission was simple enough: Head west for a little more than a mile to link up with Alpha Company in preparation for a mission to secure the few ramshackle government buildings in this farming community.


By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 15, 2010

It would take nine hours to walk that distance, a journey that would reveal the danger and complexity of the Marines' effort to wrest control of Marja from the Taliban.

The operation to secure the area, which began with an airlift of hundreds of Marines and Afghan soldiers on Saturday and continued with the incursion of additional forces on Sunday, is proceeding more slowly than some U.S. military officials had anticipated because of stiff Taliban resistance and a profusion of roadside bombs.

In perhaps the most audacious Taliban attack since the operation commenced, a group of insurgents firing rocket-propelled grenades attempted to storm a temporary base used by Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment on Sunday evening. The grenade launch was followed by three men attempting to rush into the compound. The Marines presumed the men to be suicide bombers and threw grenades at them, killing all three.

The attack on the Bravo patrol base was one of several attempts to overrun Marine positions Sunday. All were repelled.

"The enemy is trying last-ditch efforts," said the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Cal Worth.

The intensity of Taliban opposition is forcing the Marines to move cautiously, which sometimes means spending hours to advance only a few hundred yards, as Charlie Company's 3rd Platoon discovered Sunday.

At 6:30 a.m., the Marines disembarked from their trucks, which had been parked single-file along a de-mined path cut through a muddy field seeded with homemade bombs. Tires served as urinals. Shaving, the Marines' daily ritual no matter how grim the environment, occurred atop the vehicles.

Thirty minutes later, it was clear that the armored trucks were not going to get the Marines to their destination. The temporary bridge across the canal ahead of them, installed by combat engineers the day before, was starting to slip. And the road ahead was deemed to be littered with improvised explosive devices.

The first shots

So at 7:30, they set off by foot, accompanied by a contingent of Afghan soldiers fresh out of boot camp. To avoid homemade bombs, they walked across the fields, trudging through mud and over small opium-producing poppy plants.

They hadn't been walking 15 minutes when the first shots rang out. Everyone dropped to the ground.

They looked for the shooter. But there were no more shots, just the crowing of a rooster.

At 6:30 a.m., the Marines disembarked from their trucks, which had been parked single-file along a de-mined path cut through a muddy field seeded with homemade bombs. Tires served as urinals. Shaving, the Marines' daily ritual no matter how grim the environment, occurred atop the vehicles.

Thirty minutes later, it was clear that the armored trucks were not going to get the Marines to their destination. The temporary bridge across the canal ahead of them, installed by combat engineers the day before, was starting to slip. And the road ahead was deemed to be littered with improvised explosive devices.

The first shots

So at 7:30, they set off by foot, accompanied by a contingent of Afghan soldiers fresh out of boot camp. To avoid homemade bombs, they walked across the fields, trudging through mud and over small opium-producing poppy plants.

They hadn't been walking 15 minutes when the first shots rang out. Everyone dropped to the ground.

They looked for the shooter. But there were no more shots, just the crowing of a rooster.

At 6:30 a.m., the Marines disembarked from their trucks, which had been parked single-file along a de-mined path cut through a muddy field seeded with homemade bombs. Tires served as urinals. Shaving, the Marines' daily ritual no matter how grim the environment, occurred atop the vehicles.

Thirty minutes later, it was clear that the armored trucks were not going to get the Marines to their destination. The temporary bridge across the canal ahead of them, installed by combat engineers the day before, was starting to slip. And the road ahead was deemed to be littered with improvised explosive devices.

The first shots

So at 7:30, they set off by foot, accompanied by a contingent of Afghan soldiers fresh out of boot camp. To avoid homemade bombs, they walked across the fields, trudging through mud and over small opium-producing poppy plants.

They hadn't been walking 15 minutes when the first shots rang out. Everyone dropped to the ground.

They looked for the shooter. But there were no more shots, just the crowing of a rooster.

At 6:30 a.m., the Marines disembarked from their trucks, which had been parked single-file along a de-mined path cut through a muddy field seeded with homemade bombs. Tires served as urinals. Shaving, the Marines' daily ritual no matter how grim the environment, occurred atop the vehicles.

Thirty minutes later, it was clear that the armored trucks were not going to get the Marines to their destination. The temporary bridge across the canal ahead of them, installed by combat engineers the day before, was starting to slip. And the road ahead was deemed to be littered with improvised explosive devices.

The first shots

So at 7:30, they set off by foot, accompanied by a contingent of Afghan soldiers fresh out of boot camp. To avoid homemade bombs, they walked across the fields, trudging through mud and over small opium-producing poppy plants.

They hadn't been walking 15 minutes when the first shots rang out. Everyone dropped to the ground.

They looked for the shooter. But there were no more shots, just the crowing of a rooster.

At 6:30 a.m., the Marines disembarked from their trucks, which had been parked single-file along a de-mined path cut through a muddy field seeded with homemade bombs. Tires served as urinals. Shaving, the Marines' daily ritual no matter how grim the environment, occurred atop the vehicles.

Thirty minutes later, it was clear that the armored trucks were not going to get the Marines to their destination. The temporary bridge across the canal ahead of them, installed by combat engineers the day before, was starting to slip. And the road ahead was deemed to be littered with improvised explosive devices.

The first shots

So at 7:30, they set off by foot, accompanied by a contingent of Afghan soldiers fresh out of boot camp. To avoid homemade bombs, they walked across the fields, trudging through mud and over small opium-producing poppy plants.

They hadn't been walking 15 minutes when the first shots rang out. Everyone dropped to the ground.

They looked for the shooter. But there were no more shots, just the crowing of a rooster.

The plan was that the Afghan soldiers would knock on doors whenever possible. In this counterinsurgency operation, the Marines have been told that the people of Marja are the prize. Don't alienate them. Don't knock down doors unnecessarily.

A few minutes later, another shot echoed across the poppy field. Word quickly made it down the line: A Marine ahead fired on a menacing dog while searching a housing compound.

Before anyone could find the owner to make amends, a rattle of gunfire came toward the Marines from the west. The Marines and the Afghan soldiers returned fire with M4 carbines and belt-fed machine guns.

Eighteen minutes later, what sounded like a lawn-mower engine could be heard overhead. A small, unarmed drone, launched from a nearby base, circled above. It revealed what the Marines couldn't immediately see from the field: Three insurgents, one of whom was carrying a walkie-talkie, had been killed.

As a squad from the 3rd Platoon moved gingerly forward, unsure if there were more insurgents unseen by the drone, Worth received a report over his radio: The Marines from Bravo had just hoisted the Afghan flag at a bazaar to the northwest.

Each of his companies have been given Afghan flags, he said. He made it clear that the Stars and Stripes was not to be raised in Marja.

"No end-zone dances," he said. "This is their country."

By then it was safe to approach the owner of the dog, a middle-aged farmer named Jawad Wardak, who was standing in front of his spacious mud-walled house with five young men who he said were his sons and nephews. There were large stacks of dried poppy plants on his driveway, and his fields were filled with small poppy saplings, which will grow to harvest height by spring.

"I'm very sorry about your dog," Worth said. "Hopefully we haven't done any damage to your home."

Wardak shrugged. "It's no problem," he said.

Worth didn't want to pass up the opportunity to make a friend. "We're bringing the government of Afghanistan back here," he said.

Wardak said nothing.

"You will see more forces moving through here so that the Taliban goes away," Worth continued.

Some of the Afghan soldiers assigned to the 3rd Platoon also didn't want to miss an opportunity. One of them asked Wardak's nephew for food.

"We'll give you a meal," Worth said to the soldier. "This is not why we're here. We don't want to impose ourselves. We're guests here."

But the nephew came out with three large pieces of flatbread anyway, and the soldier left content.

'Expand from here'

Across a dirt road from Wardak's house was an irrigation canal. Fording it would require stepping through thigh-high water, but getting back in the trucks was not an option. A team of route-clearance Marines, who have devices that detect and detonate roadside bombs, were discovering devices every few hundred yards. By the end of the day, they would find a dozen on the road paralleling the 3rd Platoon's journey.

It was even worse on other routes. On a road perpendicular to the one the 3rd Platoon was following, Charlie Company's 2nd Platoon discovered a long 10-foot wall embedded with 70 bombs.

As soon as the Marines had crossed the canal, Worth noted that his Marines did not plan to check every house on the way to their objective. "We're engaged in a counterinsurgency," he said. "We're not going to be kicking down every door."

As he uttered the word "door," a piercing crackle of gunfire came from a housing compound to the northwest of Wardak's house. Everyone dove to the ground.

The Marines responded with their rifles. When that didn't seem to do the trick, they fired mortars and shoulder-launched rockets. After 10 minutes, the firing ceased. Four insurgents lay dead.

Worth said the slow, methodical pace the Marines are using to move into the area has kept them from "desperate situations" that result in units calling in air and artillery strikes, which have greater potential of causing civilian casualties.

Even so, he said, he aims to secure Marja's government center soon and then extend anti-Talilban clearing operations to other parts of the area. "We're going to expand from here," he said. "We'll bring more locals into the security bubble as quickly as we can."

Two hours later, at 4:30 p.m., the Marines walked into a walled-off courtyard used by Alpha Company. They were wet and tired but had suffered no casualties. Their mission had been accomplished.

U.S., Afghan Troops Battle Snipers in Marjah Offensive

MARJAH, Afghanistan—U.S. Marines sent reinforcements to a beleaguered outpost where insurgent fighters were using women and children to carry weapons and shield their attacks on coalition forces.


FEBRUARY 15, 2010

Meanwhile, coalition forces confirmed at least 15 civilian deaths since the operation began.

In the three-day-old battle for control of this key southern town—the biggest coalition offensive since the Taliban government fell in 2001—insurgents appear to be making their fiercest stand at the central Koru Chareh bazaar and a dense residential area the Marines dubbed the Pork Chop for its shape.

While in much of the town insurgents have used hidden explosives and hit-and-run attacks to try to slow the advance of the joint Marine-Afghan force, in the Koru Chareh area the insurgents have launched coordinated attacks that last several hours.

The target of the attacks has been Company B, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, which landed by helicopter before dawn on Saturday and set up a base in a single-story building that had been used as a drug lab and assembly point for roadside bombs.

"We didn't know if they'd leave or stay and contest this a little bit," said Capt. Ryan Sparks, the company commander. "It looks like they want to contest this."

The contest has proven bloody, with Taliban fighters raining rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire onto the outpost. The fighters have at least one skilled sniper, who has hit several Marines and uses a rifle with a muzzle suppressor to make his hiding place harder to detect.

"He's bringing his A-game because this is his last stand," Lt. Col. Calvin Worth, commander of 1st Battalion, said of the Taliban.

On Monday afternoon, however, a column of Marines in armored vehicles arrived at the Company B outpost, roughly doubling the size of the force there and adding heavy weapons to the local arsenal.

Marjah, with 75,000 residents, is the last Taliban bastion in the central Helmand River valley, a heavily populated area that is a central focus of the top allied commander, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The alliance has committed some 15,000 Afghan, U.S. and British troops—half of the combat forces—to a sweeping effort to oust the Taliban from Marjah and surrounding areas, with an eye to bringing the Afghan central government back to the town.

While a Taliban spokesman has publicly played down the importance of Marjah, the fighters themselves appear loathe to give up ground they have held for years, ruling it with strict Islamic laws and extracting revenue from the locals and the opium trade.

Allied forces entering Marjah from the east, by helicopter and by land, have made steady, if slow, progress into the heart of town. Their advance, however, has been delayed by hit-and-run attacks and a heavy infestation of homemade bombs. Marine and Afghan forces entering from the north have found the routes seeded with homemade mines, significantly slowing their progress, according to a senior U.S. officer.

The infantrymen and engineers who moved in vehicles on Monday to support Company B took close to five hours to travel a little more than a mile, due to the constant threat of buried explosive booby-traps.

But Company B itself has faced the most determined opposition. "We're fighting an offense from a defense," said 1st Lt. Mark Greenlief, the company's executive officer.

The Taliban shot at medical helicopters evacuating the wounded from Company B's outpost. "They'd love to have a Blackhawk Down," said Lt. Greenlief.

On Sunday, insurgents tried to breach the outpost, barraging the main entrance with rocket-propelled grenades and dispatching suicide attackers to rush the compound. The Marines and Afghan soldiers repelled the attempt to the assault.

The insurgents appear to be trying to take advantage of rules that they know constrain how much force the Marines and Afghans can use around civilians. On Monday, Marines spotted 10 or so fighters approaching the Pork Chop area, with women and children carrying their weapons in bundles.

"They have weapons caches in mosques," said Lt. Greenlief.

The Marines requested an airstrike to hit them after the women and children had left. They were first denied permission by their commanders because of the Taliban fighters' proximity to structures that might contain civilians. When the Marines did get permission, the first attack plane malfunctioned and had to call off the strike.

Finally, the Marines sent out a unit to try to ambush the insurgents as they moved. The tactic forced the fighters into the open, and a Marine jet strafed them, apparently killing nine.

U.S. Marine Walks Away From Shot to Helmet in Afghanistan

MARJAH, Afghanistan—It is hard to know whether Monday was a very bad day or a very good day for Lance Cpl. Andrew Koenig.


FEBRUARY 15, 2010

On the one hand, he was shot in the head. On the other, the bullet bounced off him.

In one of those rare battlefield miracles, an insurgent sniper hit Lance Cpl. Koenig dead on in the front of his helmet, and he walked away from it with a smile on his face.

"I don't think I could be any luckier than this," Lance Cpl. Koenig said two hours after the shooting.

Lance Cpl. Koenig's brush with death came during a day of intense fighting for the Marines of Company B, 1st Battalion, 6th Regiment.

The company had landed by helicopter in the predawn dark on Saturday, launching a major coalition offensive to take Marjah from the Taliban.

The Marines set up an outpost in a former drug lab and roadside-bomb factory and soon found themselves under near-constant attack.

Lance Cpl. Koenig, a lanky 21-year-old with jug-handle ears and a burr of sandy hair, is a designated marksman. His job is to hit the elusive Taliban fighters hiding in the tightly packed neighborhood near the base.

The insurgent sniper hit him first. The Casper, Wyo., native was kneeling on the roof of the one-story outpost, looking for targets.

He was reaching back to his left for his rifle when the sniper's round slammed into his helmet.

The impact knocked him onto his back.

"I'm hit," he yelled to his buddy, Lance Cpl. Scott Gabrian, a 21-year-old from St. Louis.

Lance Cpl. Gabrian belly-crawled along the rooftop to his friend's side. He patted Lance Cpl. Koenig's body, looking for wounds.

Then he noticed that the plate that usually secures night-vision goggles to the front of Lance Cpl. Koenig's helmet was missing. In its place was a thumb-deep dent in the hard Kevlar shell.

Lance Cpl. Gabrian slid his hands under his friend's helmet, looking for an entry wound. "You're not bleeding," he assured Lance Cpl. Koenig. "You're going to be OK."

Lance Cpl. Koenig climbed down the metal ladder and walked to the company aid station to see the Navy corpsman.

The only injury: A small, numb red welt on his forehead, just above his right eye.

He had spent 15 minutes with Doc, as the Marines call the medics, when an insurgent's rocket-propelled grenade exploded on the rooftop, next to Lance Cpl. Gabrian.

The shock wave left him with a concussion and hearing loss.

He joined Lance Cpl. Koenig at the aid station, where the two friends embraced, their eyes welling.

The men had served together in Afghanistan in 2008, and Lance Cpl. Koenig had survived two blasts from roadside bombs.

"We've got each other's backs," Lance Cpl. Gabrian said, the explosion still ringing in his ears.

Word of Lance Cpl. Koenig's close call spread quickly through the outpost, as he emerged from the shock of the experience and walked through the outpost with a Cheshire cat grin.

"He's alive for a reason," Tim Coderre, a North Carolina narcotics detective working with the Marines as a consultant, told one of the men. "From a spiritual point of view, that doesn't happen by accident."

Gunnery Sgt. Kevin Shelton, whose job is to keep the Marines stocked with food, water and gear, teased the lance corporal for failing to take care of his helmet.

"I need that damaged-gear statement tonight," Gunnery Sgt. Shelton told Lance Cpl. Koenig. It was understood, however, that Lance Cpl. Koenig would be allowed to keep the helmet as a souvenir.

Sgt. Shelton, a 36-year-old veteran from Nashville, said he had never seen a Marine survive a direct shot to the head.

But next to him was Cpl. Christopher Ahrens, who quietly mentioned that two bullets had grazed his helmet the day the Marines attacked Marjah. The same thing, he said, happened to him three times in firefights in Iraq.

Cpl. Ahrens, 26, from Havre de Grace, Md., lifted the camouflaged cloth cover on his helmet, exposing the holes where the bullets had entered and exited.

He turned it over to display the picture card tucked inside, depicting Michael the Archangel stamping on Lucifer's head. "I don't need luck," he said.

After his moment with Lance Cpl. Gabrian, Lance Cpl. Koenig put his dented helmet back on his head and climbed the metal ladder to resume his rooftop duty within an hour of being hit.

"I know any one of these guys would do the same," he explained. "If they could keep going, they would."

Soldiers Keep Up Push in Taliban Stronghold

MARJA, Afghanistan — Ten minutes after walking out of the small outpost on Monday morning, the Marines of Company K were ambushed again.


Published: February 15, 2010

Taliban fighters waited until the patrol of perhaps 25 Marines had entirely entered the barren and flat open ground between two mud-walled compounds. Then they opened fire. Bullets twanged past in the air and thumped among the Marines in the dirt.

There was no cover. The Marines dropped, fired, then bounded to their feet, running through muddy gunk.

“Break to your left!” one of them shouted. “Go!”

So began the third day for a rifle company alone in northern Marja, where four platoons have been in near constant skirmishing with the Taliban since Saturday. They have faced a mix of ambushes and sustained engagements along with intermittent sniper fire. Two Marines were shot and wounded on Saturday. Two Afghan soldiers who patrol with them were gravely injured on Monday, with one shot in the face, the other through the neck.

The Afghan government on Monday tried to portray the battle for the Taliban stronghold as all but over, with the resistance light and the Taliban fleeing, a characterization that bore little resemblance to the facts on the ground here in northern Marja. The American military offered a more nuanced view of the fighting, but one that still focused on the gains.

The roads into Marja have only been partially cleared, and this company, Company K, Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, is isolated and surrounded by Taliban.

After two days of fighting, the company was running out of ammunition; the first patrol that was ambushed on Monday was moving to meet another platoon that was carrying fresh ammunition and water for Company K from a 5 a.m. helicopter drop.

The patrol members dashed out of the ambush and reloaded — stripping cartridges from their packaging and pushing them in the magazines one by one — then pushed out again. Within minutes they were under fire again, and fighting anew.

The day proved to be a long one for a company that had barely slept in 72 hours and started the morning parched for water.

Company K had been ordered to seize a bridge and a bazaar a little over a mile to the northeast of the landing zone where helicopters had inserted the Marines shortly after midnight Saturday morning. The original plan had been to take the bridge by Saturday evening.

But the fighting had been so intense by Saturday afternoon that the company consolidated on the ground that it held. On Sunday it developed into a long-running battle, with several episodes of intense exchanges of fire and aircraft and rockets firing to keep the Taliban back. The company again stopped short of the bridge, and called for resupply of water, food and ammunition.

On Monday it fought through the first ambushes and spent the day clearing buildings on the way to the bridge.

Second Platoon advanced toward the bridge, moving by bounds and using squads to watch over the Marines going forward. The Taliban let the first units get near, then began firing. Heavy shooting erupted. First Lt. Gordon W. Emmanuel, the platoon commander, radioed Capt. Joshua Biggers, the company commander, and asked for fire support. “Requesting an airstrike on that bunker,” he said.

The Marines marked their own position with yellow smoke. The Cobra helicopter gunships roared by and strafed the bunker, sending soil and debris high in the air.

The movement toward the bridge already had a toll — an Afghan soldier looking over a wall during the shooting had been shot in the cheekbone. He collapsed but was alive; apparently the bullet struck him obliquely.

A pair of Black Hawk helicopters rushed in, and one landed and evacuated him. Several hours later, he was reported to still be alive.

The platoon pushed on, into intermittent fire and the occasional single shots of a sniper, whose bullets narrowly missed the Marines, sometimes by inches.

By midafternoon the Marines were sweeping the bazaar beside the bridge and looking for land mines. They found a large makeshift bomb in the road and destroyed it. The fire became less frequent, but when the Cobra helicopters left to refuel, the Taliban fighters dashed for safety. They could be seen in the distance, running.

Cpl. Jamie Wieczorek asked a machine gunner if he could hit them. “How far can you touch?” he asked.

“Give me a distance,” said the machine gunner, Lance Cpl. Kevin Hoffman.

“A grand,” said another Marine.

Lance Corporal Hoffman adjusted the rear sight on his M240 machinegun to 1,000 meters, rested the gun atop a wall, looked down the barrel and began to fire short bursts. “Drop him to 800,” a Marine ordered. Lance Corporal Hoffman adjusted his sight and fired again.

Lieutenant Emmanuel, the platoon commander, called over the radio: “They’re running away. Keep the pressure on them.”

The Marines reached the bridge shortly after and crossed it. Then a sniper shot an Afghan soldier in the neck. His fellow soldiers dragged him off as the company arranged for another helicopter.

By nightfall, the platoon was sweeping the area on the far side of the bridge, preparing to settle in. The company command element began patrolling back to its small outpost in the dimming light, listening to an intense firefight between the Taliban and Third Platoon in the distance.

Third Platoon and the company command element — exhausted, mud-caked and parched again — arrived at the outpost at about the same time. The company had successfully seized the bridge. But it was scattered across hostile territory and in a fight almost everywhere it went.

February 14, 2010

Navy Corpsmen Save Injured Afghan Girl in Marjah

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan – When a 4-year-old Afghan girl named Azerha was struck by shrapnel Feb. 10, her brother Quassiam did the only thing he could think of – approach a group of armed Marines miles away and ask for medical assistance.



Regimental Combat Team-7, 1st Marine Division Public Affairs
Story by Sgt. Brian Tuthill
Date: 02.10.2010
Posted: 02.14.2010 02:00

He drove his sister east from near the city of Marjah toward an intersection known as "Five Points," a key intersection of roads connecting northern Marjah with the eastern areas of Helmand province. Marines and Sailors of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, seized the Five Points area the day prior during a helicopter-borne assault.

Azerha had been struck in the chest by a fragment of metal from an improvised explosive device using 82 mm mortar rounds which detonated near her home. The wound had caused bleeding and breathing problems for Azerha by the time she arrived, Navy corpsman reported as they examined and began to stabilize her for a medical evacuation to a medical trauma facility.

"When the car came and I approached the vehicle, I saw the blood coming from her chest," said Petty Officer 1st Class Eric E. Casasflores, 30, an independent duty corpsman assigned to Charlie Co., 1/3. "I could see there was a small wound where something had penetrated. Once we put the dressing on, she began having more trouble breathing and I determined we needed to medevac her."

While waiting inside the walls of a farming compound for a helicopter to arrive, corpsmen treating Azerha found that her lung was beginning to collapse. Between the time her flight was scheduled to arrive and her worsening symptoms, Casasflores, the senior corpsman on scene, decided they had to act quickly to stabilize their patient.

"Her vitals began to drop while we were waiting for the medevac and we had to do a needle decompression," said Casasflores, who was born in Lima, Peru, but calls Newark, N.J., home. "She wasn't bleeding very badly, but with almost any trauma to the chest, you have to do a needle decompression [to allow the lung to expand again]."

"She took it extremely well for a small child," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Adam E. Neep, a field hospital corpsman with Weapons Company, 1/3. "For taking a big needle through her chest, she barely fussed."

Once the needle was in, Azerha began to breathe easier and she and her brother seemed to relax. As Azerha began to stabilize in the open field, the corpsmen decided to move her back into their compound's aid station and redress her wounds. They wrapped her in emergency blankets to keep her warm and Neep talked to her through an interpreter to keep her awake and alert to help ward off shock.

Only minutes before the helicopter's arrival, Azerha's vitals began to wane again, and Casaflores decided to perform a second decompression. Azerha winced at the momentary pain of the needle but quickly calmed and her vital signs stabilized. As soon as the helicopter touched down, corpsmen rushed Azerha on a litter for evacuation. Quassiam joined his sister on the flight and will likely remain with her throughout her treatment.

"The quick reaction from the Marines and corpsmen and getting her the medevac was what made the difference for her," said Casasflores after the helicopter lifted off. "I foresee a good prognosis for her coming back and playing with her brother back at home."

For Neep, 22, from Ceres, Calif., treating Azerha struck a personal chord with him after she departed. He said seeing the older brother with blood on his clothes helping his injured sister made him think of his own sister back home, who is 10 years younger than he.

"I'm glad we were here to save her life," said Neep. "If she didn't get the proper medical attention, she would have died. It's that simple."

Casasflores credits the success to the Marines and his corpsmen on scene.

"Our corpsmen did well treating her," said Casasflores. "Everyone stayed calm and things moved smoothly. That's exactly what you want in a trauma situation."

Navy medical officers report they performed surgery on Azerha upon her arrival and removed a piece of shrapnel from near her heart. They expect her to make a full recovery.

Battle for Marjah touches home

Readiness officers prepare the families of isle Marines to cope with wartime stress

With about 1,000 "Lava Dogs" from the Kaneohe Marine Corps base participating in the battle for Marjah, Afghanistan, base officials here are providing information and comfort to the Marines' worried loved ones back home.


By Gregg K. Kakesako
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Feb 14, 2010

Edward Hanlon, the family readiness officer for Kaneohe's 3rd Marine Regiment, said he even got a call yesterday morning from a mother on the mainland wanting to know more about the massive offensive that began this weekend in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province.

"She had been following news reports," said Hanlon who serves as a liaison between the commander of the 3rd Marine Regiment and families of Marines assigned to the base.

Without revealing details of the operations, Hanlon said he explained to the mother what was going on in Afghanistan. "I think after our conversation she was no longer frantic or frustrated."

He noted that the definition of family for the Marine Corps no longer just covers spouses and dependents but extends to other family members.

"There are so many single Marines that one-third of my calls come from moms."

For several weeks U.S. military leaders have publicly announced their intentions to take Marjah, a Taliban stronghold and center for opium processing and distribution.

That, Hanlon acknowledged, has meant "an increase in attention from families."

"They are watching."

Since November, Kaneohe's "Lava Dogs" have been operating in Nawa in Helmand, losing three Marines in earlier combat operations.

Besides the Kaneohe infantry unit, aviators and air crews from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463 have been deployed since July to Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province carrying Marines, supplies and equipment to the front lines. The unit is expected home in March.

On Tuesday a Marine Corps public affairs team reported that squads from Charlie Company and Bravo Company conducted a successful helicopter-borne assault seizing an intersection east of Marjah.

The Marines were joined on the assault by Afghan National Army soldiers who fought alongside them against the Taliban.

"I felt the assault went well," said Capt. Stephan P. Karabin, commanding officer of Charlie Company. "We got in here quickly, under the cover of darkness on the helicopters, moved into position, set everything in place and were able to seize the objective. This area is important because it's the one intersection which links northern Marjah ... to (eastern Helmand province), and it blocks that supply route."

The intersection and surrounding area are also part of the main route from Marjah to Lashkar Gah, the Helmand provincial capital, said Karabin.

The New York Times reported yesterday that American, Afghan and British troops seized crucial positions across the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, encountering intense but sporadic fighting as they began house-to-house searches of Marjah. This phase of the operation, considered the most dangerous, is expected to last at least five days.

The biggest concerns are bombs and booby-traps in roads, houses and footpaths.

Six years ago Kaneohe's 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment participated in a similar massive offensive operation in Iraq during the house-to-house battle for Fallujah.

Since 2008 the Marine Corps has revamped its family readiness program and hired a civilian family readiness officer for each of its units. Hanlon, who worked at Kaneohe's community service office since 2002, was hired to be the 3rd Marine Regiment's lead family readiness officer.

"The change was to help Marines and families meet the demands of the military lifestyle and the continuing war effort," Hanlon added.

There are upwards of 15 readiness officers assigned to every unit stationed at Kaneohe.

Besides serving as the liaison between the unit commanders and their families, the officers help prepare the Marines and their families for deployments as well as provide counseling, parenting advise and financial planning.

Hanlon said there are also programs aimed at help children cope with the situation. Yesterday, a group of Marines chaperoned children from the base who were treated to an outing to the Bishop Museum.

Thai military to use intel from exercise in battle against insurgents in south

By Erik Slavin, Stars and Stripes
Pacific edition, Sunday, February 14, 2010

NA JOMTIEN, Thailand — Thai and U.S. troops spent much of the Cobra Gold exercise the last two weeks fighting a computer-simulated war in which they were to support a United Nations peace-keeping mandate in a fictional country and clash with a dissenting minority group.

To continue reading:


Troops face gunfights and minefields in offensive against Taliban in Afghanistan

MARJA, AFGHANISTAN -- U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers encountered pockets of stiff resistance and extensive minefields as they sought to press into this Taliban sanctuary in southern Afghanistan on Saturday.


Photo Gallery:

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Sunday, February 14, 2010

Numerous gunfights with insurgents and painstaking efforts to clear roads of makeshift bombs slowed the advance of many coalition units and delayed them from reaching some key destinations in this farming area of 80,000 people. The operation was further complicated by the challenge of fording irrigation canals that ring the area and traversing a landscape covered in knee-deep mud.

"We've had some pretty tough fights," said Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. "It's been a tough slog for some of our companies."

The effort to flush the Taliban out of Marja, which involves 5,000 Marines and Afghan security forces, is part of the largest coalition operation since the start of the Afghanistan war to combat the insurgency and assert government control over lawless areas of the country. British and Afghan troops are conducting a related operation in Nad Ali, a Taliban stronghold 30 miles to the northeast.

One Marine from the brigade was killed Saturday and several suffered injuries, most of them minor. It was not clear how many insurgents were killed by Marine ground units and by a series of Hellfire missile strikes from unmanned Predator and Reaper aircraft that commanders employed to pursue fighters shooting at coalition forces.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who U.S. officials said had authorized the operation, issued a statement Saturday calling on "all Afghan and international troops to exercise absolute caution to avoid harming civilians." He also urged the Taliban "to renounce violence and reintegrate into civilian life."

The danger and complexity of the mission became evident as soon as Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, approached the southeastern border of Marja at sunrise. To clear a path from the battalion command post to the outer canal, the Marines employed a tank equipped with metal fangs and a plow -- it looked like something from a post-apocalyptic science-fiction movie -- to lead the way.

The Marines also sought to detonate any bombs by firing rockets that lay a ribbon of explosives ahead of them. But even with those measures, the troops encountered 15 roadside bombs on a three-quarter-mile route from the command post to the canal. Each had to be defused or destroyed.

"It's painstaking," said Lt. Col. Cal Worth, the battalion commander.

U.S. military officials deem Marja the most-mined part of Afghanistan. Taliban operatives set up numerous laboratories in the area over the past three years to manufacture makeshift explosives, which they have placed in plastic jugs -- to avoid U.S. metal detection gear -- and buried underground. The bombs are equipped with detonators that are set off in a variety of ways: simple pressure plates, remote-control devices or wires connected to switches that are triggered by insurgents lying in wait.

Once they reached the canal, the Marines had to wait until a mobile bridge, which was carried atop a tank chassis, was extended and placed over an irrigation trench. Even with the bridge, a wide band of dense clay muck on both sides of the canal bogged down resupply trucks and other logistics vehicles. And insurgents repeatedly targeted the Marines with small-arms fire and mortar shells. As a consequence, the company made less headway into Marja than it had hoped.

"It's going to be slow," Worth said. "We have to do this in a deliberate way."

Even so, Worth said he aims to establish a "security bubble" over the next few days that will allow Afghan government officials and U.S. reconstruction personnel to operate in Marja.

Worth's other two companies -- Alpha and Bravo -- were inserted into central Marja by helicopter early Saturday. Each company, which consists of about 300 Marines and Afghan soldiers, proceeded slowly on foot, seeking to confront insurgents and reassure civilians that they had come to restore security. They, too, came under regular fire from Taliban fighters holed up in adobe housing compounds.

Worth's battalion has been designated as the "main effort" of the operation. Another unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment, is operating in the northern part of Marja. Two other Marine battalions and one battalion of U.S. Army Stryker vehicles are ringing the area to prevent fighters from fleeing to neighboring communities.

"We have accomplished what we wanted to do today: get the forces into Marja," Nicholson said. "It went very well in terms of the complexity of what we attempted to do in an unknown environment. We'll attempt to expand our positions tomorrow."

But he cautioned that the task ahead remains daunting. Taliban fighters, he said, do not seem to have deserted the area in droves or thrown down their weapons to blend into the civilian population.

"There's still a lot of work to do," he said. "There are enormous areas that haven't been cleared yet."

Sweet Valentine's surprise turns sour

Alexandra Nelissen of Des Moines wanted to do something special today for her son stationed in southern Afghanistan.


by MARC HANSEN • February 14, 2010

Sebastian Eisbach, a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, is assigned to a weapons company in a Taliban stronghold. He went straight from graduation at Dubuque Hempstead High School to boot camp.

"He wants to be on the front lines," says his mother, a Des Moines lawyer, "because he believes in protecting the freedom we all have."

Nelissen thought Sebastian deserved a Valentine's Day surprise. She wanted him and his Marine buddies to "smile for a brief moment."

So she went online and ordered them a 5-pound bag of customized red, gold and white M&M;'s with the Marine logo and well-known Marine phrases "Semper Fi" and "Oohrah."

Nelissen says she followed the directions on the Mars Inc. Web site. She says they took the money out of her bank account and sent a confirmation e-mail. Everything was good to go.

The little candies that melt in your mouth, not in your hands, never made it.

On Monday, Nelissen got a "Dear Valued Customer" e-mail saying they couldn't place the order because of the Valentine's Day crush and technical problems getting the images printed on the candies.

There was an apology for the inconvenience and an offer to substitute a "Romance Blend" or three other options at $9.99 per 7-ounce bag. If that didn't work, the customer could try again with some new images after Feb. 17.

After Feb. 17? Not what Nelissen wanted to hear. She'd been charged but not reimbursed. And Romance Blend wasn't exactly what she had in mind.

In case the candy people didn't realize it, having a kid in the middle of a war zone on the other side of the world is a big deal.

While most people would have thrown out a few choice expletives and moved on to some lesser challenge - it's just Valentine's Day, after all - Nelissen went on the offensive.

She looked at the top of the company's e-mail and noticed 610 recipients, which really bugged her. Letting down the United States of America was bad enough, but a mass e-mail?

"A clear breach of their privacy policy," she called it.

Nelissen was correct. It's on the Web site: "We use your personal information to fulfill your requests and serve you better. We do not share your personal details with outside third parties without your consent."

Even the company admitted she was right about that and apologized. A spokesman told me it was a simple human error that never happened before. Safeguards were in place to ensure it never happens again.

He explained why some images and messages can't be printed on the candy. He didn't explain why the company didn't anticipate the Valentine's Day crush and why the customers were given such short notice.

Bottom line, the spokesman said, they're still working to make this right.

Nelissen believes making it right means giving everyone an immediate refund and 100 percent off on a similar purchase. So far, she says, the company has agreed on a 20 percent discount.

Not good enough, Nelissen says. Mars is more than just a candy company. It's a global conglomerate generating $30 billion of revenue every year.

A "global company," the Web site says, "with family values," guided by five principles it strives to put into action: "Quality, Responsibility, Mutuality, Efficiency and Freedom." A visitor to the Web site can even download a "Five Principles Booklet."

So Nelissen sent out a mass e-mail of her own, telling the other 609 customers she would continue to fight this.

She told them she was doing this as a mom, not a lawyer. She wasn't dispensing legal advice and it was important that the "little people" let the "big company" know how they feel.

She asked them for their stories and received 187 responses from 88 people around the country. Some thanked Nelissen for taking charge and wrote the company, too.

A single father struggling to make ends meet said he had three daughters - 10 years old, 3 years old and 16 months - and couldn't afford to buy them Christmas presents. He promised to make up for it on Valentine's Day.

He told Nelissen he even applied for a rapid refund on his taxes to make sure he could get it done.

"I can't tell you how much this means to me," the man wrote. "May God bless you and yours."

Nelissen wrote back, saying she understood. At one time, she was raising three kids by herself.

When the customer care manager said he would write a letter to the three girls, telling them their daddy hadn't forgotten about them, Nelissen shot back an e-mail calling the solution "insulting at best" and asking how it "possibly coincides with any of the principles you and your company claim to adhere to?"

When the customer care manager agreed to send the girls a package, Nelissen told the father to make sure there was no charge.

As it turned out, the company sent more than one mass mailing. There were a lot more than 610 unhappy customers.

Nelissen heard from other parents and spouses with loved ones in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"We'll never be able to get this moment back again," one wrote.

No, but it obviously won't stop Nelissen from trying.

Errant U.S. Rocket Strike Kills Civilians in Afghanistan

MARJA, Afghanistan — An errant American rocket strike on Sunday hit a compound crowded with Afghan civilians in the last Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province, killing at least 10 people, including 5 children, military officials said.


Published: February 14, 2010

Avoiding such civilian deaths, which came on the second day of a major allied offensive around Marja, has been a cornerstone of the war strategy by the top American commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. He apologized to President Hamid Karzai, saying, “We deeply regret this tragic loss of life.”

The strike came after American Marines and Afghan soldiers had been taking intense small-arms fire from a mud-walled compound in the area, American officers said. The answering artillery barrage instead hit a building a few hundred yards way, striking with a roar and sending a huge cloud of dust and smoke into the air. As the wind pushed the plume away, a group of children rushed outside.

“The compound that was hit was not the one we were targeting,” said Capt. Joshua Biggers, the commander of Company K, Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, which had been engaged in a rolling gun battle with Taliban insurgents throughout the day.

It was unclear whether one or more rockets hit the building. Officers said the barrage had been fired from Camp Bastion, a large British and American base to the northeast, by a weapons system known as Himars, an acronym for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. Its munitions are GPS-guided and advertised as being accurate enough to strike within a yard of their intended targets. General McChrystal said in a statement that he was suspending use of the weapon system “until a thorough review of this incident has been conducted.”

There were conflicting reports about the number of dead in the strike. Daoud Ahmadi, the spokesman for Helmand Province’s governor, said in a telephone interview that 10 people had been killed. But American soldiers in the area said 11 civilians had died, and the joint military command, known as the International Security Assistance Force, put the toll at 12.

Sunday was an intensive day of fighting around Marja, in an area of irrigated steppes and rural villages where a combined force of about 15,000 Afghan and foreign troops, led by American Marines, is now trying to break Taliban control.

As more troops continued streaming into the town of Marja itself, setting up checkpoints and outposts along the way, patrols and exhaustive house-to-house searches for insurgents and weapons intensified, military officials said.

For a second day, Afghan and NATO military officers also held a series of meetings with local Afghan leaders in Marja, said Flight Lt. Wendy Wheadon, a British officer and spokesman for the international security force.

A main thrust of the offensive has been to smooth the way for permanent government rule in the area, which has remained a durable Taliban stronghold in the years since the 2001 American invasion.

Despite the heavy fighting, reports of allied casualties have been low. The International Security Assistance Force issued a news release indicating that a non-American soldier was killed Sunday by a homemade bomb in southern Afghanistan, but did not specify whether that was a result of the Marja offensive.

A senior Afghan commander, Gen. Sher Mohammed Zazai, said that so far, there had been no deaths of Afghan troops, who make up the bulk of the combined force. One American Marine and one British Marine were reported killed on the first day.

The battle started before dawn on Saturday, when about 6,000 troops began being flown into Marja itself.

Among the vanguard were Company K and an accompanying Afghan Army platoon, which remained alone in their area of the Taliban stronghold for the second day, engaged in off-and-on gun battles from 8:30 a.m. until just before sunset.

Two of the American company’s Marines were wounded by gunfire on Sunday, including one shot in an arm and another through his left shoulder shortly before the Himars rocket strike. No Afghan soldiers with the company had been wounded by nightfall.

The Marines had positioned themselves on Saturday night in one outpost and two small smaller patrol bases. The first shots from the Taliban began minutes after patrols left two of the positions on Sunday morning. Gunfire, along with occasional shoulder-fired rockets and mortars, boomed throughout the day, as the Taliban surrounded the company, probing and attacking from different directions as the hours passed.

The first large skirmish began at 9:30 a.m., as Second Platoon, the company headquarters and most of the Afghan platoon stopped at the edge of a small village and prepared to clear it. The Taliban opened up with automatic rifle fire from a few hundred yards away, shooting from concealed positions protected by open ground.

Marines and Afghan soldiers rushed to mud walls and returned fire. The Taliban’s fighters could be seen at times running between fighting positions and irrigation ditches. A few were struck by the Marines’ fire, and fell. Others kept up their fire. Bullets buzzed past the Marines.

“There’s more than a squad-sized element of them!” shouted Pfc. Joshua D. Horne, as he peered through his scope and fired his squad automatic weapon at insurgents running along an irrigation canal. “There’s 30 or 40 of them out there!”

Private Horne emptied a drum of ammunition. “Reloading!” he shouted, as he fitted a new belt into the automatic weapon’s feed tray. “Gun up!” he screamed, and began firing more.

Shooting opened up from other directions, as the Taliban tried to move on the company’s flank. The insurgents seemed to cluster in groups and then disperse and re-form elsewhere.

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” said Sgt. Philip A. Hinde, a squad leader in Second Platoon, as the first big fight entered a brief lull.

Often, small groups of Taliban opened up from a different direction after the Marines had faced several minutes of fire. It was clear that the Taliban had ringed the company, and was probing and picking at the Marines as much of Company K moved toward a road and bridge that Captain Biggers intended to seize.

As the company spread out, the fighting moved with it. At times, two or three gun battles raged at once, including at the outposts where the Marines had left their equipment. The Taliban harassed and attacked these positions several times during the day.

As the hours passed, Afghans on small motorcycles moved around the company, usually well outside of rifle range but visible as they moved about the steppe or from compound to compound. The Marines thought these were insurgents changing positions, or spotters reporting the company’s locations and movements.

Mixed in with flurries of Taliban shooting were occasional single-shot near misses. It happened again and again, as if at least one sniper was among the insurgents.

By early afternoon, the first Marine was hit. The wounded infantryman, a lance corporal who carried a squad automatic weapon, was struck as he crouched behind a wall, returning fire during a sustained fight in which incoming bullets were whistling and snapping just overhead, or striking the walls. He dropped to the ground.

“Corpsman up!” the Marines beside him shouted, calling for a trauma medic.

The Marine was on his back, blood flowing down his left arm. “Put a tourniquet on him!” someone shouted.

“Doc,” said the squad leader, Sgt. Bryan N. Rogers, “Is he urgent?”

The corpsman, Hospitalman Jonathan C. Fowler, cut away the Marine’s sleeve and examined his wound. He had been lucky — the bullet missed bone and passed through his left shoulder. Hospitalman Fowler applied a pressure bandage and wrapped it tight.

“Hey brother,” a Marine crouching behind the wounded gunner said as the corpsman worked. “You got a Purple Heart.”

“It’s nothing,” said the wounded man, whose name was withheld pending the government’s notification to his family that he had been wounded.

After the bandage was in place and the bleeding had stopped, Sergeant Rogers asked the Marine if he could still fire his weapon. When the Marine said he could, the sergeant ordered him back to the wall. “Post up,” he said. A half-hour later, when the fighting subsided again as the Taliban temporarily ceased fire, the sergeant told him to sit.

More than a half-hour later, after the fighting had subsided again, the Himars rocket barrage struck a nearby house, but not the one from which highly accurate fire had been holding the Marines against the wall.

Several Marines cursed. The wrong building had been hit. The company commander saw the children stream outside, ordered a cease-fire, and sent a patrol to go help.

With helicopter gunships flying overhead to cover them, a squad from First Platoon crossed several hundred yards of open ground and entered the compound, and found the dead Afghans, along with several others who had been wounded. One of the wounded civilians, a woman, had a limb severed, according to the Marines’ radio reports to Captain Biggers from inside the compound.

The Marines applied a tourniquet to the wounded woman, while the company tried to rush a helicopter to evacuate her and the other wounded people.

But by this time the Taliban had moved to new positions and opened fire anew. A Black Hawk helicopter circled the compound under intensive small-arms fire. It landed briefly, but faced more fire, including from rocket-propelled grenades.

Captain Biggers called to one of his radio operators, “Abort! Abort!” he shouted. “Tell him to abort!”

As the helicopter lifted away, accelerating low to the ground, an explosion detonated behind its tail rotor, and several automatic rifles fired as it passed. It banked and passed over the company as the Taliban kept firing, pushing the medical help away.

It returned, landed in a different spot near the company and picked up the wounded Marine, then lifted off as the company crouched under fire, with several hours of fighting yet ahead on a long, bloody day.

U.S. Troops Encounter Snipers, Bombs in Afghanistan Offensive

Feb. 14 (Bloomberg) -- U.S.-led forces encountered sniper fire and remote-controlled bombs as they fought for a second day to clear a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, NATO and Afghan officials said.


February 14, 2010
By James Rupert and Eltaf Najafizada

Troops from the Afghan government and North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries advanced in the district of Marjah “progressing carefully and avoiding the use of heavy weapons in order to minimize casualties,” said Daud Ahmadi, spokesman for the government of Helmand province, where the fighting is taking place. “So far the operation is going smoothly,” Ahmadi said by phone from the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, about 28 kilometers (18 miles) from the town of Marjah.

U.S. Marines “took a lot of sniper fire” and have “blown up a lot of IEDs,” or improvised explosive devices, “and have found lots of IEDs with dead batteries,” the Marines’ commander in southern Afghanistan, Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, told reporters in Marjah, according to Agence France-Presse.

Twelve Afghan civilians were killed today when an allied rocket went awry, AFP reported, citing NATO.

The offensive involves 15,000 troops, the biggest number since the war began, according to NATO, and aims to wipe out a Taliban stronghold whose opium crop has helped fund the guerrilla movement. Opium is refined into heroin.

It’s the first major combat test for some of the 50,000 reinforcements President Barack Obama authorized for Afghanistan to reverse Taliban gains in the war that began in October 2001.

The operation represents a key test for a new war strategy implemented Obama, his national security adviser said.

‘Clearing, Holding’

“Instead of clearing the area and leaving, as we frequently did in the past, our plans call for clearing, holding the area and then providing some building for the people there -- better security, better economic opportunity, better governance,” James Jones said today on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.

The Afghan government “has prepared a local administration for Marjah to quickly begin road construction and digging of wells,” Ahmadi said. “We want to have a government working as soon as the military operation to control Marjah is complete.”

Explosions shook Marjah today as Marines blew up dozens of bombs, land mines and explosive booby traps left by the Taliban, the Associated Press reported. Three caches of explosives and other bomb-making materiel were cleared in Marjah and adjoining areas, a NATO statement said.

Bombs are “a concern -- the Taliban has placed a lot of them everywhere,” said Lieutenant Commander Iain Baxter of the Royal Navy. “We need to try to find them and deal with them so people don’t get hurt.”


Twenty-seven Taliban have been killed since the NATO troops attacked before dawn Feb. 13, said Ahmadi. Two soldiers of the International Security Assistance Force, one American and one Briton, have been killed, said U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant Sabrina D. Foster.

While Ahmadi and NATO officers said they have had no reports of civilian casualties, an unknown number of the estimated 50,000 resident of Marjah remained in their homes. Ahmadi said more than 450 families had fled to Lashkar Gah before the battle began.

While Helmand has been a guerrilla stronghold and a key Taliban supply route from neighboring Pakistan, U.S. troops began major operations in the province in the past 21 months.

“Recent gains enjoyed by insurgents in Helmand have made a deliberate and properly resourced campaign by coalition forces that much more critical” in the province, said a report in September by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

Security, Economy

The U.S. presence in Helmand has improved security and the economy since July, said Abdul Ahad Helmandwal, a tribal elder near Marjah, in a phone interview. Still, the accompanying aid effort -- which provided millions of dollars worth of seed and fertilizer to encourage farmers to grow wheat instead of opium - - has been undercut by a corruption scandal in which several top provincial officials have been arrested.

A Taliban commander in Afghanistan, Akhtar Mohammad, said before the fighting that such operations had been attempted before and failed. “The Taliban have never been defeated,” Mohammad said.

--With assistance from Susan Decker, Laurence Arnold and Mark Drajem in Washington. Editors: James Hertling, Peter Hirschberg

U.S. and Afghan Troops Expand Control in Marjah

MARJAH, Afghanistan—Taliban insurgents tried to overrun a U.S. Marine outpost with a combination of rocket-propelled grenades and suicide bombers in a brazen attack just after sundown on Sunday.


Photo Gallery:

FEBRUARY 14, 2010

The Marines and Afghan soldiers fended off the assault, shooting the suicide attackers before they had a chance to detonate their weapons.

The attack took place on the second day of a major offensive to wrest control of this town of 75,000 people from the Taliban insurgents who have dominated it for years.

Also on Sunday, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said that coalition rockets missed their intended target and killed 12 Afghan civilians.

The Marines and Afghan soldiers landed by helicopter on the first day of the offensive and set up camp at the Koru Chareh bazaar, a central commercial district in Marjah. On Sunday, the troops raised the Afghan flag above the bazaar to send the message that the town was gradually reverting to Kabul's control after years of being ruled by the Taliban.

Around 7 p.m., however, insurgents launched a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades at the entrance to the outpost. Three men then rushed toward the opening, but the Marines killed them by tossing a volley of hand grenades before they were able to set off their explosives, according to Lt. Col. Calvin Worth, commander of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment.

"It's obvious the enemy is trying last-ditch efforts," said Lt. Col. Worth, whose 1,500-strong battalion is spearheading the Marjah offensive. His Company B was the target of Sunday's attack.

Lt. Col. Worth was unsure if there were more fighters waiting to assault the Marine position had the suicide bombers succeeded in getting inside. No Marines or Afghan servicemen were reported injured in the attack.

Marines, Afghan troops seek to secure their hold on Marja

On the offensive's second full day of fighting, Afghan officials say 27 insurgents have been killed. NATO reports 12 civilian deaths from a rocket strike and suspends use of the weapons involved.

Reporting from outside Marja and Kabul, Afghanistan — Insurgent holdouts in the town of Marja on Sunday aimed sporadic but sometimes intense fire at U.S. Marines and Afghan troops seeking to solidify their hold on the southern Afghan town.


By Tony Perry and Laura King
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
February 14, 2010 | 6:49 a.m.

NATO also reported its forces had accidentally killed 12 Afghan civilians in a misdirected rocket strike in Nad Ali, the district in which Marja lies -- the first major episode of civilian casualties since the start of the offensive on Saturday. The alliance expressed deep regret and said it was immediately suspending use of the weapons system involved.

Afghan officials said 27 insurgents had been killed so far in the fighting in Helmand province, long a heartland of the insurgency. NATO reported the death of Western service member in an explosion Sunday in southern Afghanistan, but did not disclose the nationality involved, or say whether the fatality came in the course of the assault on Marja.

The offensive, among the largest since the start of the Afghan war in 2001, is the first major military confrontation since the start of a 30,000-strong U.S. troop buildup ordered late last year by President Obama. In coming months, the town will also be a crucial test case of Afghans' ability, with NATO's help, to maintain order and governance in areas that the coalition succeeds in clearing of Taliban.

On the second full day of fighting, the Taliban and other insurgent foot soldiers remained a shadowy enemy: Western commanders still do not have a solid estimate of how many militants remain in the farming town and its environs, which for years had served as a Taliban sanctuary.

Estimates before the coalition assault that began early Saturday ranged from 400 to around 1,000 Taliban and other fighters in the town, with perhaps 150 of those considered "hardcore" militants who would fight to the death rather than slip away. Those are thought to include some Chechen and Uzbek fighters with likely links to Al Qaeda.

Some Taliban fled before the battle. The Marines had widely publicized their plans to take the town, in hopes of driving off less committed fighters and thus avoiding heavy close-quarters combat that could end up harming civilians.

In line with their usual practice, insurgents avoided massing for a confrontation, instead staging hit-and-run attacks. Even the Marines' commander, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, had to duck sniper fire Sunday as he was visiting a front-line Marine position, the Associated Press reported.

For the advancing Marines, it was a rough, dirty slog -- and a slow one. Companies of U.S. and Afghan troops moved through the streets, carefully detonating improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in their path. Plumes of dusty smoke arose from the blast sites.

Commanders acknowledge that such "clearing" could go on for days or weeks. The town and its outskirts are thickly sown with homemade bombs, which are the insurgents' weapon of choice against much better armed coalition troops.

Advancing forces have uncovered some major caches of bomb-making components, including detonation cords and hundreds of pounds of ammonium nitrate, an agricultural chemical recently banned by Afghan authorities because it was being so widely used as an ingredient in IEDs.

In Marja's center, vanguard coalition forces laid claim to more key sites, including some strategically located walled compounds. Marines guarding one such makeshift outpost came under insurgent fire when Afghan troops inside the compound raised their national flag, the Reuters news agency reported.

A total of about 15,000 U.S., British, Afghan and other coalition troops -- some combat units, some providing support -- are taking part in the offensive, about half of them deployed and around Marja itself. NATO also plans to secure the sprawling district surrounding the town to make it harder for the Taliban to regain a foothold in the area.

[email protected] [email protected]

Troops, Taliban battle for second day in Afghan offensive

Marjah, Afghanistan (CNN) -- The Taliban put up a stiff resistance Sunday, as a coalition assault against the militant group entered its second day in southern Afghanistan.


By Atia Abawi, CNN
February 14, 2010 9:40 a.m. EST

Officials said they did not know how many Taliban fighters remained in the Marjah region of Helmand province but think they may be in the hundreds -- some of whom are holed up in civilian compounds.

Dawoud Ahmadi, the provincial spokesman, said 27 Taliban fighters have been killed. Afghan and international force also discovered a total of 2,500 kg (5,500 lbs) of explosives during the operation.

The Taliban spokesman for the Marjah area claimed six Taliban casualties and said militants had killed 192 Afghan and coaltion troops.

In the past, the Taluban has often inflated casualty fighures.

"NATO forces have not captured any areas in Marjah from the Mujahadeen," said Qari Yousif Ahmadi, the Taliban spokesman.

Dubbed Operation Moshtarak, the offensive was launched early Saturday by an international coalition of 15,000 troops including Afghans, Americans, Britons, Canadians, Danes and Estonians.

Hours into the offensive, small-arms fire killed a U.S. Marine, and an explosion killed a British soldier, according to a U.S. military official.

Soldiers also found a weapons cache in the Nad Ali district that included two 155 mm artillery rounds, four pressure plates, blasting caps and batteries, according to the International Security Assistance Force.

"The Taliban appear confused and disoriented," said Maj. Gen. Gordon Messenger, a British military spokesman. However, he tempered his optimism with the reminder that the operation was not over.

Long a bastion of pro-Taliban sentiment and awash with the opium used to fund the insurgency, the Marjah region has been known as the heroin breadbasket of Afghanistan and a place where the Taliban have set up a shadow government.

U.S. Marines swept into the area from north and south, a U.S. Marine Corps official told CNN. They established a ring of security, preventing anyone from leaving or entering the area, the official said.

In an effort to establish a foothold, troops launched air assaults followed by a ground offensive in rough terrain, a region crisscrossed by canals.

The terrain is so tough that four lightly wounded troops whose injuries normally wouldn't need medical evacuation had to be airlifted for treatment.

NATO forces announced the offensive before it started so that citizens could get out of harm's way.

In the past few days, forces from Afghanistan, Britain and other nations dropped leaflets in and around Marjah warning residents not to allow the Taliban to enter their homes.

And meetings with local leaders, or shuras, have been held, as NATO forces tried to get Afghans on their side, the British military official told CNN.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday urged Afghan and international troops to exercise "absolute caution" and ensure civilian safety.

However, there were at least two civilian injuries -- two teens whose house was taken over by the Taliban and used to attack U.S. troops, the Marines said.

Key challenges are determining the strength of the remaining insurgency and whether, after the offensive, Afghans will stick with their government.

Officials said they hope Afghan forces and the government will maintain control, win allegiance from the citizens and provide farmers with an alternative to the poppy crops that pervade the region.

Marine commander says it could take weeks to fully reclaim Taliban haven

MARJAH, Afghanistan (AP) — It could take weeks to reclaim the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, a top Marine commander said Sunday as thousands of U.S. troops and Afghan soldiers fought for a second day in NATO's most ambitious effort yet to break the militants' grip on Afghanistan's dangerous south.


Associated Press Writer
7:05 a.m. CST, February 14, 2010

"That doesn't necessarily mean an intense gun battle, but it probably will be 30 days of clearing," Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson said. "I am more than cautiously optimistic that we will get it done before that."

Squads of Marines and Afghan soldiers occupied a majority of Marjah, but sporadic gun battles erupted as pockets of militants dug in and fought. Sniper fire forced Nicholson to duck behind an earthen bank in the northern part of the city where he toured the tip of the Marines' front line held by Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines.

"The fire we just took reflects how I think this will go — small pockets of sporadic fighting by small groups of very mobile individuals," he said.

Afghan officials said Sunday that at least 27 insurgents have been killed in the operation. NATO reported two troop casualties from the first day of the offensive — an American and a Briton. Seven civilians have been wounded but there were no reports of deaths, Helmand provincial spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said.

The offensive, called "Moshtarak," or "Together," is the biggest joint operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, with 15,000 troops involved, including some 7,500 in Marjah itself.

Between 400 and 1,000 insurgents — including more than 100 foreign fighters — were believed to be holed up in Marjah, a town of 80,000 people that is the linchpin of the militants' logistical and opium-smuggling network in the south.

The second day of the massive NATO offensive was marked by painstaking searches from compound to compound as Marines and Afghan troops used metal detectors and sniffer dogs to locate explosives rigged to blow.

They also encountered pockets of resistance, fighting off sniper attacks, as they moved deeper into the town.

"We're in the majority of the city at this point," said Lt. Josh Diddams, a Marine spokesman. He said the nature of the resistance has changed from the initial assault, with insurgents now holding ground in some neighborhoods.

"We're starting to come across areas where the insurgents have actually taken up defensive positions," he said. "Initially it was more hit and run."

Meanwhile, thousands of other British, Afghan and U.S. troops fanned out across the Nad Ali district to the north of the mud-brick town.

Explosions from controlled detonations of bombs and other explosives were being heard about every 10 minutes in the area.

"There's really a massive amount of improvised explosive devices," Nicholson said. "We thought there would be a lot, but we are finding even more than expected."

NATO forces uncovered 250 kilograms (550 pounds) of ammonium nitrate and other bomb-making materials while clearing a compound in Marjah, a coalition statement said. They also found a weapons cache in Nad Ali that included artillery rounds, pressure plates and blasting caps.

NATO said it hoped to secure Marjah, the largest town under Taliban control, set up a local government and rush in development aid in a first test of the new U.S. strategy for turning the tide of the 8-year-old war.

The United Nations said an estimated 900 families had fled the Marjah area and were registered for emergency assistance in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) away.

At least two shuras, or council meetings, have already been held with local residents — one in Nad Ali and the other in Marjah itself, NATO said in a statement. Discussions have been "good," and more are planned in coming days as part of a larger strategy to enlist community support for the NATO mission, it said.

President Barack Obama was keeping a close watch on combat operations, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan was to brief Obama on Sunday.

In Marjah, most of the Marines said they would have preferred a straight-up gunbattle to the "death at every corner" crawl they faced as they made their way through the town.

"Basically, if you hear the boom, it's good. It means you're still alive after the thing goes off," said Lance Corp. Justin Hennes, 22, of Lakeland, Florida.

Local Marjah residents crept out from hiding after dawn Sunday, some reaching out to Afghan troops partnered with Marine platoons.

"Could you please take the mines out?" Mohammad Kazeem, a local pharmacist, asked the Marines through an interpreter. The entrance to his shop had been completely booby-trapped, without any way for him to re-enter his home, he said.

Associated Press writers Noor Khan in Kandahar, Rahim Faiez and Heidi Vogt in Kabul, and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

February 13, 2010

US, Afghan troops sweep into Taliban stronghold

MARJAH, Afghanistan — Thousands of U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers stormed the Taliban stronghold of Marjah before dawn Saturday, sweeping by air and ground against scattered resistance into the biggest southern town under militant control. The massive offensive was aimed at breaking the Taliban grip over a wide area of their southern heartland.



Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, NATO commander of forces in southern Afghanistan, said Afghan and coalition troops, aided by 60 helicopters, made a "successful insertion" into Marjah in southern Helmand province without incurring any casualties. He said the operation was going "without a hitch."

Thousands of British, U.S. and Canadian troops swept into Taliban areas to the north of Marjah.

There have been no coalition casualties reported, but NATO said three U.S. soldiers were killed Saturday in a bombing elsewhere in southern Afghanistan.

At least 20 insurgents have been killed in the Helmand operation, said Gen. Sher Mohammad Zazai, the commander of Afghan forces in the region. Troops have recovered Kalashnikov rifles, heavy machine guns and grenades from 11 insurgents captured so far.

In Kabul, Defense Minister Rahim Wardak told reporters at midafternoon that most of the resistance was centered around the main market district of Marjah.

The ground advance into Marjah was slowed by extensive fields of mines, homemade bombs and booby traps as Marine infantry crossed a major canal into the town's northern entrance. The town's canals were built by the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s.

The few civilians who ventured out to talk to the Marines said teams of Taliban fighters were falling back deeper into the town, perhaps to try to regroup and mount harassment attacks.

The long-awaited assault on Marjah is the biggest offensive since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and is a major test of a new NATO strategy focused on protecting civilians. The attack is also the first major combat operation since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 U.S. reinforcements here in December to try to turn the tide of the war.

President Hamid Karzai called on Afghan and international troops "to exercise absolute caution to avoid harming civilians," including avoiding airstrikes in areas where civilians are at risk. In a statement, he also called on insurgent fighters to renounce violence and reintegrate into civilian life.

Gunfire was ringing through the town by midday Saturday as troops picked their way slowly through poppy fields lined with homemade explosives and other land mines.

The bridge over the canal into Marjah from the north was so rigged with explosives that Marines erected temporary bridges to cross into the town.

Lance Corp. Ivan Meza, 19, was the first to walk across one of the flimsy bridges.

"I did get an adrenaline rush, and that bridge is wobbly," said Meza, a Marine combat engineer from Pismo Beach, California, who is with the 1st Platoon, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines.

Several civilians hesitantly crept out of compounds as the Marines slowly worked through a suspected mine field. The Marines entered compounds first to make sure they were clear of bombs, then called in their Afghan counterparts to interview civilians inside.

Shopkeeper Abdul Kader, 44, said seven or eight Taliban fighters, who had been holding the position where the Marines crossed over, had fled in the middle of the night. He said he was angry at the insurgents for having planted bombs and mines all around his neighborhood.

"They left with their motorcycles and their guns. They went deeper into town," he said as Marines and Afghan troops searched a poppy field next to his house. "We can't even walk out of our own houses."

Saturday's ground assault followed many hours after an initial wave of helicopters carrying hundreds of U.S. Marines and Afghan troops swooped into town under the cover of darkness before dawn. Cobra helicopters fired Hellfire missiles at tunnels, bunkers and other defensive positions.

Marine commanders had said they expected between 400 to 1,000 insurgents — including more than 100 foreign fighters — to be holed up in Marjah. The town of 80,000 people, about 360 miles (610 kilometers) southwest of Kabul, is the biggest southern town under Taliban control and the linchpin of the militants' logistical and opium-smuggling network.

The operation, code-named "Moshtarak," or "Together," was described as the biggest joint operation of the Afghan war, with 15,000 troops involved, including some 7,500 troops fighting in Marjah.

Once Marjah is secured, NATO hopes to rush in aid and restore public services in a bid to win support among the estimated 125,000 people who live in the town and surrounding villages. The Afghans' ability to restore those services is crucial to the success of the operation and to prevent the Taliban from returning.

Carter said coalition forces hope to install an Afghan government presence within the next few days and will work to find and neutralize improvised explosive devices — homemade bombs — left by the militants.

Tribal elders have pleaded for NATO to finish the operation quickly and spare civilians — an appeal that offers some hope the townspeople will cooperate with Afghan and international forces once the Taliban are gone.

Still, the town's residents have displayed few signs of rushing to welcome the attack force.

"The elders are telling people to stay behind the front doors and keep them bolted," Carter said. "Once people feel more secure and they realize there is government present on the ground, they will come out and tell us where the IEDs are."

The overwhelming military edge already seen in the first hours of the offensive will be essential to maintain, Carter said. "Everybody needs to understand that it's not so much the clear phase that's decisive. It's the hold phase."

Carter said the coalition offensive was "personally endorsed and sanctioned" by Karzai during consultations the day before troops went on the move.

A defense official at the Pentagon said Karzai was informed of planning for the operation well in advance. The official said it marked a first in terms of both sharing information prior to the attack and planning collaboration with the Afghan government.

The Marjah offensive involves close combat in extremely difficult terrain, that official said. A close grid of wide canals dug by the United States as an aid project decades ago make the territory a particularly rich agricultural prize, but they complicate the advance of U.S. forces.

On the eve of the attack, cars and trucks jammed the main road out of Marjah as hundreds of civilians defied militant orders and fled the area. For weeks, U.S. commanders had signaled their intention to attack Marjah in hopes that civilians would seek shelter.

Associated Press writers Noor Khan in Kandahar, Rahim Faiez in Kabul and Stephen Braun in Washington contributed to this report.

Attack Gives Marines a Taste of War

MARJA, Afghanistan — The helicopters landed before dawn Saturday in a poppy field beside a row of mud-walled compounds. The Marines ran into the darkness and crouched through the rotor-whipped dust as their aircraft lifted away.


Published: February 13, 2010

For the Marines of Company K, Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, the assault into the last large Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province was beginning. For almost all of them, this was to be their first taste of war. And an afternoon of small-arms combat was ahead.

But at first, these Marines, the vanguard for 6,000 NATO and Afghan troops streaming in to loosen the Taliban’s grip here permanently, met no resistance.

On the last miles of the ride in, the Marines were silent as the aircraft flew 200 feet above freshly sprouting fields. Irrigation canals glittered beneath the portholes, rolling past fast.

They did not know what to expect, beyond the fact that at least hundreds of insurgents were waiting for them, and that many would fight to keep their hold on this opium-poppy production center.

Company K is part of what many Marines call a surge battalion, one of the units assigned to Afghanistan after President Obama decided last year to increase the American troop level on the ground. It arrived in Afghanistan a month ago, and had waited for this moment. Its introduction to the war was a crash course.

As helicopter wheels touched soil, the aircraft filled with whoops, and the Marines stood and bolted for the tail ramp.

They moved briskly. Within minutes, the first Marines of Third Platoon were entering compounds to the landing zone’s north, checking for enemy fighters and booby traps. The rest of the platoon followed through the gate.

Sergeants and corporals urged a steady pace. “Go! Go! Go!” they said, spicing instructions with foul words. By 3 a.m., Company K had its toehold.

The company’s mission was to seize the area around the major intersection in northern Marja, clear a village beside it and hold it. By drawing this assignment, the company had become its battalion’s lead unit — sent alone and out front into Taliban territory. It had been told to hold its area until other companies, driving over the ground and clearing hidden explosives from the roads, worked down from the northwest and caught up.

Second Platoon took a position to the west, to block Route 605, a main road. First Platoon was to the east, watching over another likely Taliban avenue of approach. Third Platoon gathered in the southernmost compounds, with orders to sweep north and clear the entire village.

Third Platoon’s commander, First Lt. Adam J. Franco, ordered a halt until dawn.

A canal separated the platoon from the village. The company had been warned of booby traps. Lieutenant Franco chose to cross the canal with daylight, reducing the risks of a Marine’s stepping on an unseen pressure plate that would detonate an explosive charge.

“Hold tight,” he said into his radio. The noncommissioned officers paced in the blackness, counting and recounting every man.

Being the lead company had drawbacks. The Marines had been told that ground reinforcements and fresh supplies might not reach them for three days. This meant they had to carry everything they would need during that time: water, ammunition, food, first-aid equipment, bedrolls, clothes and spare batteries for radios and night-vision devices.

As they jogged forward, the men grunted and swore under their burdens, which in many cases weighed 100 pounds or more. Some carried five-gallon jugs of water, others hauled stretchers, rockets, mortar ammunition or bundles of plastic explosives and spools of time-fuse and detonating cord.

In Third Platoon, two teams carried collapsible aluminum footbridges, each about 25 feet long when extended, which the platoon would use to cross the canal.

At daybreak, Third Platoon bounded across one of its bridges and into the village, and dropped its backpacks and extra equipment, moving forward without excess weight. The Taliban initially chose not to fight, and the company’s first sweeps were uneventful.

At 8:30 a.m., as one of the squads searched buildings, a gunshot sounded just behind the walls. The Marines rushed toward the door, guns level to their eyes, ready for their first fight.

A shout carried over the wall. “Dog!” the voice said. A Marine had fired a warning shot at an attacking dog, scaring it off. The young Marines shook their heads.

Minutes later, gunfire erupted to the south, where another unit, First Battalion, Sixth Marines, had also inserted Marines.

The firing was intense for about 10 minutes, then it subsided. It rose again a few minutes later, and subsided again. Much of the shooting carried the distinct sound of American machine guns and squad automatic weapons. Then a large explosion rumbled near the source of the noise. A small mushroom-shaped cloud rose from the spot: an airstrike.

The Marines listened to the fighting far away. They still had no contact.

Before the assault, Capt. Joshua P. Biggers, Company K’s commander, had said that as many as 90 percent of the company’s Marines had not been in combat before. A few were brand new — straight from boot camp and infantry school, men with roughly a half-year in the corps.

But the captain also said the bulk of the company had been together a year or more. These Marines knew each other well, he said, and had trained intensely for this day. “They’re ready,” he said.

Soon they were finding signs of the Taliban. A sweep of one compound turned up 12 sacks of fertilizer used to make explosives and a batch of new cooking pots, which insurgents have often used as the shells of bombs.

The compound’s only adult male resident, Abdul Ghani, said the fertilizer belonged to his son. The company detained Abdul Ghani.

At 10 a.m., the day changed. Taliban fighters probed Second Platoon, and a firefight erupted as the platoon moved toward the road. It subsided, but not before several Taliban fighters had been killed and the platoon had been fired on by small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.

At 12:40, fighting broke out for Third Platoon. For almost three hours, Second and Third Platoons took sporadic fire from insurgents in several directions. At times the fighting was intense, and the gunfire rose and roared and snapped overhead. The fight briefly quieted after a B-1 bomber dropped a 500-pound bomb on a compound near the landing zone, leveling most of the house there.

For a short while after the airstrike, the village was quiet. But by late afternoon, the company, which had established a crude outpost in a compound, was taking fire again. Between exchanges of fire, a squad-sized patrol led by Cpl. Thomas D. Drake pushed out across the fields to search the building that had been hit by the airstrike.

The Taliban let the Marines walk into an open field and approach a tall stand of dried grass. Then they opened fire in a hasty ambush. The Marines dropped. They fired back, exposed. Gunfire rose to a crescendo.

Corporal Drake shouted over the noise to the team in front, “You got everyone?” He shouted to the team behind him, which was pressed flat in the field. “Everyone O.K.?”

The Taliban firing subsided. “We’re moving!” the corporal shouted. The patrol stood and sprinted toward the withdrawing Taliban, and then ran across irrigation dikes and poppy fields and entered the compound that had been struck.

It searched the wreckage, took pictures, collected a few documents and returned to the small outpost just ahead of dark.

At night, Captain Biggers reflected on the day. An explosives ordnance disposal team with the company had found and destroyed four large bombs hidden in the roads. The platoons had seized their first objectives. In its first day of combat, Company K had been fighting for hours without a casualty, and several Taliban fighters were lying dead in one of the fields.

Surprise tactic in Afghanistan offensive befuddles Taliban

LASHKAR GAR, Afghanistan -- U.S. Marines and Afghan forces were airlifted over the Taliban-laid minefields into the center of town in Marjah Saturday, apparently surprising the insurgents and taking strategic positions from them, according to military officials.


Posted on Saturday, 02.13.10
McClatchy Newspapers

Although billed as a major confrontation between the international coalition and Afghan forces and the Taliban, the first day of the offensive in the southern Helmand province saw only sporadic fighting. Two coalition soldiers were killed, along with about 20 insurgents. It was the biggest assault since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.

The helicopter airlift into the heart of the city of 80,000 started around 2 a.m. and allowed the troops to quickly establish 11 posts throughout Marjah, while the bulk of the 15,000-man force carefully picked its way over land.

The operation had been deliberately telegraphed in advance for weeks but the military tactics still seem to have surprised the enemy.

"We appear to have caught the insurgents on the hop. He appears to be completely dislocated," Major General Nick Carter, the British officer who is in charge of operations in south Afghanistan, told reporters at his base in Kandahar. "I'm much encouraged by the way things are going but I'm also conscious that this is only the end of the beginning."

Marjah is the last Taliban stronghold in Helmand and also the hub for a thriving heroin business in the province, which fuels the insurgents.

The U.S.-led NATO offensive, called Moshtarak, which means "together," is a joint operation between the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan army. It is designed to showcase both Afghan capability and the coalition's new approach to the war.

The extra manpower for Afghanistan announced by President Barack Obama is designed to allow the coalition to not only take territory from the insurgents but now to hold it, while Afghan police and government services come in to make the population feel secure and encourage their interest in the benefits of a stable state presence there.

The majority of Marjah's residents have not evacuated, so the coalition warned remaining residents to stay inside their homes. Locals interviewed by McClatchy claimed that the Taliban were preventing residents from leaving town. The Taliban seemed intent on using homes as firing positions.

As the military attacks against the Taliban have increased in recent months, civilian causalities also have risen.

The Taliban strategy for defending Marjah seemed designed to heighten civilian casualties, thereby undermining the new U.S. strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan, which is focused on "protecting the population."

Hajji Naimat made it from Marjah Saturday morning only by taking a circuitous route, first diverting south to Nawa, before heading north to the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, where several hundred families have taken refuge.

"The area is surrounded by ISAF and ANA (Afghan National Army)," Naimat told McClatchy. "The Taliban are not allowing us to go out (of Marjah). It was only with great difficulty that we made it here."

"Our situation is very bad. The center (of Marjah) is in the hands of ANA and ISAF. We are not allowed to come out of our houses. When the Taliban came to enter our house, we told them: 'For God's sake, to leave us alone,' " said Hajji Sakhidad, speaking by phone from Marjah.

Sakhidad said that, as they were turning the Taliban away from their door, gunfire some distance away injured his cousin.

One British soldier was killed by a roadside bomb while patrolling in a vehicle. The other ISAF casualty, whose nationality was not released, was killed by small arms fire. Initial reports are that he is American.

Separately, a roadside bomb killed three U.S. soldiers in the neighboring province of Kandahar, another violent area, which may be next for a concerted offensive.

In Kabul, Afghanistan's defense minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said the offensive is going according to plan.

"(Marjah) is mined heavily, so we have to be slow. We have to be slow in the process of clearing that area. But so far our advance is as per schedule. There has been sporadic resistance and firing from here and there," Wardak told reporters in Kabul.

The Taliban were given weeks of warning of the operation, in an apparent deliberate attempt to pressure them into simply leaving the town. That provided plenty of time for them to mine and booby-trap the city and the surrounding villages. It is unclear how many of the estimated 2,000 Taliban fighters in Marjah stuck around to confront the Afghan and coalition armies, but, if they followed their typical guerrilla tactics, most would have fled.

Wardak said: "Some of them (Taliban) have already left, there might be several hundred still." The defense minister said troops found burnt copies of the Koran strewn about in Marjah, seemingly in an attempt to malign the foreign soldiers. The desecration of the Muslim holy book caused recent riots in Afghanistan.

"The enemy is playing with people's emotions," Wardak said.

Some 15,000 soldiers are involved in the Marjah operation, with the British soldiers focused on the surrounding villages of Nad-e Ali district. A civilian effort, including Afghans and others from the international community, is supposed to follow just behind the troops.

(Saeed Shah and Janan Zerak are McClatchy special correspondents. Shah reported from Kabul, and Zerak from Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province.)

Coalition troops find 'minimal interference' in assault on Taliban

Marjah, Afghanistan (CNN) -- The major coalition assault against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan claimed the lives of two coalition troops, but military officials regard the hours-old push in war-ravaged Helmand province as very promising.

Click above link for photos.

From Atia Abawi, CNN
February 13, 2010 5:42 p.m. EST

"So far, so good," said British military spokesman Maj. Gen. Gordon Messenger, who told reporters in London that commanders are "very pleased" with the siege in the Marjah region, a Taliban-dominated agricultural area dotted with villages.

He said key objectives such as securing key bridges and roads were being reached with "minimal interference" by Taliban militants unable to put up a "coherent response."

"The Taliban appear confused and disoriented," Messenger said, but tempered his optimism with the reminder that the operation is not yet done.

A U.S. military official confirmed one U.S. Marine was killed in small arms fire, and a British soldier was killed in an explosion.

Dubbed Operation Moshtarak, the offensive was launched early Saturday by an international coalition of 15,000 troops including Afghans, Americans, Britons, Canadians, Danes and Estonians.

The massive helicopter movement alone is the largest by the British, who dropped 1,200 troops on the ground in two hours, said a British military official not authorized to speak on the record.

Long a bastion of pro-Taliban sentiment, the Marjah region is awash with the opium used to fund the insurgency. The Taliban have set up a shadow government in what is known as the "heroin breadbasket" of Afghanistan.

The fighting started quickly and has been sporadic, with isolated firefights and attacks on troops, military officials said.

One military company said as 200 U.S. Marines moved to increase its foothold in the region, insurgents fired guns and rocket-propelled grenades at them. And in another part of the Marjah area, soldiers also were in a fierce gunbattle with insurgents, military officials said.

Five Taliban fighters were killed and eight were captured in the early hours of the operation, said a spokesman for the governor of Helmandprovince, Dawoud Ahmadi.

In an effort to establish a foothold, troops launched air assaults followed by a ground offensive in rough terrain, a region crisscrossed by canals.

The terrain is so tough that four lightly wounded troops whose injuries normally wouldn't need medical evacuation had to be airlifted for treatment.

One NATO official, Flight Commander Wendy Wheadon, said forces have discovered large amounts of explosives, such as 155-mm artillery shells, 10 improvised explosive devices and bullets from a Soviet-made antiaircraft weapon. They also discovered 2 kilograms of heroin.

Peter Bergen: Kandahar, not Marjah, is game-changer

Maj. Gen. Messenger said a number of improvised explosive devices have been identified by the population.

In an effort to avoid civilian casualties, NATO forces announced the offensive before it started to alert citizens to take cover. In the past few days, forces from Afghanistan, Britain and other nations conducted air and ground operations to prepare for the assault. They also dropped leaflets in and around Marjah warning residents not to allow the Taliban to enter their homes. And meetings with local leaders, or shuras, have been held as NATO forces tried to get Afghans on their side, the British military official told CNN.

Afghan President Harmid Karzai on Saturday urged Afghan and international troops to exercise "absolute caution" and ensure there were no civilian casualties. However, there were at least two civilian injuries -- two teens whose house was taken over by the Taliban and used to attack U.S. troops, the Marines said. Four coalition troops were injured.

More on Operation Moshtarak from Afghanistan Crossroads blog

The coalition said its troops expected to confront up to 1,000 entrenched Taliban fighters. It expects foreign Taliban fighters to battle to the death, and is preparing for local Taliban members in Marjah to try to escape. Roads, bridges and marketplaces are being secured while compounds are being searched, the British military official said.

Key challenges to the offensive now is determining the strength of the insurgency left in the area and whether after the offensive Afghans will stick with their government.

Officials hope Afghan forces and the government will be able to maintain control and generate the allegiance of the citizenry and provide farmers an alternative to growing the poppy that pervades the region.

Wheadon said forces have already begun working with local leaders to begin the transition of authority as troops move into Marjah, a place thought to be the last Taliban stronghold in the southern Afghanistan province of Helmand.

Messenger said tribal councils have been set up welcoming the operations. He cited one of the shuras in one area where 150 tribal elders gathered.

"NATO sees this as a success," Messenger said. "The elders believe ISAF is here to stay."

Journalist Mati Matiullah and Correspondents Nic Robertson,Frederik Pleitgen and Barbara Starr contributed to this report

Marines spearhead major Afghanistan offensive

MARJAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - U.S. Marines spearheaded one of NATO's biggest offensives against the Taliban in Afghanistan on Saturday, in an early test of President Barack Obama's troop surge policy.


News video:

Golnar Motevalli
MARJAH, Afghanistan
Sat Feb 13, 2010 10:08am EST

Marines in helicopters landed in Marjah district, the last big Taliban stronghold in Helmand province, in the first hours of a NATO campaign to impose government control on rebel-held areas before U.S. forces start a planned 2011 drawdown.

They fired at least four rockets at militants who attacked from compounds near the bazaar in Marjah town. Hours later, the area was still gripped by the firefight.

There was one Marine casualty in the unit in which a Reuters correspondent was embedded. In their house nearby, a family huddled in one room, laundry flapping on the line outside.

"We are currently moving to seize our objective. We have been in contact for five hours from the southwest, north and east and we are moving to push to finish securing the areas of insurgents still," Lieutenant Mark Greenlief told Reuters.

The Marines' first objective was to take over the town center, a large cluster of dwellings, and they called in two Harrier jets which flew over a Taliban position at the edge of the town center and fired on the militants with machineguns.

Like civilians in the district of up to 100,000 people, the U.S., British and Afghan troops risk being blown up by booby traps the Taliban are believed to have rigged in the hundreds to try to slow the advance.

A local Taliban commander, Qari Fazluddin, told Reuters earlier about 2,000 fighters were ready to fight.

Also in southern Afghanistan, five NATO troops, including three Americans, died after roadside bomb strikes, and a shooting in southern Afghanistan on Saturday, NATO said in a statement.

It was not clear whether they were killed during the offensive but the violence illustrated how vulnerable they still were after eight years of fighting the Taliban.

Helmand task force spokesman Lieutenant Colonel David Wakefield said a British solider was killed in an explosion while on vehicle patrol during the operation. It was not clear whether the solider was one of the five.


NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal's counter-insurgency strategy emphasizes seizing population centers and avoiding combat in built-up areas whenever possible.

McChrystal has stressed precautions to avoid killing civilians, and the number of civilians killed by NATO troops has declined since he took command in mid-2009.

Heavy casualties may ruin the government's chance of gaining more support from Afghans. NATO forces advised civilians not to leave their homes. Some have already fled Marjah.

"The international forces must adopt certain procedures and mechanisms during operation in Marjah to protect civilians," Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in a statement.

In Marjah, resident Abdel Aziz, 16, told the Marines through a translator, "All the walls between the streets and houses are surrounded by bombs. Most people have gone to Lashkar Gah. That's where we want to go today."

An elderly neighbor emerged from her house and asked Marines not to fire at it. "This is just my house," she said.


After helicopters began ferrying U.S. Marines into Marjah, British troops flew into the northern part of Nad Ali district, and tanks and combat engineering units followed.

"The first phase of the operation is proceeding very successfully. The Taliban have heavily booby-trapped the area, but there has not been any fierce fighting yet," Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal told a news conference.

"We have seized 11 key locations in the district and the resistance from the insurgents has been subdued."

The 15,000-troop operation was named Mushtarak, or "together," perhaps to highlight that NATO and Afghan forces were determined to work closely to restore stability to Afghanistan.

Whether the apparent early success can translate into a more permanent end to the insurgency may depend on the government's ability to ensure long-term political and economic stability.

"Our aim is not the elimination of the insurgents, the goal is developing the influence of central government, safeguarding the civilians and providing long-term security and stability," Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told reporters in Kabul.

Marjah has long been a breeding ground for insurgents and lucrative opium poppy cultivation, which Western countries say funds the insurgency.

Even if NATO deals a heavy blow to the Taliban in Helmand, militants on the U.S. hit list operate from other sanctuaries inside Pakistan or close to the border.

U.S.-allied Pakistan is reluctant to pursue them as it sees these groups as assets to counter the influence of rival India in Afghanistan.

Decades ago, the Marjah area was home to an Afghan-U.S. development project. Its canals, which criss-cross lush farmland, were built by the Americans.

(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Writing by Michael Georgy and Bryson Hull; Editing by Louise Ireland)

Marines take key positions in Marja

OUTSIDE MARJA and KABUL, Afghanistan _ Picking their way through a dense tangle of homemade bombs, U.S. Marines on Saturday seized key positions in the Taliban stronghold of Marja, as thousands of coalition troops consolidated their hold on a wide swath of desert and farm territory surrounding the southern Afghan town.

Click above link for a news video.

By Tony Perry and Laura King
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
February 13, 2010 | 5:52 a.m.

U.S. and Afghan commanders reported only scattered resistance from Taliban fighters, who boasted _ despite clear evidence to the contrary _ that they were holding off the massive coalition assault.

Western military officials said some insurgents had fled the town in advance of the offensive, and that others appeared to have fallen back, finding sanctuary in parts of the town not yet secured by the Marines.

At least 20 insurgents were reported killed on the first full day of the offensive, meant to establish security and governance in what had been a particularly chaotic corner of Helmand province. The Marines, who pushed into the Helmand River valley seven months ago, had described Marja as the last main Taliban sanctuary in their theater of operations.

The American military reported three service members were killed by an explosion in southern Afghanistan, but did not specify the location, or whether they had been part of the attacking force.

About 5,000 Marines are spearheading the Marja offensive, but a total of some 15,000 coalition forces are involved in combat and support roles, including British troops and American army units who pushed in from the northeast, linking up with the Marines to encircle the town.

The offensive began hours before dawn, with the thunder of helicopters filling the dark sky. More than 60 choppers took part in what Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, described as a "successful insertion" by air of thousands of coalition and Afghan troops into the town itself, as well as surrounding farmlands.

The ground advance into the main population center in the 140-square-mile subdistrict was slower, delayed by the painstaking task of clearing away one of the thickest layers of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that Western commanders had encountered in a concentrated area.

Homemade bombs, planted by insurgents on roads, in culverts and in open terrain, are the No. 1 killer of Western troops in Afghanistan. Throughout the day, the boom of detonations echoed through the streets as bomb-disposal teams disabled one IED after another.

The network of canals ringing the town _ built decades ago as part of an American-sponsored agricultural-development program _ were used by the insurgents as makeshift fortifications, with the defenders seeding the banks with bombs and trying to flood a main waterway. The Marines laid down metal bridges to cross the canals.

Several thousand civilians have fled the town, with the exodus continuing even amid the fighting. NATO had urged noncombatants to stay in their homes once the battle began, rather than risking their safety on the roads, but some families braved IEDs and Taliban checkpoints to get clear.

"Our home and orchards were destroyed in the last offensive, and we are worried that they might be destroyed again," said Marja farmer Abdul Hadi, who took shelter with his family in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. But he expressed support for the offensive, saying locals wanted the foreign and Afghan forces to stay in place to keep the Taliban from returning and terrorizing townspeople.

"Marja was on fire, and we want it pulled from the flames," he said.

The performance of Afghan security forces is being closely watched in this offensive as an indicator of their eventual ability to shoulder security responsibilities so foreign troops can leave Afghanistan. The operation is code-named "Moshtarak," or "Together" in the Dari language, apparently meant to stress the partnership between Afghan and coalition troops.

The commander of Afghan forces, Gen. Sher Mohammad Zazai, said his troops had helped uncover Taliban weapons caches throughout the day, seizing arms that included heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, and carried out house searches that cultural sensitivities dictate be done by Afghan troops rather than foreigners.

President Hamid Karzai, who gave his approval to the offensive only hours before its start, issued a short statement calling on the assault force to exercise "absolute caution to avoid harming civilians." Karzai, who hopes to woo Taliban fighters away from the ranks and back into civilian life, also made a direct appeal to insurgents in Marja to lay down their weapons.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, reached by telephone, shrugged off Karzai's appeal, and insisted the insurgents were holding off the vastly larger coalition force.

But there were signs that many Taliban, including some commanders, had held to their usual practice of simply melting away in the face of a full-on confrontation with Western forces. Often, they regroup later and carry out harassing attacks.

Gulab Mangal, the governor of Helmand province, told reporters that the "first phase of the operation is very successful," but suggested that bringing a genuine sense of safety to townspeople would take far longer.

"There is so that much we need _ roads, hospitals," said a Marja tribal elder, Ali Shah Khan Mazlomyar. "What we need is security _ real, permanent security."

[email protected] [email protected]

Bombs slow U.S. advance in Afghan town

2 NATO troops, at least 20 insurgents reported killed on first day of assault

MARJAH, Afghanistan - Bombs and booby traps slowed the advance of thousands of U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers moving Saturday through the Taliban-controlled town of Marjah — NATO's most ambitious effort yet to break the militants' grip over their southern heartland.


News video:

Associated Press
updated 12:37 p.m. CT, Sat., Feb. 13, 2010

NATO said it hoped to secure the area in days, set up a local government and rush in development aid in a first test of the new U.S. strategy for turning the tide of the eight-year war. The offensive is the largest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.

The Taliban appeared to have scattered in the face of overwhelming force, possibly waiting to regroup and stage attacks later to foil the alliance's plan to stabilize the area and expand Afghan government control in the volatile south.

Anti-Taliban Attack: 'Key Objectives Secured'

More than 1,000 British troops engaged in the launch of Operation Moshtarak in Afghanistan have secured their "key objectives", the Ministry of Defence has said.

Click above link for various news videos scattered throughout article.

3:20pm UK, Saturday February 13, 2010
Jo Couzens, Sky News Online

British troops have met with little resistance from insurgents in the biggest joint military operation since the 2001 invasion to oust the Taliban.

But Major General Gordon Messenger cautioned: "Nobody is saying 'job done', but so far so good.

"The Taliban though have a reputation for sitting and watching. It may be that after a couple of days catching their breath they'll have a go."

The Taliban have dismissed Nato's claims of success in the initial stages of the offensive and insist they are still in control of their stronghold in southern Afghanistan.

US-led airstrikes began as dawn broke in the Taliban-held town of Marjah in Helmand province where up to 1,000 insurgents are believed to be holed up.

A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said 1,200 British troops are involved in the operation, which is being led by the US Marine Corps.

Operation Moshtarak - which means "together" in the Dari language - involves around 15,000 International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) and Afghan National Army troops.

After fighting through a line of insurgent defences including mines and home-made bombs, a small force of around 200 US Marines has gained a foothold inside Marjah despite heavy rocket and machine-gun fire, according to the Pentagon.

The Afghan army said at least 20 Taliban militants have been killed and eight captured since the offensive began overnight.

But a Taliban spokesman has dismissed the claim as exaggerated and insisted insurgents still control Marjah and are holding their ground amid the on-going fighting.

The US-led troops' advance into the town was slowed during the morning as they carefully picked their way through poppy fields lined with home-made explosives and other landmines, according to US Marines.

The ground assault came hours after an initial wave of helicopters carrying hundreds of US Marines and Afghan troops swooped into town.

Cobra helicopters fired Hellfire missiles at tunnels, bunkers, and other defensive positions and a mushroom of black smoke was seen in the sky after a missile detonated a massive fuel-drum bomb.

Major General Nick Carter, Nato commander of forces in southern Afghanistan, said Afghan and coalition troops had made a "successful insertion" into Marjah without incurring any British casualties.

"The operation went without a single hitch," he said, adding: "We've caught the insurgents on the hoof, and they're completely dislocated."

The Ministry of Defence said Moshtarak is the first part of a three-stage plan to increase security in Afghanistan.

A statement on the MoD's website read: "After the insurgency in the south has been subdued British forces will move to building capacity in the Afghan National Security Forces and this will likely become the main effort later in the year.

"The third stage will be transition and the reintegration of insurgents and sympathisers into Afghan society through an Afghan-led reintegration policy."

Soldiers from the Grenadier Guards Battle Group, Coldstream Guards and the Royal Welsh are taking part, along with the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team and the Operational Mentor and Liaison Team.

Sky's defence correspondent, Geoff Meade, said: ""There was never any doubt that 15,000-odd ISAF and Government forces would initially prevail.

"Given months of planning and overwhelming firepower, the result of what the military call the 'break-in battle' was never in question.

"Families waiting anxiously at home will be relieved that it appears the Taliban did not exploit the network of canals and plentiful undergrowth around Marjah to mount a dogged and bloody defence – so far."

He went on: "The enemy have clearly learned from one-sided combat early in the Helmand campaign to avoid costly head-on attacks.

"They are more likely to melt away, bide their time and then return sowing roadside bombs and suicide attacks among the beefed-up Afghan security forces on whom long-term success depends."

Marjah is a centre of Taliban logistical and drug-smuggling operations.

Many of the estimated 80,000 people who live there fled ahead of the assault to escape the violence.

But in recent days, militants who moved into the area have prevented many others from leaving.

Western military planners say improvised explosive devices (IEDs) will be their biggest challenge as the assault proceeds.

Lieutenant Colonel Matt Bazeley, the Commanding Officer of 28 Engineer Regiment, told around 200 of his soldiers at Camp Bastion in Helmand province that the operation was "a key part of delivering security to deliver reconstruction".

"You will be tested," he warned.

"If things go wrong, no sad moments, no pauses, we regather and go again. I repeat: much of this operation rests on us."

February 12, 2010

Marines, Afghan Soldiers Take on Harsh Weather Conditions in Helmand Province

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan – The troops awoke from their tarp-covered fighting holes, Feb. 10, to find a blanket of frost, covering everything around them. Their boots, flak jackets, helmets and anything else exposed to the elements served as a frozen consequence of sleeping outside in the harsh desert of Helmand, province Afghanistan during the wintertime.



Regimental Combat Team-7, 1st Marine Division Public Affairs
Story by Lance Cpl. Tommy Bellegarde
Date: 02.12.2010
Posted: 02.12.2010 11:14

Frost was only one of the many challenges to the Marines and Sailors of India Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, and soldiers of the Afghan national army, living outside without the protection of permanent structures.

Earlier in the week, a brutal hailstorm, without warning, pelted the Marines with large chunks of ice.

"I was standing on top of a hill and the hail started sprinkling a little bit," recalled Cpl. Charles Hickey, a mortarman with India Co. "Then the wind picked up and it started hurting more. All of a sudden, instantly, marble-sized hail started coming at us at like 100 miles an hour!"

The hail fell from the sky so hard and fast that it even left visible marks on the Marines' bodies.

"Guys have bruises on their arms and their backs (from the hail)," said Lance Cpl. Dan Reilly, 23, also a motarman with India Co. "I have them on the back of my legs," added the 23-year-old Reilly.

The troops have been nomadic while in Helmand province, moving to different locations every few days. They have been living in makeshift shelters using whatever materials they have on hand and have been exposed to all types of weather conditions, including sandstorms.

"(The sand) beats the hell out of your face," said the 19-year-old Hickey. "You've got to cover every part of your body (to keep the sand out.)"

On one particular day, the troops were bombarded by a day-long sandstorm. The wind howled throughout the land, pelting the service members with bitterly cold air and grainy sand.

"The whole day, the wind wouldn't stop blowing," said Reilly, from Jenkintown, Pa. "I've had sand in more places than I knew I could," he humorously added. "That day was just miserable."

The troops also had to deal with other inclement weather conditions during their stay in the desert, including thunderstorms and frequent cold fronts. Nevertheless, the troops deal with it as best they can.

"It could always be worse," said Reilly, in regard to the horrible weather. "Guys have had it worse, so I just do what I can and keep on keeping on."

Marines' life-and-death decisions in the 'fighting hole'

For the assault on Marja in southern Afghanistan, Marines are drilled yet again about the inadvertent killing of civilians, which could undermine what they are trying to accomplish.

Reporting from The Outskirts Of Marja, Afghanistan - The Marines of Charlie Company had just landed outside Marja and were itching for the fight with the Taliban when they learned that a group of Afghans with shovels and wheelbarrows were digging holes in the road nearby.


By Tony Perry
February 12, 2010 | 4:24 p.m.

Were they planting explosives? You could never be certain, but the reconnaissance drones overhead thought so. Approval was given to fire a rocket at the men.

The rocket strike caused a thunderous explosion. The men dug their holes no more.

"It was pretty motivating," said Cpl. Jonathan Lee, 30, of Orange Park, Fla.


Before the Marines from the 1st Battalion, 3rd Regiment moved to take over a key westbound route to Marja called Five Points, they were given a lecture by a combat lawyer about the rules of engagement, the strictures that determine when it's lawful for a Marine to fire a weapon.

It's a lecture the Marines have heard before -- that the inadvertent killing of civilians could undermine what they are attempting to accomplish. The motto is simple: Engage your brain before you engage your weapon.

"You don't ever have to use force just because you have the authority," said Capt. Paul Tetzloff, the battalion's lawyer, who talked to the Marines just as they boarded helicopters. "You have to think of the bigger picture."


As the sun poked up over Five Points, the Marines were peppered with fire from AK-47 assault rifles, none of it effective. Three Afghan men were arrested as suspects and two tested positive for gunpowder residue on their hands.

The three were handcuffed and blindfolded for transport to a detention facility at the battalion headquarters, Camp Geronimo. Two protested that they were innocent cabdrivers.

Later, village elders complained to Marine brass that the three had been wrongly accused.

Lt. Col. Matt Baker, the battalion commander, reluctantly agreed to release the three into the elders' custody if they signed agreements to renounce any Taliban affinity.


The mantra of the Marine leadership is that the push into Marja is a team effort with the Afghan army. Several Afghan soldiers accompanied the Marines from the 1st Battalion, though very much as junior partners.

"Some are good, some not so good, some so-so," said Staff Sgt. Joseph Wolfgeher of Raytown, Mo. "We try to put them forward as often as we can."

As Marines unloaded equipment needed to build an outpost at Five Points, others manned "fighting holes" -- what the Army calls foxholes. Most of the Afghan soldiers sat in their trucks, with the engines running and the heaters at full blast.


The Marines stand guard all night, in the cold wind and rain. They peer into the darkness with special goggles. But no technology is perfect. Is that shape in the distance an insurgent sneaking up to fire a mortar round or a rocket-propelled grenade? Or just a confused farmer wandering in his own field, unsure what to make of these heavily armed men and the roar of warplanes overhead?

For all the lectures and points on the rules of engagement cards given to Marines, the final decision on whether to use deadly force might have to be made in a split second by a young Marine without time or ability to consult an officer or a sergeant.

Lance Cpl. Joe Saponaro, 20, thinks about the possibility of having to kill.

"I think I'll get religious out here," he said as he remained in his fighting hole. "You think about life and what it's going to be like to take one."

Marines launch offensive in southern Afghanistan town

The long-discussed operation against the Taliban in Marja is one of the biggest of the war. Along with targeting the insurgents' grip on Helmand province, it's a test of the Afghan army's abilities.

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and The Outskirts Of Marja, Afghanistan -- Thousands of U.S., British and Afghan troops moved to seize the Taliban stronghold of Marja early Saturday in what the Marine general leading the assault called a "big, strong and fast" offensive aimed at challenging the insurgency's grip on a key southern Afghan province.


News video:

By Tony Perry and Laura King
February 12, 2010 | 2:45 p.m.

Rounds of tracer fire lighted up a starry, predawn sky as waves of troops, ferried in by helicopters, descended on the farming districts that surround the town. Transport and Cobra attack helicopters also dropped rounds to illuminate the ground.

Troops initially met only modest return fire from inside of Marja.

Sporadic firefights had broken out throughout the day Friday on the periphery of Marja as Marine units probed Taliban defenses.

The commander, Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, had for weeks telegraphed the military's plans for the offensive, one of the largest since the war began in 2001.

The United States and its allies hope the assault, the biggest joint operation by Western and Afghan troops to date, will prove a turning point in the conflict with the Taliban and other militants that have carved out swaths of territory in Afghanistan.

Military leaders expected about 7,500 coalition troops to occupy Marja by nightfall, with 7,500 more supporting the mission from elsewhere in the Nad Ali district of Helmand province.

Marines, led by battalions from Camp Pendleton in California, Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, attacked from multiple directions in an effort to confuse and overwhelm Taliban fighters. Each Marine battalion was paired with an Afghan battalion.

The offensive is seen as a test both of the fighting spirit of the Afghan army and the ability of the government of President Hamid Karzai -- with the help of NATO forces and a large corps of civilian workers -- to quickly establish a working government in Marja, a town of about 85,000. As many as 1,000 Taliban and other insurgents took refuge in the town after being driven from a string of villages elsewhere in the Helmand River Valley.

The assault is the first major operation involving U.S. forces since President Obama's decision late last year to deploy an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. The buildup is part of an effort to turn the tide of the war before an American drawdown set to begin next year.

Officials also believe that a series of military gains could make it easier to woo fighters away from Taliban ranks.

Karzai's government wants to take it a step further and try to bring the Taliban leadership to the bargaining table, but the Obama administration does not believe figures such as Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar are "reconcilable."

With a battlefield that is also home to tens of thousands of civilians, leaflets were dropped by helicopter days before the offensive asking residents to leave, and tribal elders were enlisted to spread the word about the upcoming assault. Though hundreds of families fled, thousands more hunkered down in homes and on farms.

Tribal elders made last-minute pleas for troops to refrain from firing on compounds where insurgents were holed up, saying residents were afraid to turn away Taliban who commandeered their homes.

Nicholson, who has branded Taliban control of Marja a "cancer," said he expected major objectives -- control of intersections and key buildings and elimination of Taliban fighting positions -- to be accomplished by nightfall. Marines were distributing small radios so residents could hear Afghan politicians endorsing the mission.

"Marja is a place of fear, panic and terrorism," said Brig. Gen. Mahayoodin Ghoori, the Afghan battlefield commander, said before the offensive. "The people are tired of the people controlling Marja. We are returning the people to their normal life."

The Taliban boasted before the assault that its fighters would hold their ground. But for tactical reasons, the insurgents often avoid head-on confrontation with the vastly better armed Western forces, instead slipping away, staging hit-and-run attacks and regrouping.

Marine commanders expected sporadic firefights with militants positioned in buildings, irrigation canals and trenches. But the major threat to U.S. and allied troops appeared to be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of buried roadside bombs. Officials say Marja operation represents the largest, most complex use of the so-called improvised explosive devices that North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops have encountered. Essentially, they say, all approaches to the town form a giant minefield.

To counter the tangle of bombs, the Marines have five 70-ton Assault Breacher Vehicles they can use to roll through streets ahead of the ground troops. Each vehicle can fire line charges, laden with thousands of pounds of explosives, to detonate buried bombs.

Marja is considered the last urban stronghold of the Taliban in south-central Helmand, a province where the insurgency has been largely unchecked in recent years despite the efforts of British forces.

Last summer, battalions of Marines began wresting villages in the fertile Helmand River Valley from militant control. After several weeks of fighting, many of the insurgents fled to Marja.

Marines refrained from chasing them at the time because they lacked the manpower to establish a long-term presence, a key element of the current offensive.

Helmand and adjacent Kandahar province are considered the heartland of the Taliban movement. In Helmand, Western officials say, insurgents have been able to control the illicit poppy crop, used in heroin production, which funnels an estimated $500 million a year into Taliban coffers. Moreover, the province is a major infiltration route for militants and weapons arriving from Pakistan.

One objective of the Marja assault, officials said, is to arrest members of the Taliban involved in the drug trade and destroy their laboratories. Afghan drug police have lists of suspects and are set to conduct house-to-house searches for them.

In previous offensives in Helmand, the Afghan army mustered only a few hundred soldiers, and their performance was spotty. U.S. and Afghan generals said the Marja mission would showcase Afghan troops' fighting ability.

"The whole international community is watching us now," said Afghan Brig. Gen. Sher Muhammad Zazai.

Though the Marines are in the lead, each unit is partnered with an Afghan unit. In addition, U.S. Army Special Forces are teamed up with Afghan commandos.

Within days of the troops' arrival, officials say, the basic mechanisms of government are to be in place. An Afghan administrator for the town has already been named. U.S. civilian agencies are ready to open offices. Nicholson has ordered each of his commanders to begin meeting immediately with Marja's elders to determine community needs.

Commanders anticipated that the Taliban would try to engage troops in ways that put civilians in the line of fire. The insurgents often make use of civilian casualties to inflame sentiment against foreign troops.

Coalition Troops Storm a Taliban Haven

MARJA, Afghanistan — Thousands of American, Afghan and British troops attacked the watery Taliban fortress of Marja early Saturday, moving by land and through the air to destroy the insurgency’s largest haven and begin a campaign to reassert the dominance of the Afghan government across a large arc of southern Afghanistan.

Click above link for photos.
Published: February 12, 2010

The force of about 6,000 Marines and soldiers — a majority of them Afghan — began moving into the city and environs before dawn.

As Marines and soldiers marched into the area, several hundred more swooped out of the sky in helicopters into Marja itself. Marines from Company K, Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, landed near an intersection of two main roads at the northern fringes of Marja, piled out of the their helicopters and scattered into the houses and compounds around them.

In the quiet dark of 2:40 a.m., Company K met no resistance. But none of the Marines believed the peace would last the night.

“Basically, we are going into a main hornets’ nest,” said Capt. Joshua P. Biggers, Company K’s commander.

Just after midnight, aircraft bombed the southernmost portion of Marja, where officials believed foreign fighters were hiding. Later, Marines and Afghan soldiers began setting up cordons to the northeast, south and west of the city, in anticipation of a ground assault that was expected to begin within hours.

The operation, dubbed Moshtarak, which means “together” in Dari, is the largest offensive military operation since the American-led coalition invaded the country in 2001. Its aim is to flush the Taliban out of an area — about 75 square miles — where insurgents have been staging attacks, building bombs and processing the opium that pays for their war.

Outside of Pakistan, Marja, a town of about 80,000 residents, stands as the Taliban’s largest sanctuary, until now a virtual no-go zone for American, British and Afghan troops. The Taliban have been firmly entrenched there for about three years.

Moreover, the invasion of Marja is a crucial piece of a larger campaign to secure a 200-mile arc that would bisect the major cities in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces, where the Taliban are the strongest. That campaign, which is expected to last months, is designed to reverse the Taliban’s momentum, which has accelerated over the past several years.

The best measure of that momentum: The 520 American and NATO troops killed in Afghanistan in 2009 were the most since the war began.

The American, Afghan and British troops began moving into Marja before first light, making their way through a broad, flat area crisscrossed by irrigation canals and scattered with opium factories as well as, in all likelihood, several hundred hidden bombs.

The troops that came in by air carried portable foot bridges and mine detectors. The troops moving in on armored personnel carriers were being led by enormous fortified vehicles designed to clear the roads of bombs.

American and Afghan commanders said they expected the heavy fighting to be over in a number of days. At that point, the commanders say, the overriding purpose of the campaign will take shape, when they bring in a fully formed Afghan government and security force that can hold the city so that the Taliban cannot return.

For all the speed with which they are hoping to move, American and Afghan officers say they are worried that homemade bombs — hidden on roads, on footpaths and in houses — could slow them down. Those bombs, though rudimentary, are often extraordinarily powerful, and they are now the primary killer of American and NATO service members here.

Several hundred Taliban fighters are believed to be inside the city as well, which could make for a close and bloody fight. Despite that, the NATO and Afghan attackers appear to enjoy a huge numerical advantage — possibly more than 10 to 1.

The assault came as a surprise to no one. American commanders and Afghan officials have said publicly for weeks that an invasion of Marja was imminent, in an effort to chase away as many Taliban fighters as possible and keep the fighting, and civilian casualties, to a minimum. The hope is to win the support of local residents, even at the expense of letting Taliban get away.

Indeed, the American and Afghan troops moving into the city are setting for themselves a very high — and possibly difficult—standard. They have urged the Afghans to stay in their homes rather than flee the city. But that could make it difficult to avoid killing at least some noncombatants.

“The message for the Taliban is: It will be easy, or it will be hard, but we are coming,” Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the commander of the United States Marines in Helmand Province, told the men of Company K before the operation began. “At the end of the day, the Afghan flag will be over Marja.”

The American and Afghan strategy of broadcasting their intentions seems to have worked so far. Hundreds of Taliban fighters are believed to have the fled Marja in recent weeks, including many commanders — a sign that the Taliban’s leaders, who are believed to be based in the sprawling Pakistani city of Quetta — have decided that Marja will be lost. “We know a bunch of them left,” a senior NATO commander said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the operation.

Last week, Afghan intelligence agents captured the Taliban’s “shadow governor” after he had fled Marja on the orders of his commanders in Pakistan, NATO officials said. The governor, whose name was not disclosed, was spotted by Afghan officials as he drove through Kandahar, probably on his way out of the country, officials said.

The capture of the local Taliban chief is the latest in a number of “shadow governors” who have been killed or captured in recent weeks by Afghan or American forces. Despite their titles, the Taliban “governors” often serve as the overall military commanders in an area, as well as taking charge of some civilian duties.

Indeed, American soldiers and, particularly, Special Operations teams have been busy for weeks, moving into and around Marja and killing and capturing Taliban leaders and soldiers.

Hundreds of Taliban fighters are believed to be hunkered down inside the city, including some Pakistani and other foreign fighters who are thought to be particularly zealous. In telephone interviews this week, Taliban commanders in Marja boasted that they had laid “thousands” of homemade bombs on the area’s roads and footpaths.

“We have laid mines all over Marja,” said a local Taliban commander named Hashimi, who spoke over the telephone this week. “We have ordered all Taliban fighters to stay and fight the Americans and the government.”

Marja’s civilian residents echoed the commander’s warning, saying that Taliban fighters had mined most of the major roads that run through Trekh Nwar, Qarsaidi and Shorshorak at the approaches to Marja. Even as the invasion approached, Taliban fighters have continued to allow at least some residents to leave through a single open road leading out of the city.

“We’ve been telling the people, if you want to leave your houses, it’s up to you, and if you want to stay here and get killed by NATO and Afghan forces, you can stay in your houses,” said Hashimi, the Taliban commander.

“Only about 5 percent of the people have left the city — but the rest, 95 percent, are still here,” one of Marja’s tribal elders said, speaking at a meeting of tribal elders in Lashkar Gah on Thursday. The elder spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear that he would be killed.

“People are really scared, especially about civilians getting killed,” the Marja elder said. “The villagers ought to stay in their homes, if only because there are so many mines buried in the roads now.”

Since taking command last spring, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has sharply curtailed the use of firepower to kill Taliban soldiers, even in the heat of battle. For instance, he has tightly restricted the use of airstrikes in populated areas to kill insurgents — except when troops are in danger of being overrun. And in meetings with his junior officers, General McChrystal has said repeatedly that using what he calls “fires” — artillery and airstrikes — may kill Taliban fighters, but risks losing the war by killing innocents and thereby alienating Afghans.

Indeed, the Marja operation will be the first real test of General McChrystal’s strategy — that is, whether it can spare civilian lives without compromising the safety of his men.

“The first test is, can you do this without killing a lot of civilians,” the senior NATO commander said. “I would rather you take longer, I would rather you go deliberately. Whatever we do to limit that, actually, in my view, makes us look more powerful.”

The centerpiece of the Marja operation is the Afghan government-in-waiting that will move into the town the moment the shooting stops. That is an attempt to compensate for past failures, when an inadequate government was left behind.

In May 2009, British and Afghan forces conducted a large military operation in Marja itself. It was a bigger than expected fight — and the allies vowed to go back in again.

Today, they are.

U.S. Marines launch major offensive in Afghanistan

CAMP LEATHERNECK, AFGHANISTAN -- Thousands of U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers traveling in helicopters and mine-resistant vehicles began punching into a key Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan early Saturday, as one of the largest operations to assert government control over this country got underway.


By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010; 4:59 PM

The first wave of Marines and Afghan soldiers swooped into the farming community of Marja at about 2 a.m. Saturday local time (4:30 p.m. Eastern), their CH-53 Super Stallion transport helicopters landing amid clouds of dust on fallow fields. As the troops, weighed down with ammunition and supplies, lumbered out and set up defensive positions, AV-8B Harrier fighter jets and AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters circled overhead in the moonless sky.

Subsequent waves of troops were expected to alight in other parts of Marja in the hours before dawn. At sunrise, hundreds more Marines and Afghan soldiers plan to enter Marja by land, using mobile bridges to ford irrigation canals -- built by U.S. engineers 50 years ago -- that have served as defensive moats for the Taliban. Heavily armored mine-sweeping trucks and specially outfitted tanks will try to carve a path through a belt of makeshift bombs buried around the town.

The Marines entering Marja are with some of the first new military units to arrive in Afghanistan since last fall, when President Obama authorized the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to combat a growing insurgency. The operation is intended to deprive the Taliban of a haven in Helmand province, which military intelligence officials say is home to numerous bombmaking facilities and drug-processing labs.

"We're going to take Marja away from the Taliban," said Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. Doing so, he said, could result in "a fundamental change in Helmand and, by extension, the entire nation of Afghanistan."

'We're a go'

Although there have been other large U.S. military campaigns to flush out the Taliban in the eight-year-long war, this mission is different, involving more extensive cooperation with the Afghan army than any previous effort. Each U.S. Marine company is partnered with an Afghan one -- U.S. and Afghan troops sat side by side on the helicopters -- and a top U.S. commander is working next to an Afghan general in a command center.

U.S. officials said Afghan President Hamid Karzai authorized the incursion on Friday evening after discussions with U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. It is the first major military operation of the war that Karzai has endorsed, the officials said.

According to the officials, Karzai had been ambivalent about a military push into Marja, hoping instead to persuade some of the insurgents to participate in a reintegration program. But Eikenberry and McChrystal, as well as some senior members of Karzai's cabinet, urged him to approve the operation, noting that fighters in the area have had months to switch their allegiance. They also emphasized that more than 400 tribal elders from Marja and surrounding areas had voiced support for an incursion at meetings organized by Helmand's governor on Thursday and Friday.

Marine officers were not certain the mission would proceed until five hours before the first helicopters were slated to take off, when Nicholson announced to his senior staff: "President Karzai agreed to the operation. We're a go."

The Marine units landing by helicopter did not meet immediate resistance. It is not certain how insurgents in the area will react, but Marine commanders expect many of them to stand and fight. U.S. military intelligence reports have indicated that senior Taliban leaders may have crossed into Afghanistan from their redoubts in Pakistan in recent days to direct defensive operations in Marja.

In the face of past operations, however, many insurgents have simply fled to nearby areas where there are fewer security forces. Marine and Army units have sought to encircle the Marja area to prevent fighters from fleeing, but there are still vast stretches of desert through which they could slip.

Even if the insurgents do not fight in large numbers, Marja will remain treacherous ground, littered with buried homemade explosive devices. Marine officers say it is the most heavily mined part of the country.

Civilians sought to leave the area in advance of the operation. Some made it out, traveling in cars and on tractors piled with their belongings, but the insurgents forced others to remain in their homes, military officers said. In some cases, they said, Taliban members told residents that roads out of Marja had been mined.

About 3,500 U.S. Marines, sailors and soldiers, accompanied by about 1,500 Afghan army infantrymen, are directly involved in the mission, supported by thousands more troops in nearby bases. More than 500 paramilitary police will join the effort Sunday or Monday.

Reasserting control

The push to retake Marja is part of a larger NATO effort, dubbed Operation Moshtarak, which means "together" in the Dari language, to reassert control over parts of Helmand that have become Taliban sanctuaries. About 5,000 British, Danish and Afghan forces, also traveling in helicopters and armored vehicles, moved into the northern part of Nad Ali district shortly after the first Marines arrived in Marja.

Marja is a 155-square-mile farming community crisscrossed with irrigation canals that were built by U.S. contractors in the 1950s in an effort to transform the desert into cropland so Afghanistan could provide enough food to feed its people. The Taliban moved into the area three years ago after striking deals with opium-producing poppy growers and drug traffickers to protect their operations in exchange for the freedom to set up bomb factories among the canals, which are too deep for combat vehicles to drive across.

"The United States built Marja," Nicholson said. "We're going to come back and fix it."

The canals pose a significant challenge for the Marines. The two principal units in the area -- the 1st and 3rd battalions of the 6th Marine Regiment -- will operate largely on foot, carting food, water and other supplies on their backs. Engineering units will seek to set up temporary bridges to allow combat vehicles to cross.

Once the central part of Marja is cleared of fighters, a team U.S. and British diplomats and reconstruction personnel will set up a stabilization office. One of their top priorities will be to assist the newly appointed district governor, Haji Zahir, who recently returned to Afghanistan after spending the past 15 years in Germany. The Marines have identified dozens of potential quick-impact projects to help the local population -- from fixing health clinics to drilling wells -- and have received permission to spend more than $800,000 on such activities.

But U.S. officials also want the Karzai administration to send personnel and deliver services to the area, describing the mission as a gauge of Kabul's willingness to take advantage of opportunities created by the new troops.

"Marja is a test of the central government's ability to reach down to a still-volatile part of the country and deliver sustainable governance," said John Kael Weston, the State Department representative to the Marine brigade.

In the Cold of Morning, Descending Into Conflict

MARJA, Afghanistan — The helicopter was filled with men and dark in its cabin when a voice cut over the whir of the rotors.

“Five minutes out!”


Published: February 12, 2010

The men of Company K, Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, shoved their clips into their rifles and pulled back their bolts. A chorus of clanks rose and fell.

The whir of the rotors filled the cabin again. The helicopter banked in the darkness.

“One minute out!”

The men of Company K hollered and whooped.

The CH-47 touched down, and the ramps came down, and the young men scampered into the cold and dark. It was 2:40 a.m.

The Marines had come to Marja’s northern edge, at the intersection of two roads, 605 and 608. There were three landing zones in all: Falcon, Hawk and Eagle. With hardly a sound, one of the platoons took over the intersection, while another set up to guard the approach to the east. The last platoon moved into a series of houses and compounds.

Rifles and bullets rattled as they ran. The night was cold and still. A dog barked nearby. No gunfire, not even in the distance, broke the quiet.

“I’m not nervous,” Capt. Joshua P. Biggers said just before liftoff. “My platoon commanders are ready. The boys are ready. They know what to do. It will become second nature.”

No one expected the calm to last through the night. The village at Marja’s northern edge is believed to hold a number of Taliban fighters, as well as a school for making bombs.

Marja is like that. In three years, this collection of farms and irrigation canals has grown to become the Taliban’s biggest sanctuary inside Afghanistan. From here, the insurgents plan and stage attacks, helping to make Helmand the most violent province.

More than that, Marja itself breaks up the string of cities that the Americans, British, and Afghan forces, over the past two years, have cleared and secured along the Helmand River.

And so, this morning, the Americans and the British and Afghans were taking Marja back.

With its 300-plus men and a platoon of Afghan soldiers, Company K was one of several units that attacked Marja by helicopter on Saturday. Simultaneously, Marines from the First Battalion, Sixth Marines were moving, too, into the southern edge of Marja to seize the main bazaar and the defunct government center.

A group of Special Forces troops had flown in the southern rim of town as well, into a place thought to hold a number of foreign fighters. There was no word from them.

After a time, a low chopping sound broke the clam. It was an Apache gunship, loaded with rockets and guns, prowling for insurgents with its thermal sites.

Whatever else they are, Taliban fighters are not known for their stupidity on the battlefield. In the quiet, one thing was clear: they were laying back.

A dog barked again, and then the night went calm.

Dexter Filkins contributed reporting from Kabul.

February 11, 2010

Marines roll out Assault Breacher Vehicles for Marjah Afghanistan offensive

When Marines rumble into the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in Helmand province for one of the largest offensives of the Afghanistan war, they'll be battle-testing a powerful new weapon, the Assault Breacher Vehicle

When the the Marines currently stacked up in Afghanistan's Helmand province waiting for a long-planned offensive against the Taliban finally make their move, they'll be coming with a powerful new weapon that looks like a cross between a tank and hell's own backhoe.


Video of Assault Breacher Vehicle:

By Dan Murphy Staff writer / February 11, 2010

The Assault Breacher Vehicle, or ABV, has been in the works since the late 1990s, and it combines the brawn of an Abram's tank and its 1,500 horsepower engine with a specially designed 15-foot wide plow to safely clear the minefields and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that the Taliban have laid around Marjah in preparation for the assault. The heavily armored breacher barely shudders when a typical mine detonates on its plow, and when the plow isn't sufficient for the job, the breachers also carry over 5,000 pounds of specially designed explosives that can be fired into mine fields and safely detonate their deadly contents at a distance.

The behmoths were first rolled into combat service in December, but Marjah promises to be the stiffest challenge yet for a platform that the Marines hope is the latest answer to the mines and other hidden explosives that have proved the greatest dangers to infantry in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In particular, it's expected that they'll reduce the need for combat engineers to make their way into mine fields and set clearing charges by hand.

The $3.75 million machines are so valuable at this point that they aren't operated outside of bases unless an even more powerful tank recovery vehicle – aka a big tow truck – isn't along to drag home the 70-ton breacher if anything goes wrong.

The main body of the breacher is built on the General Dynamics chassis that is used for the Abrams, with Pearson Engineering of the UK providing the specially designed plow and the other mine-clearing accessories that the Marines are looking forward to using in Helmand.

US and Afghan troops ring Taliban stronghold

NEAR MARJAH, Afghanistan -
U.S. and Afghan forces ringed the Taliban stronghold of Marjah on Thursday, sealing off escape routes and setting the stage for what is being described as the biggest offensive of the nine-year war.


Feb 11, 2010 4:11 PM (6 hrs ago) By ALFRED de MONTESQUIOU and CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA, AP

Taliban defenders repeatedly fired rockets and mortars at units poised in foxholes along the edge of the town, apparently trying to lure NATO forces into skirmishes before the big attack.

"They're trying to draw us in," said Capt. Joshua Winfrey, 30, of Tulsa, Okla., commander of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines.

Up to 1,000 militants are believed holed up in Marjah, a key Taliban logistics base and center of the lucrative opium poppy trade. But the biggest threats are likely to be the land mines and bombs hidden in the roads and fields of the farming community, 380 miles (610 kilometers) southwest of Kabul.

The precise date for the attack has been kept secret. U.S. officials have signaled for weeks they planned to seize Marjah, a town of about 80,000 people in Helmand province and the biggest community in southern Afghanistan under Taliban control.

NATO officials say the goal is to seize the town quickly and re-establish Afghan government authority, bringing public services in hopes of winning support of the townspeople once the Taliban are gone. Hundreds of Afghan soldiers were to join U.S. Marines in the attack to emphasize the Afghan role in the operation.

A Taliban spokesman dismissed the significance of Marjah, saying the NATO operation was "more propaganda than military necessity."

Nevertheless, the spokesman, Mohammed Yusuf, said in a dialogue on the Taliban Web site that the insurgents would strike the attackers with explosives and hit-and-run tactics, according to a summary by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors militant Internet traffic.

In preparation for the offensive, a U.S.-Afghan force led by the U.S. Army's 5th Stryker Brigade moved south from Lashkar Gah and linked up Thursday with Marines on the northern edge of Marjah, closing off a main Taliban escape route. Marines and Army soldiers fired colored smoke grenades to show each other that they were friendly forces.

U.S. and Afghan forces have now finished their deployment along the main road in and out of Marjah, leaving the Taliban no way out except across bleak, open desert - where they could easily be spotted.

The Army's advance was slowed as U.S. and Afghan soldiers cleared the thicket of mines and bombs hidden in canals and along the roads and fought off harassment attacks along the way by small bands of insurgents. Two U.S. attack helicopters fired Hellfire missiles at a compound near Marjah from where insurgents had been firing at the advancing Americans.

Marines along the edge of the town exchanged fire with insurgents. There were no reports of casualties.

"I am not surprised at all that this is taking place," said the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Brian Christmas. "We are touching their trigger-line," referring to the outer rim of the Taliban defenses.

A far greater obstacle lies in the hundreds, if not thousands, of mines, makeshift bombs and booby traps which the Taliban are believed to have planted around Marjah.

"This may be the largest IED threat and largest minefield that NATO has ever faced," said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of Marines in southern Afghanistan.

A British soldier was killed in a bombing Thursday in Helmand province, the Ministry of Defense announced in London. It was unclear whether the soldier was part of the Marjah operation.

In eastern Afghanistan, the spokesman for Paktia province, Roullah Samoun, said five Americans were wounded when a suicide attacker wearing a border police uniform blew himself up at a U.S. base near the Pakistan border. A U.S. statement said "several" U.S. service members were injured in an explosion at a joint U.S.-Afghan outpost in Paktia, but gave no further details.

To combat the mines around Marjah, Marines planned to use their new 72-ton Assault Breacher Vehicles, which use metal blows to scoop up hidden bombs or fire rockets to detonate them at a safe distance.

Once the main attack begins, U.S. commanders are eager to avoid civilian casualties, hoping instead to win over support of the Pashtun townspeople, who are from the same ethnic group as the majority of the Taliban. American officers have been instructing troops to hold their fire unless they are sure they are shooting at insurgents and not innocent villagers.

On Thursday, Afghanistan's interior minister, Hanif Atmar, met with a group of tribal elders explaining the goals of the operation and asking for their support.

"This operation is designed to open the way for those Afghans who want to join the peace process and to use the military power against those foreign terrorists who are hiding here," Atmar told the elders during a meeting in Lashkar Gah, the Helmand provincial capital about 20 miles northeast of Marjah.

The elders told Atmar that their support depended on how the operation was carried out and whether a large number of civilians were killed or injured in the fighting.

One elder, Mohebullah Torpatkai, said that if the operation improved the lives of civilians, "we the people of Marjah will fully support it."

As the Marines waited for battle, they received their first mail delivery since arriving in the Marjah area.

Some Marines burned their letters after reading them, either because they didn't want to carry any extra weight or have the letters fall into the wrong hands if they lost them in the fighting.

Others held on to them.

"I'm not burning any of my pictures or letters," said Cpl. Christian Martir, 23, from Northridge, Calif., as he stared at photos from his girlfriend. "She also sent a little letter. I'm keeping all of it."

Former Marine dedicates 60 years to Corps, still going strong

MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — He has faithfully dedicated three times the required years necessary to retire and is still going.


2/11/2010 By Sgt. Alvaro Aro, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton

Friends and family members came to Camp Pendleton to join Walter “Val” Valentine on his service recognition ceremony held at the base’s Family Team Building, Feb. 5.

The ceremony included many distinguished guests and friends who wanted to honor Valentine’s combined 60 years of service to his country.

“Valentine’s devotion to his country couldn’t pass unnoticed,” said Sgt. Maj. Ramona D. Cook, sergeant major, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. “We thank you for such a remarkable life of service.”

Many highlights enlightened the event including words of appreciation from friends and family members, the presence of Cook, personal letters from Sgt. Maj. Carlton W. Kent, sergeant major of the Marine Corps and Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps.

Valentine’s experience as a Marine is what most service members today only read about in history books.

Valentine’s lifelong dedication to his country began at the height of World War II when he joined the Marine Corps in 1942. Right out of boot camp, he received orders to the Pacific with 3rd Marine Division as a scout sniper.

During this time, Pfc. Valentine participated in the assault landing of Bougainville, now Papua New Guinea, in November of 1943, then headed to Guadalcanal for continued combat training.

Shortly after that, Cpl. Valentine participated in the assault landing that recaptured the island of Guam.

Valentine’s combat experience came to a climax during the historic battle of Iwo Jima where he earned a Purple Heart.

“One of my biggest personal highlights of World War II was witnessing the flag rising of Iwo Jima,” said Valentine. “I will never forget it.”

The allies were able to defeat Japan in World War II but Valentine was only beginning his legacy as a warrior.

When the communist forces of North Korea attacked the Southern peninsula, Valentine found himself once again in the belly of an amphibious assault vehicle heading for Inchon in 1950.

During that conflict, Valentine fought in the battle of Chosin Reservoir and participated in many other Central Korean campaigns.

After surviving the Korean War, Gunnery Sgt. Valentine was back again at war for the Vietnam conflict during the 1960s. He earned his combat crew wings for serving as a door gunner, an unusual billet for a gunnery sergeant.

Valentine went on to serve as a leader of Marines with numerous infantry units, a guard company, a missile battery, aircraft squadrons and recruiting duty.

Sgt. Maj. Valentine’s final assignment before retiring from active duty came at Camp Pendleton on June 30, 1973. He put his GI Bill to use and earned an associate degree in business administration and supervision and continued his service as a civilian employee at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.

Valentine has been married for 62 years and currently resides in Carlsbad, Calif. They have 6 children, 12 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.

Valentine is still currently serving as the special programs coordinator for Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and he says that he has no plans to retire any time soon.

U.S. Troops Close Taliban Escape Route Before Major Offensive

NEAR MARJAH, Afghanistan — U.S. and Afghan forces ringed the Taliban stronghold of Marjah on Thursday, sealing off escape routes and setting the stage for what is being described as the biggest offensive of the nine-year war.


Thursday, February 11, 2010
Associated Press

Taliban defenders repeatedly fired rockets and mortars at units poised in foxholes along the edge of the town, apparently trying to lure NATO forces into skirmishes before the big attack.

"They're trying to draw us in," said Capt. Joshua Winfrey, 30, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, commander of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines.

Up to 1,000 militants are believed holed up in Marjah, a key Taliban logistics base and center of the lucrative opium poppy trade. But the biggest threats are likely to be the land mines and bombs hidden in the roads and fields of the farming community, 380 miles southwest of Kabul.

The precise date for the attack has been kept secret. U.S. officials have signaled for weeks they planned to seize Marjah, a town of about 80,000 people in Helmand province and the biggest community in southern Afghanistan under Taliban control.

NATO officials say the goal is to seize the town quickly and re-establish Afghan government authority, bringing public services in hopes of winning support of the townspeople once the Taliban are gone. Hundreds of Afghan soldiers were to join U.S. Marines in the attack to emphasize the Afghan role in the operation.

A Taliban spokesman dismissed the significance of Marjah, saying the NATO operation was "more propaganda than military necessity."

Nevertheless, the spokesman, Mohammed Yusuf, said in a dialogue on the Taliban Web site that the insurgents would strike the attackers with explosives and hit-and-run tactics, according to a summary by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors militant Internet traffic.

In preparation for the offensive, a U.S.-Afghan force led by the U.S. Army's 5th Stryker Brigade moved south from Lashkar Gah and linked up Thursday with Marines on the northern edge of Marjah, closing off a main Taliban escape route. Marines and Army soldiers fired colored smoke grenades to show each other that they were friendly forces.

U.S. and Afghan forces have now finished their deployment along the main road in and out of Marjah, leaving the Taliban no way out except across bleak, open desert — where they could easily be spotted.

The Army's advance was slowed as U.S. and Afghan soldiers cleared the thicket of mines and bombs hidden in canals and along the roads and fought off harassment attacks along the way by small bands of insurgents. Two U.S. attack helicopters fired Hellfire missiles at a compound near Marjah from where insurgents had been firing at the advancing Americans.

Marines along the edge of the town exchanged fire with insurgents. There were no reports of casualties.

"I am not surprised at all that this is taking place," said the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Brian Christmas. "We are touching their trigger-line," referring to the outer rim of the Taliban defenses.

A far greater obstacle lies in the hundreds, if not thousands, of mines, makeshift bombs and booby traps which the Taliban are believed to have planted around Marjah.

"This may be the largest IED threat and largest minefield that NATO has ever faced," said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of Marines in southern Afghanistan.

A British soldier was killed in a bombing Thursday in Helmand province, the Ministry of Defense announced in London. It was unclear whether the soldier was part of the Marjah operation.

In eastern Afghanistan, the spokesman for Paktia province, Roullah Samoun, said five Americans were wounded when a suicide attacker wearing a border police uniform blew himself up at a U.S. base near the Pakistan border. A U.S. statement said "several" U.S. service members were injured in an explosion at a joint U.S.-Afghan outpost in Paktia, but gave no further details.

To combat the mines around Marjah, Marines planned to use their new 72-ton Assault Breacher Vehicles, which use metal blows to scoop up hidden bombs or fire rockets to detonate them at a safe distance.

Once the main attack begins, U.S. commanders are eager to avoid civilian casualties, hoping instead to win over support of the Pashtun townspeople, who are from the same ethnic group as the majority of the Taliban. American officers have been instructing troops to hold their fire unless they are sure they are shooting at insurgents and not innocent villagers.

On Thursday, Afghanistan's interior minister, Hanif Atmar, met with a group of tribal elders explaining the goals of the operation and asking for their support.

"This operation is designed to open the way for those Afghans who want to join the peace process and to use the military power against those foreign terrorists who are hiding here," Atmar told the elders during a meeting in Lashkar Gah, the Helmand provincial capital about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northeast of Marjah.

The elders told Atmar that their support depended on how the operation was carried out and whether a large number of civilians were killed or injured in the fighting.

One elder, Mohebullah Torpatkai, said that if the operation improved the lives of civilians, "we the people of Marjah will fully support it."

As the Marines waited for battle, they received their first mail delivery since arriving in the Marjah area.

Some Marines burned their letters after reading them, either because they didn't want to carry any extra weight or have the letters fall into the wrong hands if they lost them in the fighting.

Others held on to them.

"I'm not burning any of my pictures or letters," said Cpl. Christian Martir, 23, from Northridge, California, as he stared at photos from his girlfriend. "She also sent a little letter. I'm keeping all of it."

Taliban vow guerrilla warfare against NATO troops

KABUL — The Taliban vowed on Thursday to fight back with a "hit and run" guerrilla campaign against Western and Afghan forces preparing to storm one of their key strongholds in southern Afghanistan.


By Sardar Ahmad (AFP) – 02/11/2010

Thousands of US Marines and NATO and Afghan soldiers have massed around the town of Marjah, a Taliban bastion in Helmand province, poised to launch one of the biggest operations against the insurgents since the 2001 US-led invasion.

The assault, dubbed Operation Mushtarak ("Together" in Dari) and expected to begin within days, aims to drive out the Taliban and replace their harsh rule with Western-backed Afghan government institutions.

In a defiant statement on their website, the Taliban vowed to defend the town in the poppy-growing region of the central Helmand River valley, which they have controlled for years in tandem with drug traffickers.

"From what we see on the ground this operation is no different to the invading forces' day-to-day activities," Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, was quoted as saying.

"The enemy is making a big deal of it. They try to sell it to the media as a big offensive in spite of the fact that Marjah is a small place," he said, adding: "The operation is not as big as they claim." Marjah: heartland of the Taliban

Nevertheless he vowed that Taliban gunmen would stand against the offensive, using "hit-and-run" tactics and the improvised explosive devises, or IEDs, that have become a staple of their arsenal.

"I can say at this point that we'll be using tactics we deployed in the Nawa and Khanishin operations," he said, referring to two offensives in Helmand last year, the British-led Panther's Claw, and the Marines' Dagger.

"It will be mostly hit-and-run and roadside bomb attacks," he said.

Taliban-led insurgents have been fighting to topple the Western-backed Kabul government since their regime was overthrown in late 2001.

Remnants of the Islamist movement regrouped quickly to launch an insurgency that has become increasingly deadly, last year claiming the lives of a record 520 foreign soldiers, most of them from IED attacks.

So far this year more than 60 foreign soldiers -- of the 113,000 deployed in Afghanistan under US and NATO command -- have died in the Afghan theatre, most of them in IED strikes.

An AFP photographer with a US Marines unit five kilometres (three miles) northeast of Marjah said insurgents could be seen planting IEDs on roads around a strategic junction and were subjecting the Marines to an almost constant barrage of mortar and rocket fire from nearby residential compounds.

Under their rules of engagement, the Marines were not able to retaliate, the AFP photographer said, until all residents had fled the area.

Radio communications monitoring picked up Taliban leaders telling their fighters to prevent the Marines building "a base by any means". Related article: Assault to test US strategy

Some civilians were caught in the crossfire of skirmishes, including six-year-old Kheraki, who was brought to the Marines' camp by her father before being flown by helicopter to a military base for treatment.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Wednesday there had been a sharp rise in civilian casualties in preparatory operations for the assault.

The Taliban spokesman, Ahmadi, claimed earlier this week that the militant group had developed a new IED -- named after fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar -- that is undetectable by mine sweeping systems.

The bombs will be used once the operation begins, he said.

NATO officials predict victory and say removing the Taliban will pave the way for the Afghan government to re-establish control over the area, which is less that 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the provincial capital Lashkar Gah.

Residents who have not fled are being asked to remain indoors once the operation begins, said the provincial governor's spokesman Daud Ahmadi.

"We have repeatedly asked the people of Marjah not to leave the area, as during this operation they will be not harmed -- the target of the operation is opposition," he said, referring to the insurgents.

Another 100 families left the area on Tuesday and Wednesday, he said, following the 400 families the provincial department of refugees and repatriation said left earlier in the week.

Routine search operations were being conducted by Afghan and Western forces in the north and south of Nad Ali district, where Marjah is located, he said, and some IEDs and weapons had been seized in the operations, and , seized some roadside bombs and weapons, which there was no casualties.

Marines push 'The Breacher' against Taliban lines

SISTANI, Afghanistan -- In comes "The Joker."


The Associated Press
Thursday, February 11, 2010; 9:44 AM

That's the nickname given by the crew to one of the 72-ton, 40-foot (12-meter)-long Assault Breacher Vehicles. Fitted with a plow and nearly 7,000 pounds (3,175 kilograms) of explosives, the Breachers, as they are commonly known, are the Marines Corps' answer to the deadliest threat facing NATO troops in Afghanistan: thousands of land mines and roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices, that litter the Afghan landscape.

The Breachers, metal monsters that look like a tank with a cannon, carry a 15-foot (4.5-meter) -wide plow supported by metallic skis that glide on the dirt, digging a safety lane through the numerous minefields laid by the Taliban.

If there are too many mines, the Breachers can fire rockets carrying high-grade C-4 explosive up to 150 yards (meters) forward, detonating the hidden bombs at a safe distance so that troops and vehicles can pass through safely.

The detonations - over 1,700 pounds (770 kilograms) of Mine Clearing Line Charges - send a sheet fire into the air and shock waves rippling through the desert in all directions.

Reporters watched the "Breacher" in action Wednesday as Marines edged closer to Marjah, a southern Taliban stronghold that NATO commanders plan to attack in the coming days in the largest joint NATO-Afghan operation of the Afghan war. Troops are expected to face a massive threat from mines and roadside bombs as they push into Marjah, 380 miles (610 kilometers) southwest of Kabul.

"This may be the largest IED threat and largest minefield that NATO has ever faced," says Brig Gen. Larry Nicholson, the commander of all Marines in southern Afghanistan.

Several Breachers - including "The Joker" and its twin "Iceman" - will be used in the Marjah assault. Commanders hope they will make a huge difference as troops pierce through layer after layer of minefields circling the town.

"I consider it to be a truly lifesaving weapon," said Gunnery Sgt. Steven Sanchez, 38, leader of a platoon from the 2nd Marines Combat Engineers Battalion.

A cross between a bulldozer and Abrams tank with a 1,500-horsepower turbine engine, Breachers are so valuable that they only travel outside bases along with a tank retrieval vehicle to drag them to safety if they are damaged.

Sanchez's platoon drove Breachers in their first combat operation in December, when Marines reclaimed a section of the heavily mined Now Zad valley farther north in Helmand province. "We made history, and the Breacher did well," says Sanchez, of Palm Desert, Calif.

"I'm happy to see that this monster is on our side," said Rahim Ullah, a machine gunner in the Afghan army unit that will fight alongside the Marines.

A few kinks are yet to be worked but before the Breachers are entirely up to speed. Two charges fired by "The Joker" and "Iceman" on Wednesday didn't go off automatically, forcing one of their crew to dismount and trigger the explosives themselves.

Developed by the Marines since the 1990s and costing US$3.5 million apiece, the Breacher still has room for improvement, Sanchez admits.

"It's not in the testing phase anymore, but it sure as hell still is in the deployment phase," he said, adding that all the Marines serving on his Breacher platoon are volunteers and intent on improving the new weapon.

"I'm convinced it's going to prove itself in Marjah," Sanchez said.

Many on his platoon believe the Breacher has already proven its worth. The Joker's vehicle commander, Cpl. Michael Turner, 21, of Provo, Utah, says his Breacher works even better than he'd thought during training.

"She's surprisingly easy to operate," Turner said. His vehicle can travel at 50 miles (80 kilometers) per hour. When plowing for bombs, it can still move at 5 to 8 mph (8 to 13 kph), depending on the terrain - all the while digging up the dirt 14 inches (36 centimeters) deep.

"That's plenty enough to get the IEDs," said Turner, because any explosive buried deeper is unlikely to be triggered by a vehicle driving by.

The Joker's driver, Sgt. Jeremy Kinsey, 23, from Sunny Side, Washington, even triggered a live IED during his Breacher's first combat outing in December. The 60-pound (27-kilogram) bomb exploded on his plow, powerful enough to rip out a tire or an axle from a normal armored vehicle.

The Breacher barely registered. "It shook slightly," Kinsey said. "I laughed and I drove on."

Taliban, Marines exchange fire as battle looms

NEAR MARJAH, Afghanistan (AP) -- U.S. Marines and Taliban insurgents exchanged gunfire Thursday on the outskirts of Marjah, a southern militant stronghold where American and Afghan forces are expected to launch a major attack in the coming days.


Feb 11, 11:52 AM EST
Associated Press Writers

To the north, a joint force led by the U.S. Army's 5th Stryker Brigade linked up with Marines on Thursday, closing off a Taliban escape route to the nearby major city of Lashkar Gah.

No casualties were reported in the scattered clashes, which broke out as Marines moved ever closer to the edge of the farming community of 80,000 people, the linchpin of Taliban influence in the opium poppy producing province of Helmand.

However, a British soldier was killed in a bombing Thursday in Helmand province, the Ministry of Defense announced in London. It was unclear whether the soldier was part of the Marjah operation.

Marines said the Taliban holding the town were apparently trying to draw the Americans into a bigger fight before the U.S. was ready to launch the main attack.

"They're trying to draw us in," said Capt. Joshua Winfrey, 30, of Tulsa, Okla., commander of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines.

Through much of the day, insurgents repeatedly fired rockets and mortars at the American and Afghan units poised in foxholes around the town, 380 miles (about 610 kilometers) southwest of Kabul.

"I am not surprised at all that this is taking place," said the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Brian Christmas. "We are touching their trigger-line," referring to the outer rim of the Taliban defenses.

U.S. commanders estimate they are facing between 400 and 1,000 Taliban fighters in the town, the largest in the south under militant control. Plans call for the joint U.S.-Afghan force to seize the town and quickly re-establish government control, offering services such as water, electricity and schooling to win the support of the local population.

U.S. officials have not disclosed how many Afghan and allied troops will take part in the battle, but estimates range in the thousands. They also include British forces and U.S. soldiers from the 5th Strykers, which will intercept Taliban fighters trying to flee the town.

The major threat is expected to come from thousands of mines and roadside bombs, which the military calls improvised explosive devices, that the Taliban are believed to have planted in the area.

"This may be the largest IED threat and largest minefield that NATO has ever faced," said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of Marines in southern Afghanistan.

The U.S.-Afghan force led by the 5th Strykers found it slow going through the mines and roadside bombs as they pushed south toward Marjah, delaying their linkup with the Marines. When the Army force reached the rendezvous area, Marines popped violet-colored smoke grenades to mark their positions for the American soldiers.

Canadian advisers with the Afghan units set off yellow smoke so the Marines would know they were friendly forces.

Lt. Col. Burton Shields, commanding officer of the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment of the 5th Strykers, said the force had faced "harassing attacks" by groups of seven to nine insurgents.

"They're trying to buy time to move their leaders out of the area," he said.

Female engagement team: why one NCO reaches out

HELMAND PROVINCE, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan – “Salam Alikum. Zama noom Stacy da.”
Sgt. Stacy A. Blackburn-Hoelscher, the female engagement team training non-commissioned officer, Marine Expeditionary Brigade – Afghanistan, offers her hand and flawlessly introduces herself in Pashtu to a young Afghan boy outside his home in a settlement outside Camp Leatherneck.


February 11, 2010
Cpl. Jenn Calaway

Blackburn regularly leads the FET as they venture into villages to meet with local women in an attempt to reach out to a relatively unheard portion of the population here.

In a time and place where face-to-face interaction is key in developing mutual respect and cooperation with the people of Afghanistan, women’s points of view remain unspoken. No male Marines or infantrymen have yet breached the cultural barrier, until now.

“They’ve been in combat 30 years here and the women and children have just been silent victims, so as the FET, we are the first ones to find out what their mindset is all about. We act as that liaison.”

Capt. Edward Burns, Company A commander, Brigade Headquarters Group, MEB-A, noticed the need for a female presence on the many patrols he and his Marines conducted in his area of operations.

“You know, they haven’t had a voice here in Afghanistan and maybe it’s time they did,” said Burns. “If there is some way to empower the women here by giving them a voice and hearing their concerns, then that’s an initial step in the road to progress for this country.”

Blackburn knows in full battle gear, women can look like more of an aggressor than someone to open up to about personal needs and concerns, but she trains her team often about the delicate cultural sensitivities in the region.

“I realize it can be terrifying to have some foreigners come into your backyard, so we’re hoping their curiosity brings them out and they come with questions so we can begin building some type of rapport with them,” Blackburn says.

While personal security detail Marines keep their distance and act as an outside perimeter, FET members, along with an Afghan linguist, put on Afghan headscarves as a sign of respect and cautiously approach the compounds asking simply to talk. Blackburn said some women resist due to Taliban presence in the area and turn them away, but most women are excited to see an American female and invite them in with open arms.

“You have to be sensitive with your gestures,” Blackburn explains. “My approach is not to come off business-like. I think the best tool that I can approach them with is ears. As Marines, we’re used to doing things kinetically, but us as female Marines in these types of programs, we’re focusing on counter-insurgency. It’s more population-centric. Here, we’re being attentive to the populations’ needs and desires.”

And the FET’s hard work is already paying off. On only their second outing in the area, children run up excitedly and call them by name.

“Yeah, I can worry about the adults and the insurgents, but it’s the women and the children where I can really make an impact,” Blackburn said. “These kids are going to be fighting age in a couple of years and here is where it’s at. Down here in (Regional Command) South is one of the most dangerous areas in Afghanistan, and if we can just make these little influential changes, that’s counter-insurgency, and it can only go up from there.”

Blackburn says she is most proud of the underlying message her and the FET are able to represent. On many initial encounters, women simply gaze in seeming disbelief at the female Marines, but eventually begin asking simple, yet thoughtful questions.

“There’s nothing better than knowing I was able to go out there and empower someone,” Blackburn said. “I want to let them know, “Hey, you are someone, you’re worthy and fully capable of taking care of whatever you need to take care of.’”

So while women aren’t allowed on the front lines in battle, the role they play is integral in the fight. With local Afghans accounting for more and more tips on the locations of improvised explosive devices and possible insurgent weapon caches, getting the women and children on board with coalition forces is a huge step in partnering with the people for a better Afghanistan

MEB-Afghanistan corpsman leads by example

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Helmand province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan – Some people wonder why they should join the military. For others, it’s not a matter of “if” they should join, but when.


February 11, 2010
Lance Cpl. Franklin E. Mercado

Such was the case of Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer R. Avila, hospital corpsman and leading petty officer, S-4, Brigade Headquarters Group, Marine Expeditionary Brigade – Afghanistan, who was exposed to the military lifestyle at a young age.

“I did the college thing, but college wasn’t for me,” said Avila. “My father and brother were both in the Navy, so I went that route”

Although being a corpsman wasn’t her first choice after she joined in 1998, it proved to be the right path for Avila, who originally chose administration as her military occupational specialty.
“When I went to boot camp, I had already signed a contract [to be administration],” said Avila. “After I arrived, they said they needed female corpsmen to fill the billet.”

Even though Avila had little knowledge of the MOS, she jumped at the opportunity. After graduating boot camp, she was assigned to Corps School, the MOS school for Navy corpsmen, and then to Field Medical Service School.

After learning the MOS and how to work with Marines, Avila was soon using her knowledge to better other corpsmen around her.

In 2005, Avila made the decision to become an instructor and attended the Navy Instructor Course aboard Norfolk Naval Air Station, Va. After completing the instructor’s course, she checked into Field Medical Training Battalion-East, aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C., in January 2006.

Avila would teach at the school for three years, where she thrived as an instructor. To her surprise, Avila was named both Instructor of the Year and Staff Member of the Year in 2008. But she remains humble about her accomplishments.

“I love to teach,” said Avila. “But I don’t go out of my way to shine.”

The love for teaching and dedication to her job will benefit Avila even after she retires from the military. She intends to pursue a career in elementary school education once she concludes her service in the Navy.

To colleagues like Chief Petty Officer Edwin C. Brannan II, the leading chief petty officer with the Flight Line Aid Station, Marine Aircraft Group-40 Casualty Evacuation, Avila’s awards and impact on others were no surprise.

“Her experience, knowledge, physical fitness and desire to motivate sailors was inspirational for me,” said Brannan. “She is one of the hardest working and dedicated sailors I have ever met.”

February 10, 2010

U.S., Afghan Forces Poised to Seize Taliban Stronghold

NEAR MARJAH, Afghanistan — U.S. and Afghan forces pushed Tuesday to the edge of the southern Afghan town of Marjah, poised to seize the major Taliban supply and drug-smuggling stronghold in hopes of building public support by providing aid and services once the insurgents are gone.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Instead of keeping the offensive secret, Americans have been talking about it for weeks, expecting the Taliban would flee. But the militants appear to be digging in, apparently believing that even a losing fight would rally supporters and sabotage U.S. plans if the battle proves destructive.

No date for the main attack has been announced but all signs indicate it will come soon. It will be the first major offensive since President Obama announced last December that he was sending 30,000 reinforcements to Afghanistan, and will serve as a significant test of the new U.S. strategy for turning back the Taliban.

Michael Yon reports from Afghanistan

About 400 U.S. troops from the Army's 5th Stryker Brigade and about 250 Afghan soldiers moved into positions northeast of Marjah before dawn Tuesday as U.S. Marines pushed to the outskirts of the town.

Automatic rifle fire rattled in the distance as the Marines dug in for the night with temperatures below freezing. The occasional thud of mortar shells and the sharp blast of rocket-propelled grenades fired by the Taliban pierced the air.

"They're trying to bait us, don't get sucked in," yelled a Marine sergeant, warning his troops not to venture closer to the town. In the distance, Marines could see farmers and nomads gathering their livestock at sunset, seemingly indifferent to the firing.

The U.S. goal is to take control quickly of the farming community, located in a vast, irrigated swath of land in Helmand province 380 miles southwest of Kabul. That would enable the Afghan government to re-establish a presence, bringing security, electricity, clean water and other public services to the estimated 80,000 inhabitants.

Over time, American commanders believe such services will undermine the appeal of the Taliban among their fellow Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in the country and the base of the insurgents' support.

"The military operation is phase one," Helmand Gov. Gulab Mangal told reporters Tuesday in Kabul. "In addition to that, we will have development in place, justice, good governance, bringing job opportunities to the people."

Marjah will serve as the first trial for the new strategy implemented last year by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. He maintains that success in the eight-year conflict cannot be achieved by killing Taliban fighters, but rather by protecting civilians and winning over their support.

Many Afghan Pashtuns are believed to have turned to the Taliban, who were driven from power in the U.S.-led invasion of 2001, because of disgust over the ineffectual and corrupt government of President Hamid Karzai.

"The success of the operation will not be in the military phase," NATO's civilian chief in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, told reporters Tuesday. "It will be over the next weeks and months as the people ... feel the benefits of better governance, of economic opportunities and of operating under the legitimate authorities of Afghanistan."

To accomplish that, NATO needs to take the town without causing significant damage or civilian casualties. That would risk a public backlash among residents, many of whose sons and brothers are probably among the estimated 400 to 1,000 Taliban defenders. U.S. aircraft have been dropping leaflets over the town, urging militants not to resist and warning civilians to remain indoors.

Provincial officials believe about 164 families — or about 980 people — have left the town in recent weeks, although the real figure could be higher because many of them moved in with relatives and never registered with authorities.

Residents contacted by telephone in Marjah said the Taliban were preventing civilians from leaving, warning them they have placed bombs along the roads to stop the American attack. The militants may believe the Americans will restrain their fire if they know civilians are at risk.

Mohammad Hakim said he waited until the last minute to leave Marjah with his wife, nine sons, four daughters and grandchildren because he was worried about abandoning his cotton fields in a village on the edge of town. He decided to leave Tuesday, but Taliban fighters turned him back because they said the road was mined.

"All of the people are very scared," Hakim said by telephone. "Our village is like a ghost town. The people are staying in their homes."

Sedwill said NATO hopes that when Marjah has fallen, many Taliban militants could be persuaded to join a government-promoted reintegration process.

"The message to them is accept it," he said. "The message to the people of the area is, of course, keep your heads down, stay inside when the operation is going ahead."

Mangal, the governor, said authorities believe some local Taliban are ready to renounce Al Qaeda and give the government a chance.

"I'm confident that there are a number of Taliban members who will reconcile with us and who will be under the sovereignty of the Afghan government," he said.

Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former Afghan interior minister who lectures at the National Defense University in Washington, said the U.S. had little choice but to publicize the offensive so civilians could leave and minimize casualties. He said it would have been impossible to achieve complete surprise because "an operation of this scale cannot be kept secret."

But Jalali added that publicizing the operation may have encouraged hard-core Taliban to stand and fight to show their supporters and the international community that they will not be easily swayed by promises of amnesty and reintegration.

"Normally the Taliban would leave. They would not normally decisively engage in this kind of pitched battle. They would leave and come back because they have the time to come back," Jalali told The Associated Press.

"If there's stiff resistance in Marjah, this could increase the recruiting power of the Taliban or at least retain what they have in that area," he said. "It's become the symbol of Taliban resistance. So I would suspect it's possible there would be stiff rearguard resistance. If it becomes bloody, it would affect opinion in Europe and the U.S."

Jalali also said that success would depend on whether the Afghan government can make good on its promise of services once the battle is over.

"If the coalition can stabilize Marjah, rebuild it and install good governance, that can be an example for other places," he said. "If not, it would be another problem."

Echoing this theory, McChrystal told reporters at a defense conference in Turkey last weekend that it was necessary to tell Afghans that the attack on Marjah was coming so they would know "that when the government re-establishes security, they'll have choices."

U.S. Inches Closer to Major Afghan Assault

Marines Test Taliban Defenses Before Attack on Key Militant Stronghold

(CBS/ AP) U.S. Marines fired smoke rounds Wednesday and armored vehicles maneuvered close to Taliban positions to test insurgent defenses ahead of an anticipated attack on the biggest militant-controlled town in southern Afghanistan.


News video:

KABUL, Feb. 10, 2010

A NATO spokesman in Brussels called on Taliban militants holding Marjah to surrender. But a Taliban spokesman boasted that the militants were prepared to "sacrifice their lives" to defend the town against the biggest NATO-Afghan offensive of the eight-year war.

The date for the main attack by thousands of Marines and Afghan soldiers has not been announced for security reasons. However, preparations have accelerated in recent days, and it appeared the assault would come soon.

Unlike previous military offensives here, coalition forces are telegraphing their punch, dropping thousands of pamphlets warning civilians to distance themselves from Taliban fighters, reports CBS News correspondent Mandy Clark.

U.S. mortar crews fired two dozen smoke rounds Wednesday at Taliban positions on the outskirts of the farming community, a center of the opium poppy trade about 380 miles (610 kilometers) southwest of Kabul in Helmand province. Marine armored vehicles also drove closer to Taliban positions. Both moves are designed to lure the militants into shooting back and thus reveal their positions. The Marines did draw small arms fire but suffered no casualties.

"Deception is pretty important because it allows us to test the enemy's resistance," said Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, the commander of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines Regiment. "There's a strategy to all this show of muscle."

The U.S. goal is to quickly retake control of Marjah to enable the Afghan government to re-establish a presence. Plans call for civilian workers move quickly to restore electricity, clean water and other public services in hopes of weaning the inhabitants away from the Taliban.

Civilians could be seen fleeing their mud brick farming compounds on the outskirts of Marjah as soon as the American and Afghan forces appeared, though vast numbers do not seem to be leaving. The moves did not draw much of a response from the fighters, who appeared to be waiting behind defensive lines for the Marines to come closer to the town.

To the north, a joint U.S.-Afghan force, led by the U.S. Army's 5th Stryker Brigade, pushed into the Badula Qulp region of Helmand province to restrict Taliban movement in support the Marjah offensive.

But bombs planted along a canal road slowed progress of a convoy Wednesday, damaging two mine-clearing vehicles and delaying the Stryker infantry carriers and Afghan vehicles from advancing for hours. There were no casualties.

"It's a little slower than I had hoped," said Lt. Col. Burton Shields, commanding officer of the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment.

Shields said the joint force was facing "harassing attacks" by groups of seven to nine insurgents.

"They're trying to buy time to move their leaders out of the area," he said.

U.S. officers estimate between 400 and 1,000 Taliban and up to 150 foreign fighters are holding Marjah, which is believed to have a population of about 80,000. It's unclear how many of them will defend the town to the end and how many will give up once the main assault begins.

In Brussels, a NATO spokesman James Appathurai said the Taliban garrison in Marjah had the options of surrendering, leaving or fighting, adding they "are well advised to take up options one or two."

"The area which is the focus of this operation has been known for years as an insurgent stronghold. It is actively defended and will require a large military operation to clear," he said.

Marjah is key to Taliban control of vast areas of Helmand province, which borders Pakistan and is major center for Afghanistan's illicit poppy cultivation, which NATO believes helps finance the insurgency.

Officials said Afghan soldiers and police would join the operation in greater numbers than in any previous one. Appathurai said the offensive was designed to show that the Afghan government can establish its authority anywhere in the country and "will establish a better life to the people who are there."

But Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi scoffed at NATO threats, saying American and Afghan forces would face a hard fight to take Marjah.

"The Taliban are ready to fight, to do jihad, to sacrifice their lives. American forces cannot scare the Taliban with big tanks and big warplanes," Ahmadi told The Associated Press by telephone. "American forces are here in Afghanistan just to create problems for Afghan people. This operation is to create problems for the villagers in winter weather."

So far, there are few signs of a major exodus of civilians from Marjah, although U.S. aircraft have been dropping leaflets in the town for days warning of the offensive. Some residents contacted by telephone said the Taliban were preventing people from leaving, telling them it was unsafe because the roads had been mined.

Helmand provincial spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said about 300 families — or an estimated 1,800 people — have already moved out of Marjah in recent weeks to the capital of Lashkar Gah, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) northeast.

Most moved in with relatives but about 60 families are sheltering in a school, where the government provides them with tents, blankets, food and other items. Ahmadi said preparations have been made to receive more refugees if necessary.

Now Zad: A Comeback Complicated by Success

The town of Now Zad in Helmand Has Turned Around Faster Than Anyone Expected

Now Zad is a town again. In just two short months the small farming community Afghanistan's northern Helmand Province has turned around faster than anyone expected.


News video accompanying article - but dated 12/07/2009:

NOW ZAD, Afghanistan, Feb. 10, 2010

In December 1,000 Marines and Afghan security forces moved into Now Zad in an operation designed to wrest control from the Taliban. The town, once home to 30,000 people, had been a ghost town for four years.

Over the years bitter fighting between British troops, Estonians and U.S. Marines resulted in dozens of injured and killed international troops but made little difference to the situation in Now Zad. Insurgents ringed the area with thousands of homemade bombs and booby traps, creating a stalemate that remained unbroken until late last year.

Capt. Andrew Terrell's Lima Company of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines led the fight in an operation dubbed "Cobra's Anger." Its effect was almost immediate.

"People here are probably guys who were fighters two months ago," said Terrell. "They've put down their weapons, they want to be part of a functioning society. They have an option now, and that option is the government of Afghanistan."

The changes in Now Zad are astounding. Two months ago the only sounds on the streets of this once bustling market community were chirping birds and squeaking doors.

Today some 1,500 people live in the center of town. More than 60 shops have already opened, and every day more ex-residents arrive to survey their property and weigh the possibility of returning.

Nyaz Mohammed owns the local bakery, among the first shops to reopen. He says "business is ok but I'm looking forward to much better business in the future." He's confident that in "6 months Now Zad will be back."

The town, and his shop, have a long way to go. Four years ago the bakery was pumping out 1,200 loaves of bread a day. Today it's only producing about 200.

Now Zad's buildings, made mostly of mud, are in need of substantial repair. Many homes and shops were damaged by years of fighting, and every single building has deteriorated after exposure to the elements for years without any attention.

Greatest Sign ogf Hope? Kids Returning to School

Capt. Jason Brezler, a Marine reservist and New York City firefighter, heads up the Civilian Affairs Group. His job is to coordinate reconstruction and economic revitalization of the town.

"It's a huge job, putting this town back together," Brezler said. "Though it's awesome to see folks returning, there are some significant challenges going forward. After four years of protracted conflict a lot of folks are coming back to shops and homes that have sustained significant damage."

Maybe the biggest sign of progress and hope is the large number of kids resuming their studies. Now Zad and the surrounding area once prided itself on the education levels of its kids. Four years ago some 2,500 kids attended school throughout the valley.

Today, a private home serves as a school, and another school has opened across the river in Changowlak. In all more than 230 kids -- about 30 of them girls -- are either jammed into undersized rooms or conducting their studies in the open air.

Neimatullah Balooth, a 13-year-old student who spent the last four years working on his family's farm, said he doesn't see "much of a future in farming. I want to become a doctor."

There is even a health clinic here, and though it's rudimentary it has two health care providers: a husband and wife team who moved here from Kabul. Khwaja Sabor is a registered nurse and his wife Farzana, a midwife. She'll soon be busy.

She says there are four women now living in the center of town who will give birth in the next month; the first babies born in Now Zad in years.

The clinic needs substantial repair and assistance if it's going to keep up with the demands of the rapidly growing town. Khwaja says the clinic lacks basic medicines such as antibiotics, and its exam rooms are less than adequate. One room where the sterilized equipment is kept has sheets of plastic for windows, the walls are stained black from fire, and water steadily drips from the ceiling.

The Sabors decided to leave Kabul with their young daughter in hopes of bettering their own lives. The government of Afghanistan pays substantially more for serving in Now Zad. Together they earn about $3,200 a year. They are finding Now Zad is not cheap.

Now Zad's Success Comes at a Price

Marines here are finding that rapid success comes at a price. Insurgents still control Bar Now Zad to the north and Salaam Bazaar to the south of the Marine's area of operation. In simple terms that means the Taliban still effectively control the flow of goods, services and people into Now Zad.

Anything headed here is routinely held up, raising the prices for everything from bread to fuel. One can get through Taliban checkpoints if the right bribe is paid.

In addition to the dangers of dealing with the Taliban, unaffiliated criminals also wait for opportunities along the rough dirt roads.Now Zad District remains a mix of wild-west-like threats.

At about 265 strong, Lima Company secures most but not all of the district. In the next few months they will hand over duties to a much larger force, a battalion that will double or triple the number of Marines currently on the ground. Those forces, combined with a growing Afghan Army and police force, should easily be able to establish complete control over the district.

Still it raises the question of whether the Taliban will simply move their checkpoints elsewhere. It raises another question of why so much money and effort was spent on a town where no one lived.

Now Zad is important to the people of Helmand Province. It was once the second-largest city here, its land is fertile and traditionally pomegrantes, almonds, corn and wheat were raised here in abundance. Today the biggest cash crop is likely poppies for making opium.

The town and surrounding villages are picturesque and could be a tourist destination, were they located anywhere else. Now Zad strikes an emotional chord in people throughout Helmand Province.

Marines say wresting control of Now Zad from the Taliban and returning it to its rightful owners sends a powerful message that can't be measured in purely military terms.

Now Zad Government Too Weak

The Marines' biggest concern may be the lack of a strong civilian or governmental presence. Almost everything falls to the Marines, and no request is too small. When Terrell or Brezler walk through the market here and chat up locals, the requests come in all shapes and sizes.

One man holds up a plastic bag with medicine. He needs more, and only the Marines can supply it. Another man's wall is deteriorating because of damage caused by the Marines. Another wants to talk about a road being plowed. Even the kids approach them looking for candy or pens.

It's not exactly the dynamic that Marines want. They want the Afghan government to take the lead.

Sayed Murad Agha has been Now Zad's district governor since December. He's a patient man who has learned to work with the Marines, but he's frustrated by the pace of progress. His staff still hasn't moved up from the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. In his office he can't get glass for the windows, a new desk or chairs, much less a phone, fax machine or Internet access.

Marines want the Afghans to lead the way, but so far governance here consists mostly of one district governor, 10 teachers, two health care providers and 265 Marines.

Still there is reason for hope. Sardar Mohammed was the first shopkeeper to reopen when he opened his tea shop on the main street of the bazaar just days after operation Cobra's Anger concluded.

Thirty members of his family left Now Zad four years ago. So far 13 have returned, and the rest are considering it.

On many nights Mohammed celebrates their return with a traditional meal of rice, goat, bread and fruit followed by music. Along with his brother and son, the trio will play for hours. Music was banned under the Taliban. It's back. Now Zad even has a nightlife.

US Marines under fire ahead of Afghan assault

OUTSKIRTS OF MARJAH, Afghanistan — US Marines came under attack from insurgents armed with sniper guns and rocket-propelled grenades as they geared up Wednesday to overwhelm a Taliban bastion in Afghanistan.


By Patrick Baz (AFP) – 2/10/2010

Thousands of Marines along with foreign and Afghan soldiers are massing around the town of Marjah in Helmand, which officials say is one of the last areas of the southern province under Taliban control.

The flow of residents fleeing the imminent offensive has slowed, provincial officials said, after loaded-down cars, trucks, tractors and buses clogged roads from Marjah to provincial capital Lashkah Gar for days.

"We have announced and told people in Marjah not to leave their houses as our operation is well planned and designed to target the enemy," said Daud Ahmadi, spokesman for Helmand Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal.

"Civilians will not be harmed," he said. Another 75 families had left Marjah, on top of 164 families who left earlier, the spokesman said. Other officials have said more than 400 families have fled.

The operation, expected to begin in days, will be the biggest push since US President Barack Obama announced a new surge of troops to Afghanistan and one of the biggest since the 2001 US-led invasion defeated the Taliban regime.

It is seen as a key test of a comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy that aims to follow up what officials predict will be a decisive military victory by establishing Afghan government control.

But Taliban fighters appear defiant in the face of the enormous fire power being amassed in the region, where they have held sway for years in tandem with drug traffickers.

An AFP photographer said 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines Regiment arrived by helicopter at Berkha Nawa junction, on the northeastern outskirts of Marjah, and immediately came under sniper fire from insurgents.

The Marines encampment, reinforced with sandbags, also came under rocket fire. US Cobra helicopters were called in to attack Taliban positions, the photographer said.

The Marines searched houses and compounds for weapons and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) -- the prime Taliban killer of foreign troops -- and evacuated residents from all but one of the homes still occupied.

The remaining family, he said, were staying as they had nowhere to go.

Insurgents could be seen planting IEDs on roads surrounding the junction, he said, and Marines were doing regular sweeps to clear the area.

NATO forces dropped leaflets on the area warning of the fight to come, to give residents and insurgents time to flee and avoid a battle, officials said.

Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, said the US-led alliance hoped the operation would proceed "swiftly and with as little incident as possible".

"But this very much depends on the conduct of people who are in Marjah at the moment and their choices about whether to resist or to lay down their weapons and, as the government has offered them, come over under the sovereignty of the legitimate authorities," he told reporters.

"People need to be under no illusion -- this operation is going to succeed, we are going to bring Afghan government sovereignty to this area.

The biggest threat faced by international and Afghan forces is IEDs, with the Taliban claiming to have developed a new bomb -- named Omar after their fugitive leader -- that cannot be detected by Western mine sweepers.

So far this year more than 60 foreign troops have died in Afghanistan. The number of foreign troop deaths hit a record 520 last year.

February 9, 2010

Marjah Marines Brace for Offensive

U.S. Marines Head up Force of 30,000 NATO and Afghan Troops Preparing to Attack Taliban Stronghold

(CBS) It is the eve of battle and today the Marines on the outskirts of Marjah got their marching orders from their commanding officer.


News Video:

Feb. 9, 2010
By Mandy Clark

"This is a date with destiny," said Brigadier Gen. Larry Nicholson. "For the rest of your careers, you will be known as Marjah Marines."

Marjah is the last Taliban stronghold in the area. Reports from inside the city suggest that hundreds of hard-core fighters are bracing for a fight.

But the Marines are not trying to hide. In fact, they are doing everything they can to let the people of Marjah know they're coming.

CBS News correspondent Mandy Clark is with the Marine company that is closest to Marjah. They are talking to local leaders about their coming operation.

Unlike previous military offensives here, coalition forces are telegraphing their punch, dropping thousands of pamphlets warning civilians to distance themselves from Taliban fighters. Many families have already left the city to avoid being caught in the crossfire.

In the meantime, Marines, too, are digging in for a fight. They hope that by the time they go into Marjah, the Taliban will have no civilians left to hide behind, forcing them to take U.S. and Afghan troops head on.

I'm a Marine, get me out of here!

Troops face fury of animal rights campaigners after eating scorpions and drinking snakes' blood

With tasks such as drinking the blood of a cobra and eating scorpions, you could be forgiven for thinking the latest I’m A Celebrity! series was under way.

Click above link for photos.

By Sara Nelson
Last updated at 10:01 AM on 09th February 2010

But instead of a host of D-list wannabes, these are Marines taking part in an annual war game exercise known as Cobra Gold.
However, their stomach-churning antics are likely to enrage animal rights campaigners.

As well as drinking cobra blood, participants found themselves smeared with the stuff, as well as being tutored in the delicate art of picking up the venomous creatures.

And those with weak stomachs will have struggled with the menu, which also included delicacies such as frogs and lizards.

The event – the largest of its kind in the Pacific – is taking place in Thailand and will run until February 11.

It sees 14,000 soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen from six countries taking part in the operations, described by US Ambassador Eric G John as ‘an important symbol of US military commitment to maintaining peace and security in Asia.’

As well as serving as a practical training event, the aim of the exercise is to promote regional peace and security.

The exercises, which are taking place in the eastern Thai province of Rayong, are modelled on UN multi-national peace support operations scenarios.

3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, Changes Focus From Sea to Desert

MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. - Marines and sailors with 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, from Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., completed their Enhanced Mojave Viper pre-deployment training evolution Feb. 4 here, as part of the unit's shift from supporting Marine Expeditionary Units to serving in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.



Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms
Story by Lance Cpl. Michael Nerl
Date: 02.04.2010
Posted: 02.09.2010 06:13

The battalion engaged all their efforts in adapting to the mission, and undertook the task diligently, said 2nd Lt. John Adams, a platoon commander with Company K, 3rd Bn., 1st Marines, and a native of Milwaukee.

"Marines by their nature are very smart and very receptive," Adams said. "Our Marines have been performing very well in terms of picking up a new role, adapting staying flexible, which is what Marines do best, adapt and overcome."

Adams said the conviction of his Marines, as well as the outstanding training they received is going to pay dividends later.

"All the Marines have been motivated since the very beginning," he said. "They're infantry Marines and this is what they joined for.

"In addition, we have been focusing on counterinsurgency techniques," he said. "The quality of the training as well has been outstanding. The battalion has been focusing a lot on how to deal with locals, as well as the kinetic aspect."

The Marines who conducted the training thought highly of what they were learning and what it would do for them once they deployed.

"Learning about the culture, tactics and language of Afghans is going to help us tremendously before we even get there," said Lance Cpl. Nathan Davidson, a rifleman with Co. K, 3rd Bn., 1st Marines, and a native of Plainfield, Ind. "We've learned a lot of their native languages in the classes, but talking and interacting with the people is a much better way to get good at speaking it and learning customs."

Some of the more experienced Marines in the battalion, like Cpl. Deano Miller, recognized how their battalion has grown as a unit as they prepared for their new mission.

"It's more serious going to Afghanistan than being on a MEU," said Miller, a rifleman serving as a dog handler with Co. K, 3rd Bn., 1st Marines, and a native of Tacoma, Wash. "We're doing good, though. All the Marines are working hard to get everything they need ready before we deploy."

The battalion is scheduled to depart this spring in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Boots and paws on the ground for OEF

Dogs have long been known as man’s best friend, and the military working dog is still that, but they are also an invaluable tool for Marines deployed overseas, because of their abilities to smell, which Marines from 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment learned during their Enhanced Mojave Viper pre-deployment training evolution here at Range 220.


2/9/2010 By Lance Cpl. M. C. Nerl, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms

The dogs are employed and embedded with the platoons, and used when they are needed, said 2nd Lt. John Adams, a platoon commander with Company K, 3rd Bn., 1st Marines, and a native of Milwaukee.

“Having the dogs and trained handlers is a very valuable tool we’ve been able to implement a lot on patrols and searches,” Adams said. “They can smell and detect stuff better than humans can, which makes them great for searching for explosives or drugs.”

Adams said the handlers are not a new addition to the team, rather an old Marine who learned new tricks.

“We sent three Marines from Kilo Company to be trained as handlers,” he said. “They were already part of the platoons. Now they’re right back where they were as part of a team, but they have added skills and abilities from their training.

“So far, the six-week course has paid off a lot,” he added. “The dogs, as well as the handlers, have been performing very well and we’re looking forward to using them overseas.”

Cpl. Deano Miller, a rifleman cross trained for the company as a dog handler, spoke to the lessons he learned and the friend he gained in his working dog, a yellow labrador retriever named Thor.

“The dogs have helped out a lot on patrols and other situations where we have to search for explosives,” said Miller a Tacoma, Wash., native. “We’re not the first ones to do this training, but its great to have something as valuable as a dog’s nose when you’re searching for what we are.”

Miller described his canine companion’s mission as a working dog, and as well as his temperament.

“He’s a bomb sniffing dog,” he said. “Thor is pretty good; he’s a well-behaved and very well-trained dog.

“He’s like a little kid, though,” he continued. “I’ve got to play with him all the time in the morning and at night, or he doesn’t want to work very hard.”

Other Marines who know Miller and served with him recognized how he and the other handlers have made an impact on their team already.

“It’s awesome that one of our own guys got to do this,” said Lance Cpl. Mengqi Xu, a rifleman with the company, and a native of Chicago. “Cpl. Miller was always a good Marine and a good friend. Now we’ve got someone with skills and experience and trust in our own unit who’s going to play a vital role in how we get things done over there.”

Central Helmand Residents Encouraged to Remain in Homes

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan - In anticipation of operations in central Helmand, a variety of organizations and individuals, including combined force commanders, have been paying close attention to civilian movements. Commanders in the area are reporting no significant increase in persons moving out of Nad-e Ali District in the last month.


ISAF Joint Command
Courtesy Story
Date: 02.09.2010
Posted: 02.09.2010 06:57

Despite reports of large numbers of civilians fleeing the area, the facts on the ground do not support these assertions.

Current estimates are that fewer than 200 families have left Nad-e Ali since Operation Moshtarak was announced. Combined force commanders are encouraging civilians to remain in the safety of their homes. Every effort is being made to ensure minimum disruption to the residents during the operation.

The goal of Moshtarak - a Dari word for "together" - is for the combined force (ANA, ANP, ISAF and the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team) to support the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in asserting its authority in central Helmand, thereby demonstrating the Afghan government's commitment to the people living there.

The operation is being conducted in line with the wishes of the Afghan government in Helmand. The security forces involved are serving side-by-side, representing partnership in strength.

US Marines expectantly await battle in harsh Afghan desert winter

OUTPOST BELLEAU WOOD, Afghanistan — Take a desert of yellow-orange dust so flat it looks like Mars, with a freezing wind that blows so hard it can lift a large tent.


By Alfred De Montesquiou (CP) – February 9, 2010

Add hundreds of U.S. Marines, squads of Afghan soldiers, some Drug Enforcement Administration agents, a few private contractors, along with dozens of armoured cars, mine breachers and an improvised helicopter landing zone.

That's Outpost Belleau Wood, a Marine base near the edge of the Taliban-controlled town of Marjah, which the Marines plan to attack in the coming days.

It took barely a week for the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment to create the outpost from scratch.

They bulldozed earth berms to make a protection wall, pitched lines of pup-tents that bend and wobble in the gale, and set up batteries of mortars and 155-millimeter artillery cannons.

"Those guns started shooting the night they got here," said the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, as he leaned forward against the wind while walking through the base in full body armour and helmet.

Named after a World War I battle where the 6th Marines earned the label "devil dogs" for the ferocity of their fight against German troops, Belleau Wood lies about 7 miles (10 kilometres) north of Marjah.

Several units from the battalion are already pushing in toward the town, where an estimated 600 fighters are entrenched. While the outpost has been hit only once, companies closer to Marjah face daily skirmishes and bombings.

Marjah is the biggest community in southern Afghanistan that is under Taliban control and a centre of their logistical and drug-smuggling networks. The NATO command believes restoring government control there would go a long way to discrediting the Taliban among Afghans in a part of the country where the militants have been strong for years.

The offensive proper is expected to be the biggest in the nine-year Afghan war, and troops on the outpost are all waiting for battle.

Dozens of Marine engineers have been rehearsing how to lay out massive metallic bridges they plan to use when troops will need to cross the canals surrounding Marjah. Route clearance teams were also fine-tuning their tactics to detect the bombs that litter the area.

NATO commanders have been outspoken on their plans to take Marjah. But they've remained tightlipped on one key bit of information: timing.

Few know when the offensive will begin, and those who do are saying nothing. So the Marines are in the starting blocks, waiting in the cold.

"The wait is part of the fight," says Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Daniel Perez, a Navy medic. "It gives people the time to pump up with anticipation."

Marjah is suspected to be one of the biggest, most dangerous minefields NATO forces have ever faced, and hundreds of the fighters barricaded inside could be planning to fight until death.

But Perez said he hasn't seen anyone frightened by the fight - "or if they are, they're hiding it very well."

He says waiting, however long, doesn't matter for the Marines.

"It's almost like the Olympics," he said. "You train and train and train ... and this is finally the big show."

US Marines gear up for major Afghan assault

TOOR GHAR, Afghanistan — US Marines on Tuesday stepped up preparations for a major assault on a key Taliban bastion in southern Afghanistan hailed by officers as the biggest offensive of the eight-year war.


By Patrick Baz (AFP) – February 9, 2010

Thousands of Afghan, US and NATO forces are expected to launch Operation Mushtarak (Together) in a bid to clear the Taliban out of Marjah, home to some 80,000 people, and expand the control of the Western-backed Afghan government.

Officials and witnesses say families have fled, loading goats, furniture and clothes on to vehicles and heading to safety in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province around 20 kilometres (12 miles) to the north.

NATO commanders have urged the Taliban to surrender but the militia, whose insurgency to bring down the Afghan government and eject foreign troops is now at its deadliest, has vowed to stay and fight.

"The combat operations for the assault of Marjah have begun this morning," Lieutenant Colonel James "Matt" Baker, of 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines Regiment told AFP late Monday, referring to the final phase of assault preparations.

About five kilometres (three miles) outside Marjah, an AFP photographer said US Marines were searching houses and compounds for improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the chief Taliban killer of foreign troops, and weapons.

The market and main road were empty in the farming belt, although many local residents appeared to be staying, the AFP photographer said.

"There are troops around Nad Ali and Marjah but so far the operation has not started. The troops are moving around," said Habibullah, who heads the district administration of Nad Ali, where Marjah is located.

The coming Marjah operation is the biggest push since US President Barack Obama announced a new surge of troops to Afghanistan and military officials say it is the biggest since the 2001 US-led invasion defeated the Taliban regime.

It is seen as pivotal to ground commander General Stanley McChrystal's strategy to mesh military operations with efforts to establish governance, security and development in a bid to prevent the Taliban from returning.

Obama ordered an extra 30,000 US troops into Afghanistan last December as part of that effort to defeat Al-Qaeda, reverse the Taliban insurgency and end the war so that American soldiers can start heading home in mid-2011.

Although few analysts expect the Taliban to fight face-to-face against much better equipped US and NATO troops, a purported spokesman for the militia said by telephone that its members would "stay and fight".

"Our mujahedeen are prepared. They are in the area. Most of our fighters are from the area. We have sent some additional forces but their number is very, very small," said Yousuf Ahmadi, the spokesman, from an undisclosed location.

Provincial authorities say they have set up reception centres and stockpiled food and tents for up to 10,000 residents who may leave Marjah, but that so far many fewer people had been registered leaving at points along the road.

"The figures we have are that around 400 families have been displaced. Some of them have settled in Lashkar Gah and some others in other districts," said the head of the refugee and repatriation department Ghulam Farooq Noorzai.

The Taliban insurgency has been concentrated on Helmand and neighbouring Kandahar province -- fertile agricultural regions where farmland has been transformed under insurgent control into poppy plantations.

Billions of dollars worth of opium and heroin help to fund the Taliban-led insurgency, which has the Marjah region in its grip.

Analysts have cautioned that the offensive should be conducted in close cooperation with plans by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to organise peace talks to encourage Taliban to quit the fight and return to mainstream society.

"The military effort and the 'negotiating' effort have to be coordinated," said Norine MacDonald, president of London-based think tank the International Council on Security and Development.

Marines and SEALs train at Army depot

Senators say it’s a missed opportunity for soldiers

By Gidget Fuentes - Staff writer
Posted : Tuesday Feb 9, 2010 5:56:39 EST

OCEANSIDE, Calif. – Marines and Navy SEALs are using an Army facility to train for Afghanistan, and soldiers are missing out, two U.S. senators report.

To continue reading:


Marines Fight Insurgents, Secure Key Intersection on Road to Marjeh

HELMAND PROVINCE, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan – Marines and sailors of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, battled Taliban insurgents, Feb. 9, after conducting a successful helicopter-borne assault to seize a key intersection east of the insurgent stronghold city of Marjeh.



Regimental Combat Team-7, 1st Marine Division Public Affairs
Story by Sgt. Brian Tuthill
Date: 02.09.2010
Posted: 02.10.2010 07:22

The Marines, some carrying more than their body weight in gear, moved toward the center of an area known as "Five Points," an intersection of major roads in western Helmand province, located between the cities of Marjeh and Nawa. The Marines were joined on the assault by their partnered Afghan National Army soldiers who fought alongside them against the Taliban.

"I felt the assault went well," said Capt. Stephan P. Karabin, commanding officer, Charlie Company, 1/3. "We got in here quickly, under the cover of darkness on the helicopters, moved into position, set everything in place and were able to seize the objective. This area is important because it's the one intersection which links northern Marjeh ... to (eastern Helmand province) and it blocks that supply route.

"Marines did their job well here, and some engaged with the enemy for the first time in this deployment," said Karabin, 30, from West Palm Beach, Fla.

The Five Points intersection and surrounding area is also part of the main route from Marjeh to Lashkar Gah, the Helmand provincial capital, said Karabin.

"These roads are very important to our movement within the area of operations," said Karabin.

Not long after Marines established their defensive positions in the area did they observe Taliban fighters approaching from Marjeh. The Taliban immediately began firing their machine guns at the Marines. Marines and ANA soldiers fired back with heavy machine guns, rockets and small-arms fire, wounding and killing several Taliban fighters, forcing them to flee.

Marines took the brief respite to fortify their fighting positions with sandbags and concrete blocks scrounged from the area around them.

"While we were reinforcing our position on a roof, we came under fire again," said Sgt. Stephen Y. Roberts, a 23-year-old assault section leader, Weapons Platoon, Charlie Company, "It was three or four of the same fighters we had seen firing at us earlier."

Roberts responded to the enemy machine-gun fire by launching a Javelin shoulder-fired missile into the position the fighters were firing from, immediately silencing the heavy machine gun. Marine AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters flying the area followed Roberts' fire to strike a volley of heavy machine-gun fire and rockets, putting an end to the engagement.

Charlie Company Marines were joined at Five Points that evening by squads of Marines from Bravo Company, 1/3, having traveled the nine kilometers from Nawa on foot while sweeping for and clearing improvised explosive devices along the road linking the two locations.

February 8, 2010

Marines focus on civilian safety in Afghanistan

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — Heading into battle to seize a Taliban stronghold, U.S. Marines are keenly aware of one factor that could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory: Afghan civilian casualties.


By Tony Perry and Laura King, Los Angeles Times
Stars and Stripes online edition, Monday, February 8, 2010

Deaths of noncombatants in clashes involving Western troops and insurgents are one of the bitterest points of contention between President Hamid Karzai and his foreign allies. So in the weeks leading up to the imminent offensive to take the Helmand River Valley town of Marja in southern Afghanistan, the Marines' commander, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, sat with dozens of Afghan tribal elders, drinking endless cups of sweet tea and offering reassurances that his top priority will be the safety of Afghan civilians.

"In counterinsurgency, the people are the prize," Nicholson said in an interview at Camp Leatherneck, the U.S. base in central Helmand province that is the main staging ground for the offensive.

The Marja operation has been publicized for months by the Marines. One reason Nicholson has taken that unusual step is to give civilians plenty of warning, decreasing the chances they will be caught in crossfire.

It is not clear whether the Taliban forces will fight in Marja or melt away, to regroup and fight elsewhere. But at a minimum, the Taliban has had months of warning to plant booby traps and roadside bombs. The Marines are equipped with 70-ton Assault Breacher Vehicles that fire line charges to detonate buried bombs in the path of advancing troops.

To minimize civilian casualties in the event of a battle, leaflets have been dropped in the Marja district, urging residents to get out of the area.

Many Afghans, however, are reluctant to leave homes and farms unattended. For cultural reasons, Pashtun tribesmen also are often unwilling to let women and children take shelter elsewhere without a male family member.

The Marja assault will be the largest joint effort by U.S., coalition and Afghan troops since the Taliban was chased from power in 2001, and the first major offensive since President Barack Obama's decision to authorize sending 30,000 additional troops to the country.

It is also a test of whether a large-scale ground battle can be conducted in a densely populated setting without large numbers of civilian deaths and injuries. About 85,000 people live in Marja itself, and an estimated 45,000 more in outlying parts of the district.

When Marine battalions descended on Helmand province last summer, the commander of coalition troops in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, was formulating strict new rules of engagement meant to protect Afghan civilian lives.

McChrystal's focus on avoiding civilian casualties addresses repeated complaints from Karzai and other Afghan officials and reflects his view of the conflict as a counterinsurgency — in which winning over civilians is crucial.

As they moved to seize a string of villages in the lower Helmand River Valley, Marine commanders were careful to limit the use of artillery and air power. Infantry troops were warned not to shoot at targets if there were civilians in the line of fire.

That restraint helped the Marines win a measure of acceptance from tribal elders. So did follow-up efforts to establish safety and governance: reopening bazaars, repairing irrigation canals, protecting local officials who were under Taliban threat.

"Until we can operate so the Afghan people believe that we are here to protect them in every way, we still have improvements to make," McChrystal told reporters in Kabul this week. "It is unlikely we will be perfect as long as the levels of insecurity are as difficult as they are, but to the degree that the people can help us, we'll stay completely focused on this."

To rally support in Marja, Nicholson has met repeatedly with the district's elders in tribal gatherings known as shuras.

Sitting recently with a dozen of what he described as the town's most important elders, Nicholson asked them to spread the word among their clansmen: Stay indoors when the fighting begins. Any battle damage to homes, farms and business will be repaired, and compensation paid.

Hundreds of people already have fled the town, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross and provincial refugee officials. Some are taking shelter with relatives elsewhere in the province, or seeking safety in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

But Nicholson and others expect the Taliban to push civilians into harm's way, in hopes that some will be killed and provide the insurgency with a propaganda victory.

"We are up against a cunning, immoral enemy who will try to exploit war among the people," said British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, commanding general of NATO's Regional Command South, which includes Helmand province. "We want to make sure all efforts are made to limit collateral damage."

At some meetings with elders, Nicholson has been accompanied by the commander of the Afghan forces, Brig. Gen. Mahayoodin Ghoori. His presence at Nicholson's side at the shuras is meant to convince elders that Afghan soldiers are full partners with the Marines in this operation.

The presence of Afghan troops is expected to be crucial to Marines' efforts to distinguish friend from foe in Marja — determining, for example, whether a young fighting-age man is a farmer trying to watch over his lands or an insurgent trying to blend in with the populace.

But the Afghan forces are not infallible, either. Last week in neighboring Kandahar province, Afghan border police shot dead seven men they took to be Taliban fighters crossing over from Pakistan.

It turned out the slain men were unarmed villagers, probably gathering firewood, local officials said.

"It is natural that townspeople are afraid — afraid of losing their lives in this fighting," said Abdul Hahad Hemandwal, an elder in Nad Ali district, which encompasses Marja. "But we have had lots of meetings with U.S. commanders, and we think they are trying very hard to avoid that."

Marines quietly wrap up ops in Iraq

By James K. Sanborn - Staff writer
Posted : Monday Feb 8, 2010 8:31:29 EST

By mid-February, Marines will be out of Iraq.

To continue reading:


February 7, 2010

Troops train for humanitarian response at Cobra Gold

By Erik Slavin, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Sunday, February 7, 2010

SATTAHIP, Thailand — Right now, there’s probably no place on earth with a greater collection of people qualified to critique disaster response than at the annual Cobra Gold exercise — with the exception of Haiti.

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USS Nassau ARG/24th MEU Depart Haiti

ABOARD USS NASSAU, At Sea (NNS) -- The USS Nassau Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) with embarked 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) departed Haiti Feb. 7, continuing on its originally scheduled deployment to the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (AOR).


From U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command
Story Number: NNS100207-09 Release Date: 2/7/2010 9:04:00 PM

The Nassau ARG includes ships from Amphibious Squadron (PHIBRON) 8: the multipurpose amphibious assault ship USS Nassau (LHA 4), the amphibious transport dock ship USS Mesa Verde (LPD 19) and the amphibious dock landing ship USS Ashland (LSD 48).

The three ships and nearly 2,000 Sailors departed Virginia Jan. 18 on a deployment to the CENTCOM AOR, but were diverted to Haiti to provide assistance to the victims of the earthquake that struck the country Jan. 12, after on-loading more than 2,300 Marines of the 24th MEU.

Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), released the ARG/MEU from the mission after assessments made from leadership of the multinational interagency effort indicated that ground-based relief efforts had drastically improved.

"Thanks to the expeditionary capabilities of the Nassau ARG with embarked 24th MEU, we were able to help the government of Haiti, UN and international relief workers mitigate the immediate impact of the earthquake on communities both near and further away from the epicenter," Fraser said. "The ongoing contributions of U.S. and international relief organizations with extensive experience and expertise in helping nations recover from disasters has lessened the need for units with capabilities like those of the Nassau ARG and the 24th MEU, so I have released them from this mission with our utmost gratitude for their timely support to this important humanitarian mission."

While on the ground in Haiti, the Marines of the 24th MEU were instrumental in assisting the World Food Program (WFP) in Carrefour and Maison Lecrai. WFP is conducting a targeted and systematic food distribution to the Haitian people at 16 distribution sites around Haiti.

The 24th MEU also assisted Joint Task Force (JTF) Haiti with the construction of a 250-bed interim aftercare medical facility in Port-au-Prince that will be turned over to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to provide follow-on care for convalescent patients recovering from surgeries.

Medical and dental personnel from the 24th MEU treated more than 100 Haitians on the island of Gonave. Additionally, medical personnel aboard Nassau and Mesa Verde treated 16 Haitian earthquake victims aboard shipboard medical facilities.

"I'm very grateful and blessed that I could help make a really big difference in a time of need," said Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Laketta Thomas of Nassau. "It means so much to me to know that I have provided care, support and understanding to those that needed help."

Lance Cpl. Brian O. Melendez echoed similar thoughts.

"The satisfaction of being able to help here means a lot," he said. "The Haitian people needed our help, and we were able to do a lot for them."

The Nassau ARG/24th MEU are en route the U.S. 5th Fleet AOR to conduct theater security cooperation missions and serve as 5th Fleet's Theater Reserve, relieving the USS Bonhomme Richard ARG and 11th MEU.

On Saturday, two other Navy ships, USS Normandy (CG 60) and USS Underwood (FFG 36), also completed operations in Haiti. On station for a total of 21 days, Normandy and its crew delivered meals donated by the not-for-profit organization "Kids Against Hunger," more than 1,000 gallons of water, and other food items to towns on the Haitian island of La Gonave.

Underwood and its attached Helicopter Anti-submarine Squadron Light (HSL) 60, Detachment 1, arrived in Haiti Jan. 16 and immediately began providing support to the Naval Oceanographic Center's critical survey, making it possible for relief ships to navigate safely in and out of the Port-au-Prince harbor. Underwood quickly became a lifeline for relief efforts, delivering hundreds of boxes including food and water, conducting 82 lifesaving medical evacuations and transporting approximately 600 personnel.

While these humanitarian assistance assets departed the theatre, another joined the mission, as SOUTHCOM deployed a team of logistics specialists from Army installations nationwide. The Joint Logistics Command (JLC) comprises 2,000 troops that will support the movement of relief supplies from ports of entry to distribution points with landing craft, cargo handling equipment and transport vehicles.

Afghan assault to send 'strong signal': McChrystal

KABUL — The commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan said Sunday a major offensive will send a "strong signal" and clear insurgents from their southern stronghold, as residents fled ahead of the assault.


By Lynne O'Donnell (AFP) – February 7, 2010

A huge force of US Marines leading NATO and Afghan soldiers is expected to launch the offensive -- said by commanders to be the largest assault against Taliban-led militants since the war began -- in Helmand province within days.

Operation Mushtarak ("Together") will "send a strong signal that the Afghan government is expanding its security control," said US General Stanley McChrystal, who leads 113,000 US and NATO forces fighting the militants.

The operation is to be centred on the Marjah plain in the central Helmand River valley, home to around 80,000 people and said by military officials to be the last bastion of Taliban control.

As part of his counter-insurgency strategy emphasising development and governance, McChrystal said the Marjah operation was not about killing Taliban fighters but eradicating the militant threat.

Whether fighters left the region or rejoined society -- as President Hamid Karzai's reconciliation programme encourages them to do -- the aim was to establish Afghan civilian governance, he said.

"We're trying to make this not a military operation only, but a civilian and military operation because the thing that is changing is not just going to be the level of security in the area but the governance," McChrystal said.

"So all the planning for this operation has been led by the civilian side with the military in support -- and of course this is an Afghan-led operation."

The head of the provincial refugees and repatriation department said authorities were preparing to receive up to 10,000 people, as about 2,000 had already left Marjah.

"Around 400 families have been displaced from the Nad Ali and Marjah areas," said Ghulam Farouq Noorzai.

Authorities had set up an emergency response committee in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah to provide food and shelter for those fleeing, he said.

A mini-van driver who would not give his name, told AFP: "I have made five or six trips between Marjah and Lashkah Gar today, bringing people out of the area."

Marjah, home to 80,000 people, is a major base for growing poppies, the raw material of opium and heroin, which help fund the insurgency. Officials say farmers are coerced by militants into growing poppies rather than other crops.

"For individuals who live in Marjah, who right now live under Taliban control with narco-traffickers there, they don't have a lot of choices," McChrystal told reporters.

"We are trying to communicate to them that when the government re-establishes security they'll have choices."

"They'll have choices on the crops they grow, they'll have the ability to move that produce to appropriate markets, they won't be limited to narco-traffickers who can force them into that," he added.

Mushtarak echoes assaults last year -- the British Operation Panther's Claw and the Marines' Operation Dagger -- that were seen as successfully eradicating militants who had controlled other poppy-growing regions in the Helmand valley.

Preparatory operations around Marjah, south of Lashkar Gah, have been going on for weeks, with leaflets dropped on the area from NATO helicopters warning residents of the assault to come.

Military officials said the operation had been planned in cooperation with Afghan authorities, and would enable them to move in to establish civilian institutions, including police, education and health.

Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, who started his new job Sunday, said Marjah would provide an example of how "governance and development follows up any advances we make in security".

"To the Afghan citizen what matters is can his kids get to school, is the school open, is the clinic open, can they get decent justice from the Afghan government rather than the Taliban?" Sedwill said.

Sedwill, until this month British ambassador to Afghanistan, echoed McChrystal in saying "the situation in Afghanistan remains serious but is no longer deteriorating.

"Both of us are confident... that at the end of 2010 we will be in a much better position than we are now," he said.

Taliban dig in for big assault, say Afghan villagers

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Taliban militants are massing and preparing for a big fight ahead of a major NATO offensive in an insurgent stronghold in southern Afghanistan, villagers fleeing the area said on Sunday.


Abdul Malek
LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan
Sun Feb 7, 2010 9:44am EST

U.S. Marines are set to launch a massive operation within days to take Marjah, a dense warren of canals and lush farmland in the center of Helmand, the country's most violent province.

Military commanders are dubbing the area the last big Taliban enclave in the province. The offensive, one of the biggest of the eight-year-old war, will mark the first major show of force since U.S. President Barack Obama ordered in 30,000 extra troops.

Washington hopes the Marine operation will help decisively turn the momentum this year in a war that commanders accept has not been going their way. They have also not kept the planned offensive a secret, hoping the militants will give up the fight.

"It has to do with letting people know what's coming in the hope that the hardcore Taliban, or a lot of the Taliban, will simply leave, and maybe there will be less of a fight," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in Turkey on Saturday.

According to some of the villagers escaping Marjah in fear of their lives, fighters are digging in rather than fleeing.

"The Taliban are not going to leave Marjah. We have seen them preparing themselves. They are bringing in people and weapons. We know there is going to be a big fight," said Abdul Manan, a man from Marjah who had fled to Helmand's capital, Lashkar Gah.

"The Taliban are very active in Marjah. They are planting mines there and in the surrounding areas," said another villager, Abdul Khaleq, after arriving in Lashkar Gah with his family.

The Taliban have stepped up their fight against Afghan and foreign troops in recent years. They have largely shied away from face-to-face combat, relying instead on deadly homemade bombs.

Abdullah Nasrat, a Taliban commander in Nad Ali district where Marjah is located, told Reuters by telephone there were some 2,000 insurgents there ready to fight to the death.

"We are well prepared and will fight until the end. We don't have sophisticated weapons like the Americans with tanks and air planes, but we have Islamic zeal. That is the power we have to fight against the infidels," he said.


Around one hundred families have fled Marjah and surrounding areas, seeking refuge in Lashkar Gah over the last week, the provincial governor's spokesman Dawood Ahmadi said. Afghan families average around six members.

Some of those had fled from areas around Marjah where British "shaping" operations have been taking place ahead of the Marine offensive.

"On the government side, we are ready to help these people. We are ready to help up to 50,000 displaced people," he said, adding there was a possibility of more people fleeing. Those who fled said they feared for their lives.

"We know that the wrath of the Americans is coming upon us. We left Marjah to save our lives and our families' lives," Khaleq said.

"We have no shelter, no property. We left our farms. We appeal to the government to help us," he said, adding that other families had fled to nearby Sangin and Nawa districts.

Many of those arriving in Lashkar Gah told Reuters they had set up in open-air compounds normally used for storage in the city. Helmand has a harsh desert climate where temperatures can soar in summer and drop below freezing in winter.

"We don't know what will happen to Marjah and to our property. This could go on for months," said Manan..

(Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch in KABUL, Ismail Sameem in KANDAHAR and Adam Entous in ANKARA; Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Myra MacDonald)

Rules of engagement mean Marines see victory in holding fire

By John Vandiver, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Sunday, February 7, 2010


Sgt. Jefferson Haney is a rarity, and his fellow Marines look at him with just a little bit of envy.

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February 5, 2010

Study Measures Traumatic Brain Injury

WASHINGTON - Scientists at the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center and a professor at Columbia University are working on a collaborative study measuring brain damage on traumatic brain injury patients.


Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs
Story by Christen McCluney
Date: 02.05.2010
Posted: 02.05.2010 01:06

"It's a large problem to the Army and the soldiers," Thomas Meitzler, a scientist at the Army center, said during a Feb. 3 interview on the Pentagon Channel podcast "Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military."

He was also joined by Joy Hirsch, professor at Columbia University and director of the Program for Imaging and Cognitive Sciences.

Soldiers who are exposed to blasts associated with roadside bombs often are not aware of any resulting mild TBI and return to duty without proper medical diagnosis and treatment. The study, a cooperative research and development agreement between TARDEC and the Columbia University Medical School, is helping to determine what areas of the brain are susceptible to damage and measuring how the brain is engaged while performing certain functions.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging, a specialized MRI that captures high-resolution images of the brain and identifies regions engaged during specific mental tasks, allows the researchers to ask patients to do tasks and look at what parts of the brain are working during a specific function.

"Oftentimes in traumatic brain injury, patients have symptoms of injury, but the physical evidence is not obvious," Hirsch said. "When we apply a functional MRI, then we can begin to understand the neurophysiology that underlies the behavioral disabilities."

Participants are asked to do cognitive, language and memory tasks so researchers can understand how the brain works during target acquisition in the field. "We have a battery of tests that are aimed to probe people's ability to control emotions, memories and to solve problems," Hirsch said.

Meitzler added that understanding how the brain works is important in helping to optimize tasks, and doing this provides a window into how the brain works during decision making, identification and search in the field.

The researchers also are proposing that Soldiers be scanned before they are deployed and then upon their return to provide a basis for comparison.

"We hope to store that information on a digital dog tag so that [it] is always carried with them and can be referred to at a later time," Meitzler said.

It would be a great baseline of information, Hirsch said, and doing the comparison when soldiers return from deployment also would help to start treatment of brain injuries much earlier and before behavioral signs kick in.

The results of using this imaging will be used to guide and monitor therapy, and prevent compounding injury by multiple blast exposures.

"Functional MRI has become the backbone of neuroscience," Hirsch said. "We can use it for new ways to think about treatments."

The team also is looking into putting sensors inside armored vehicles so that they can record the magnitude and location of roadside-bomb blasts. With information about the size or type of blast the vehicle has experienced, the team can relate that to patients and be more proactive in treatments of future patients who experience similar injuries.

With this information, future vehicles could be developed so that blasts cause fewer injuries, the scientists said.

Marines poised for Marjeh offensive

By John Vandiver, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Friday, February 5, 2010

CHAPAWALA, Afghanistan — When 35-year-old Lance Cpl. Robert McGuinn enlisted four years ago, he knew what to expect.

To read the entire article:


Corpsman recognized for valor in Afghanistan

FUTENMA — “Everybody was kind
of on edge, you could tell,” said Petty
Officer 2nd Class William Harris recently
referring to a mission last July
in Afghanistan.


February 5, 2010
Lance Cpl. Aaron Hostutler
okinawa marine staff

Harris was deployed to Afghanistan
as an embedded advisor with
Embedded Training Team 5-4 working
with 3rd Kandak, 2nd Brigade, 201st
Corps, Afghanistan National Army,
Combined Security Transition Command-
Afghanistan, from November
2008 through August.

On July 30 Harris, Cpl. Mark
Madding and Captain John Farris,
about 60 Afghanistan National Army
soldiers along with U.S soldiers patrolled
to the village of Laui Kalal.

“We knew this was going to be a
big one,” said Harris, now a corpsman
with Marine Air Control Squadron
4, Marine Air Control Group 18, 1st
Marine Aircraft Wing, III Marine
Expeditionary Force. “We didn’t have
helo support. …We never went into
Laui Kalal without helo support.

The entrance to the village was a
treacherous one, Harris remembered.
It started with a 500 meter stretch of
road known as the Dallas Dash.

“We’re totally exposed,” he said.
“There’s nothing but a cliff on one
side and a mountain side on the other
with no trees. That’s where all hell
broke loose.”

On past patrols to the village,
contact never came on the way into
the village, according to Harris. It had
always been on egress but this day
was different.

“It was my captain who said it.
‘Don’t’ worry, we’re not going to get
shot. We never get shot going in,’”
Harris said.

Then the patrol heard, “Snap.
Snap. Snap. Pop. Pop. Pop. Everything
just started going crazy,” Harris

Taking heavy enemy fire, the patrol
called in for helicopter support,
but they were doing a mission to the
north in the Pech valley.

Patrol members used prebuilt barriers
which they had set up during
earlier patrols to bound to their objective
while still laying down suppressive
fire in the mountain side.

“Eventually the fighting died
down, and the helos tore up the
mountainside,” he said.

After the helicopters suppressed
the enemy, Harris and the patrol
continued into the village to conduct
key leader engagements, talks with
the village leader to assess village

Following the talk, the patrol
began climbing the steep hill out of
the village.

“It’s almost straight up,” Harris
said. “You’re climbing with one
hand and holding your rifle with the

It was then that the patrol again
took enemy fire. Harris was still at
the bottom of the hill but knew he
had to reach the top to lay down suppressive
fire. Madding popped a high
concentrated white smoke grenade to
conceal their movement.

“I start going up, the whole time
I’m going my back is towards where
the fire is coming from. You could
see the rock breaking and the powder
and dust coming up from the impacts
of the rounds all on the side of you.
You’re just thinking ‘Holy crap, I have
to get up there!’”

With 7.62 rounds impacting on
either side, Harris and his
men reach the hill top and
laid down fire for the rest
of the patrol still ascending
the hill. Once enough
men reached the top to lay
down their own suppressive
fire, Harris’ group began
bounding the dreaded Dallas

Once he reached the very
end of the dash, he heard talk on the
radio. “Muffle, muffle doc.”
“Does anybody need a doc? Does
anyone need a corpsman,” Harris
remembered screaming.

The message came over the radio
three times but after the noise of so
many rounds coming and going, he
could barely hear anything.

Farris told him he needed to go.
“I just start booking,” Harris said.
“I didn’t even bound. I just book it the
whole 500 meters down the Dallas
dash with rounds impacting right
behind me because the enemy can’t
lead. Thank God for that.”

When Harris reached the end
of the dash, he saw a downed U.S.
soldier with the Army company commander
and first sergeant kneeling
by his side.

“Sir, I got it. Do your thing,” Harris
yelled to the commander.

The fallen soldier had a sucking
chest wound and needed medical
attention right away, but first Harris
and a few others drug him behind
the cover of a prebuilt barrier because
rounds were still impacting around

“When you’re in country and stuff
starts happening you almost get like
a tunnel vision,” he said. “You have
to almost be oblivious to your own
environment. … You almost have to
focus and get that tunnel vision and
everything else just goes blank,” Harris
said of trying to be a corpsman in
a combat zone.

The soldier was shot in the back.
The round went through his lung
and out his chest. Harris slapped an
occlusive dressing on the front and
back and then wrapped his chest in
a bandage just loose enough for him
to breathe.

While dressing the wound, Harris
maintained control of the ANA by
directing fire.

“You, call in for a helo! You fire
over there! You, what the hell are you
doing?” Harris remembered yelling
at the ANA.

Eventually they got the soldier on
a gurney and moved him to Fire Base
Dallas just at the end of the Dallas
Dash. The helo called in to extract
the soldier was in route, but he still
wasn’t safe.

Harris realized that pressure was
building up in the soldier’s lungs and
had to stick him with a wide needle
to relieve the pressure.

After getting the soldier to the fire
base, Harris returned to the fight to
ensure his men got out alive as well.
For his actions that day, Harris
received a Bronze Star with combat
device in a ceremony at Marine
Corps Air Station Futenma Feb. 1.
During the same ceremony, Harris
also received a second Bronze Star
Medal with combat device for his
performance throughout the deployment.
Harris also received a Navy
and Marine Corps Commendation
Medal with combat device for “heroic
actions” July 1.

The deployment was a long-awaited
opportunity said Harris who grew
up in Monroe, Michigan, a town
made up mostly of car plants and

His father died when he was 13.
It was up to his mother, Julie Harris-
Huntley, to raise him and his two

“I knew it was college, a job or the
military for him,” his mother said.
“The military was just the best choice
for him at the time and I’m so glad
he did. I am so proud of him. The
military has done wonders for him.
I really hope he re-ups.”

He enlisted in the Navy on Oct. 21,
2004, but did not have the chance to
deploy until he came to Okinawa.
“I kept getting passed over,” Harris
said. “I didn’t think it was fair. I felt
cheated. Once I came here I
said anything that comes up
put me on the roster. I really
wanted to get in country.
“I just wanted to get out
there. I can’t explain it,” Harris
said. “The whole reason I
joined was because we were
in a time of war. We obviously
needed people to fight
in the war and who better
than me. I’m young, healthy and I’m
in the right mind so that if something
were to go wrong it wouldn’t carry
over into my personal life.”

Of the July 1, July 30 and the numerous
other missions taking enemy
contact in which Harris participated,
he said it was his ability to control
a situation that kept his men safe
when the right decision needed to
be made.

“It basically comes down to what
you have inside and your training,”
Harris. “Bravery, the ability to take
control of a situation is huge.”

For additional story and photo,
visit www.okinawa.usmc.mil.

February 4, 2010

Marines Advertise Looming Offensive on Marja

Marines Hope Warning of Coming Attack Convinces Some Taliban to Leave

Marines have been advertising their intent to go into Marja and take it away from the Taliban for months. The beat of those drums has grown faster and stronger in recent days prompting many to ask, why tip one's hand to the enemy?


Map of Area where Operation Moshtarak will take place:

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan Feb. 4, 2010

Brigadier Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, has a pretty simple answer. "Where else would we go? It's the only place left in the Marine area of operation that we're not in."

Speaking to a small group of reporters in a dusty corner of his headquarters at Camp Leatherneck situated in the middle of Helmand Province, Nicholson emphasized that there's really no reason not to let the insurgents know that Marines, U.S. Army soldiers, British, French and the largest contingent of Afghan forces ever are coming.

They have even released the name of the offensive, Operation Moshtarak, a Pashto and Dari word meaning joint operation.

Until now U.S. and Afghan military officials believed they didn't have the forces to effect the sort of change they were hoping for in the central Helmand town. Now with the addition of forces ordered up by President Obama, the confidence in their mission and ability to carry it out is palpable.

"We are coming," said Nicholson. "Deal with it. Could be easy or could be hard, but we are coming."

The muscular talk and crystal clear intention is already paying dividends says Nicholson.

"From that position of strength people have been coming out of Marja to talk to us," he said.

Marines say since they made their intention clear beginning last November they have held dozens of meetings with elders from Marja.

"Because of the inevitability of the operation, people have decided that they want to talk. There's a lot of influential people, people of import or businessmen. They don't want to be on the wrong side of this thing when it flips," Nicholson said.

The full throttle approach raises concerns about the possibility for civilian casualties. The area Marines will be operating in is home to as many as 125,000 people. It is densely populated and urban.

Major Gen. Nick Carter, commander of Regional Command South, says civilians will be fine if they just stay inside. "What we hope to see happen here is that population, metaphorically speaking, shuts their front doors, stays put until the forces of the government have control over the areas that have got to be controlled."

Nicholson underscored the point saying a heavy handed approach will reduce the chance for civilian casualties.

"Our feeling is if you go big, strong and fast, you lessen the possibility of civilian casualties as opposed to a slow methodical rolling assault. You go in and you dominate. You overwhelm the enemy," he said.

There's another good reason to advertise the coming offensive: the Marines would prefer it if the Taliban simply left.

Given the goals of counter-insurgency operations to bloody and weaken one's enemies while protecting civilian populations, Marines would rather establish control of Marja and raise the Afghan flag at it's town hall without ever firing a shot.

Since Marines now enjoy such overwhelming force in Helmand they can afford to secure a town and allow the nacsent local, district, provincial and national government structures to grow. Insurgents would be in the unenviable position of having to fight their way back into the city, a much harder task.

When the fight for this small but strategically important area of central Helmand Province kicks off is still subject to debate, but Marines here give every indication they'll take Marja sooner than later. It's a promise Marines have made before in places like Now Zad, Garmsir and Nawa. So far they've kept all their promises.

Frederick Marine remembered for bravery

Family plans to bury Frederick High graduate at Arlington National Cemetery

Kristen Forse will always remember her brother's bravery — on and off the battlefield.


Thursday, February 4, 2010
by Courtney Pomeroy | Staff Writer

Marine Sgt. David J. Smith's fierce devotion to his convictions and undying bravery were apparent to all who knew him, she said, recounting a favorite story.

One night, when Smith was staying at his mother's house, a burglar tried to break in. Smith ran outside in his boxers and bare feet, chasing the suspect and demanding his mother's purse.

It was Smith's acts of kindness and courage, and his lovable and goofy nature that make Forse certain her brother is in the special "Marine heaven" he imagined in life.

Smith, a 2002 Frederick High School graduate, died Jan. 26 from injuries he sustained in combat in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan on Jan. 23, the Marines confirmed Monday. He was 25 years old.

"He believed that once you were a Marine, when you died, you didn't die and go to heaven. When you died, you just went to the next battlefield," she said. "He had no fear of death, he loved the action."

Smith served with the 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion Company B, headquartered in Frederick, according to a press release.

"He was destined to be a Marine," said John Bodnar, a teacher at Frederick High School who coached Smith in soccer. Bodnar listed Smith's love for physical challenges, his determination and his positive attitude as reasons. "He obviously was a special kid because eight years later there's a lot of things I remember about him."

Bodnar recalled a specific instance when he started Smith in a soccer game, despite the fact that he was a reserve player. The starting players were getting a little too cocky during a winning streak and "needed an attitude adjustment" and Smith "deserved to start" more than them, he said.

"He was the kind of athlete and kid who didn't talk a good game, he just went out and worked hard every day ... coaches are always grateful and thankful when they have athletes that have those intangible character traits. I was blessed to teach him and coach him," he said.

Brett Templeton, the assistant soccer coach at the time, agreed, calling Smith "an incredibly positive influence" on his peers. Smith was a popular student with teachers and with students, and was good at making people feel "as though you were appreciated and as though you were special," Templeton said.

He said Smith had a lot of school spirit, maintained good grades, played soccer, lacrosse, football and wrestled at various points in his high school career, and "was a cheerleader at all times" for his teammates and school. "Black and gold through and through," Templeton added.

He said it is a Frederick High School tradition for all the boys in the senior class to run onto the field in costume during the annual pep rally, but during his junior year, Smith single-handedly organized the junior boys to do the same, exemplifying his fun-loving attitude.

Forse said her brother's personality is one thing she will miss most. He displayed his silly nature in all sorts of ways, like when he was goofing around with her son, Logan, or wearing a cowboy hat while rapping in a YouTube video with one of his college friends, she said.

Another thing she will miss is how devoted he was to their close-knit family. Smith loved coming home to visit, and would cook for the whole family and then sit on the couch after meals and just talk and joke, she said. When he was deployed or at college in North Carolina, Smith kept family close to his heart. One way he did that was through storing a video of his nephew, Logan, in his cell phone.

"He would show it to everybody, he was so proud of him," Forse said.

Ann Rudd, a Thurmont resident and a cousin of Smith's through marriage, said many of his friends from East Carolina University will be traveling to Frederick to attend the funeral. She said she isn't at all surprised that her cousin made so many friends everywhere he went.

"He was full of life. He enjoyed his life. He was rather light-hearted and there wasn't a lot of negativity that came out of him. You hear it all the time, ‘The good die young,' and in this case it's very true," she said.

Smith joined the Marines in December 2003, and was promoted to the rank of sergeant in April 2009. His awards include the Combat Action Ribbon, the Selected Marine Corps Reserve Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, the Iraq Campaign Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Sea Service Deployment Ribbon and the Armed Forces Reserve Medal, according to a Marines press release.

E-mail Courtney Pomeroy at [email protected]

A viewing for Marine Sgt. David J. Smith of Frederick is planned for noon to 9 p.m. Monday at Frederick Christian Fellowship Church, at the Lynfield Event Complex, 10142 Hansonville Road, Building No. 5, Frederick. A funeral service will be held at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the same location. Burial will be at 3 p.m. Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Home Is Where the Pack Is: Marines Set Up Camp in Southern Afghan Desert

CAMP BELLEAU WOOD, Afghanistan – A desolate patch of Afghan desert has been transformed into the Marine Corps' newest installation in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Marines and sailors from 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, have been working night and day to establish Camp Belleau Wood, named after the famous World War I battle in which 3/6 valiantly fought many years ago.



Regimental Combat Team-7, 1st Marine Division Public Affairs
Story by Lance Cpl. Tommy Bellegarde
Date: 02.04.2010
Posted: 02.04.2010 12:55

In a matter of days, the Marines have made Camp Belleau Wood into a functional military camp that is continually growing and improving at an exponential rate.

The Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based battalion moved from Camp Dwyer earlier in the week to their current location at Camp Belleau Wood. From that point, the battalion has been conducting military operations while continuing to build the camp from the ground up. Marines around the battalion have been impressed with the hard work of everyone involved to get the camp up and running.

"There were Marines out here that were tasked to do things besides their (military occupational specialties) in order to get this place finished," said Cpl. Michael J. Ayotte, a combat photographer with 3/6. "Marines worked with no questions asked because they knew what needed to get done."

Lance Cpl. Nhan B. Ngo, a basic equipment repair specialist with the battalion, has been tasked with maintaining power for the entire camp, and has been working almost non-stop since arriving here.

"As soon as I got (to Camp Belleau Wood), I started laying down the generators. From there, I spread out the power lines," said Ngo, from Festus, Mo. "I'm the only one over here in my entire MOS field. That's why I've been so busy," he added.

The base, which was built in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, is still in its infancy and is currently a community of tents. It lacks permanent structures, running water and a dining facility. Nevertheless, the Marines of 3/6 are determined to adapt to their current situation and overcome any discomfort they may face.

"We might be sleeping in dirt, but at least we're sleeping in a tent," said Ayotte, from Albion, N.Y. "Even if we had to sleep outside, we could still do it."

February 3, 2010

Marines, Afghan army plan massive assault on Taliban

The attack will be aimed at Marja, the last community held by the militia in Helmand province.

Reporting from Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan - The U.S. Marines and Afghan army plan a massive assault on Taliban fighters in Marja, the last community under Taliban control in a sprawling, lawless region once dominated by the insurgency, a top Marine said Wednesday.


By Tony Perry
February 3, 2010

"We are going to gain control," Col. George "Slam" Amland told reporters. "We are going to alter the ecosystem considerably."

Amland, deputy commander of Marine forces in southern Afghanistan, would not discuss the timing of the assault or how many thousands of troops would be involved.

Amland said the assault would involve Marine units that are part of a troop buildup authorized by President Obama in December. The assault will also show how the Afghan army is growing in numbers and competency, he predicted.

"This is a big leap for the government of Afghanistan," he said.

Marine and NATO leaders want Helmand province to be a showpiece of the "clear, hold, build and transition" counterinsurgency strategy, in which Taliban fighters are forced out of a region and then a "civilian surge" begins to rebuild war-ravaged communities and bolster confidence of Afghan villagers in their provincial and national governments.

Where once the Taliban controlled nearly all communities of the Helmand River valley, Amland said, by summer there will be no place for Taliban to hide except in mountainous regions with sparse populations.

While the military part of the operation is the most dramatic, the actions of U.S. civilian employees, including from the U.S. Agency for International Development and Agriculture Department, will be even more significant, he said. The Afghan government is ready to install local officials to begin reopening schools and clinics and polling residents about what they want their government to do.

The goal, Amland said, is to spread to Marja the "kinds of success" seen in other communities once the Taliban were ousted. In the Nawa district of the province, for example, the marketplace reopened, irrigation canal clearing projects started, and a local community council was established once the Taliban fled.

Starting in June, battalions of Marines swept into Helmand, pushing Taliban fighters away from other communities. Hundreds, maybe thousands, fled to Marja, which the Marines opted not to enter. Last year the Afghan army's presence was limited and its effectiveness doubtful.

Marja, with a population estimated at 85,000, has been a "sore" hampering U.S. and Afghan efforts in the province, Amland said. From Marja, Taliban have built roadside bombs, plotted assassinations and controlled the illicit poppy crop, which provides 60% of the world's heroin and funnels profits into the Taliban insurgency.

By ousting Taliban from control of Marja, U.S. , NATO and Afghan officials hope to persuade rank-and-file, non-jihadist fighters -- what Amland called "lunch-bucket $5 a-day Taliban" -- to quit fighting and decide to see if the Afghan government can provide a better life for its citizens.

In the interim, the U.S. plans a "cash for work" plan to give jobs to the unemployed of Helmand province, including young men who may have joined the Taliban as an economic necessity.

While the assault well be sizable in scale, Amland said, it is the kind of mission for which Marines continuously train.

"It's nothing we haven't done before; it's nothing we won't do again in the future," he said.

[email protected]

Afghanistan: Marines Gear Up for Biggest Fight Yet

The Biggest Test Yet for President Obama's Surge of Troops Into Afghanistan
The city of Marja will be the biggest test yet for President Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan. Thousands of U.S. Marines, soldiers, Afghan security forces and international forces are planning to oust hard-core insurgents from their last big refuge in Helmand Province.


CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan, Feb. 3, 2010

There are about 15,000 Marines in Helmand, about 4,000 of them arriving since Obama called for an increase in troops in December, Marine Col. George Amland, deputy commander in Afghanistan, said.

The Marines in Marja are "the leading edge of the president's surge force," he said.

Marines in Marja could face the biggest number of hard-core insurgents yet. An estimated 400 to 1,000 Marines may stay and fight.

Marja and the surrounding area, with an estimated population of 125,000, are more heavily populated, urban and dense than other places Marines have so far been able to clear and hold. Vast quantities of opium are produced in the center of the Helmand River Valley. Profits from drug sales often fund insurgent operations.

A large contingent of Marines moved into Now Zad in northern Helmand Province in December. They were able to quickly rout enemies and take full control of the village. Now Zad had been a ghost town before Marines moved in. The once-thriving market community is now beginning to return to life, with shops and schools opening for the first time in years.

Life is returning to normal in Garmsir and Nawa after Marines cleared the towns last summer. Another encouraging sign for Marines is that intelligence from locals has grown significantly since they took the towns. More residents are telling Marines whom to look out for, where bombs are being planted and, in some cases, even pointing out exact locations.

A major difference between the latest strategy in Marja and earlier operations is that there will be many more Afghan soldiers and police; about two Marines for every Afghan in the field, commander Amland said.

"It will be a joint Afghan army, police, U.S. Marines and ISAF forces [International Security Assistance Force] operation led by Afghans," Afghan defence ministry spokesman Mohammad Zahir Azimi told reporters in Kabul today.

The ratio was about 10-1 in July's offensive in Kanjar.

February 2, 2010

Cobra Gold war games begin

Rayong - Cobra Gold, the 2010 version of the annual joint exercise among US and regional armed forces, began in Rayong province on Monday.


Published: 2/02/2010 at 03:29 AM
Online news: Local News

The US army describes Cobra Gold as the largest of its type in the world. About 11,500 personnel, including 6,000 from the US, will take part this year.

The annual war games were opened at a joint ceremony presided over by Adm Wallop Kerdphol, deputy supreme commander, and US Ambassador Eric G John at U-Tapao naval airbase.

Singapore, Japan and Indonesia also sent troops, and for the first time South Korean soldiers are participating in the games, scheduled to end on Feb 11.

Armed forces from more than 20 countries are participating as observers.

Cobra Gold is a regularly scheduled joint and coalition multi-national exercise hosted annually by Thailand. Cobra Gold 2010 marks the 29th anniversary of this regionally significant training event.

Mr John earlier told a press conference that Cobra Gold is America's "largest military cooperative effort in the Pacific" and signals "the US commitment to the security of our friends and allies in the Asia-Pacific region."

"The training is based on a "computer-simulated command post exercise (CPX), field training exercises linked to the CPX, and humanitarian and civic assistance projects," he said.

The joint activity is designed to improve the American Pacific Command's ability to carry out joint and multi-national military operations and to improve the ability of the participating countries' armed forces to work together.

The computer-era exercise combines Thai, US, Singaporean, Japanese, Indonesian, and South Korean participants in a coalition grouping.

Thai, US, Singaporean, Japanese, Indonesian, South Korean, and United Nations military force personnel will participate in the field training, modelled after the UN's multinational peace support operations scenario. (TNA, agencies)


The Marines of Bravo Company left their patrol bases early Saturday morning. To their west were the Taliban pickets who defend the outer limits of Marja, an insurgent enclave in Helmand Province. The Marines turned in the opposite direction, heading to Forward Operating Base Spin Ghar, their company command post.


February 2, 2010, 3:09 pm

Less than an hour later, after walking in a staggered column through freshly tilled fields and an ankle-deep bog, they slipped inside the concertina wire at Spin Ghar. There they set aside helmets and body armor. Platoons quietly assembled in formation. They had come to bid goodbye to Lance Cpl. Timothy J. Poole Jr., whose portrait rested on the wooden easel beside the base’s small landing zone. A helicopter arrived, carrying Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the commander of the Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Afghanistan. A ceremony began.

Marines carrying a rifle, a helmet, a pair of boots and dog tags marched slowly forward and placed them on a memorial stand.

Lance Corporal Poole was killed on Jan. 24 on a security patrol toward the Taliban’s lines. At a halt on the patrol he took a knee, his fellow Marines said. The ground beneath him exploded. He was killed instantly, the victim of a hidden makeshift bomb. He was 22 years old and on his second combat tour. He had wanted, his friends said, to be a songwriter.

He was the second Marine from Bravo Company to be killed in action in January. Lance Cpl. Jacob Meinert, a Marine also on his second tour, had died two weeks before.

Capt. Thomas J. Grace, the company’s commander, addressed the formation. “It is my honor to command young men like Tim, who commit to something greater than themselves, working long hours in the worst of conditions for a pittance of pay compared to what we are asked to do,” he said. “Once again, we must muster the courage to carry on our mission.”

Lance Corporal Poole was from Jacksonville, Fla. Pfc. Justin R. Legette, 24, a Marine who grew up in the same city just a few traffic lights away, stepped to the microphone. He offered words few infantrymen use lightly; a platoon’s ultimate compliment.

“Poole may not have had the highest of high-and-tights, or been the poster-boy Marine,” he said. “But to me, he is one person I would want to cover my back or trust with my life in-country.”

Lt. Carl P. Rhoads, the battalion’s chaplain, addressed Bravo Company. First he spoke of their loss, and of Lance Corporal Poole’s sacrifice, and of trying to find meaning in grief. Then he gently issued a warning. Counterinsurgency is war by many means. Violence is only a part of it. The chaplain asked Bravo Company to guard against rage.

“Marines and sailors, friends of Lance Corporal Timothy Poole, we honor our fallen brother not by exacting revenge or trying to even the score, but by completing the mission that we are assigned to do. I caution you not to harbor anger in your heart, because it will eat you like a cancer, perhaps clouding your judgment, perhaps causing your behavior to become uncontrollable.”

He added: “We have a clear mission ahead of us to accomplish, my friends. We have goals and tasks that must be completed. We also have boundaries. And we have rules. Let us not stoop to the level of our enemy, and be baited into a trap by losing our focus and our discipline.”

A loudspeaker played “Amazing Grace.”

A Marine standing near the chaplain stood locked at parade rest as his tears dropped steadily onto the gravel at his feet. He was Lance Cpl. Kevin T. Perez, 20. He had been Lance Corporal Poole’s fire team leader. He kept his eyes fixed ahead.

Bravo Company’s senior enlisted Marine, First Sgt. Sean R. Greenleaf, stepped in front of the formation. He began a roll call.

“Lance Corporal Lopez!” he shouted.

A shout shot back from the formation. “Present!”

“Lance Corporal Goode!”

The Marine who had been called answered. “Present!”

“Lance Corporal Masle!”


“Lance Corporal Broadwater!”


“Lance Corporal Poole!”

There was no answer. Bravo Company stood in silence.

The first sergeant called again. “Lance Corporal Timothy Poole!”

He waited for an answer that did not come. He made a third try. “Lance Corporal Timothy Poole Jr.?” he said.

No one in the company moved.

The first sergeant issued an order. “Honor the dead,” he said.

Seven Marines aimed their rifles skyward and fired three slow volleys. They lowered their weapons. “Present arms!” a voice shouted. Bravo Company saluted. The first notes of taps rose through the late-morning air.

Fighting a Thinking Enemy; Marines, Afghan Forces Engage Taliban With More Than Brute Force

HELMAND PROVINCE, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan – Beleaguered and tired, with combat boots half filled with water, Marines with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment and the Afghan national army soldiers attached to their unit, trudge through flooded canals in the Shorshurak region of Helmand province, Jan. 29.



Regimental Combat Team-7, 1st Marine Division Public Affairs
Story by Lance Cpl. James W. Clark
Date: 01.29.2010
Posted: 02.02.2010 05:50

Sucking and sloshing sounds follow in their wake as the members of the patrol wrench one foot out of the mud, only to embed the other in wet clay moments later. Making their way out of the damp, uneven gully, the Marines and soldiers stalk across fields, where farmers have begun to emerge from their homes in the early morning to tend to their crops.

In the distance, men on foot and others on motorbikes trail the patrol, but are watched cautiously by designated marksmen, peppered throughout the column. At every compound where they stop, the unit leaders meet with the heads of the household, trying to get a sense of the community's concerns.

Having recently moved into the region, replacing Alpha Company, 1/6, the Marines with Charlie Company, conducted census patrols in order to get acquainted with their surroundings, as well as their neighbors. The Marines' intent to build rapport with local communities is made all the more hazardous and challenging due to near constant harassment and outright attack by insurgents operating in the area.

"It's a difficult area – it directly borders the Taliban [stronghold] adjacent to us," said 1st Lt. Aaron B. MacLean, 2nd platoon commander, Charlie Company, 1/6. "It's stressful, but it's what we do – pleased to do, to be here at the front of the fight. Our goal, which is to kill the enemy while reducing civilian causalities, is difficult because the [Taliban] know that's our priority. It's difficult to go out and be manipulated like we are, but we follow the rules."

"A lot of foreign fighters have been moved into our area of operations," said MacLean "As we flooded in, so did they. The Taliban sent in a crack group of insurgents to counter ours. Their preferred method of killing is through the use of improvised explosive devices. Marines are in heavy combat out here and facing the jihadist A-team, but we're defeating them regularly and protecting the locals."

The fighting in the area has intensified in recent weeks, with Charlie Company.

"Our platoon was hit hard and we lost key leaders," said MacLean. "Our hearts go out to their families and we think about them all the time."

In addition to facing imminent danger, the Marines are finding themselves frequently put in positions where they cannot engage insurgents, due to their enemy's manipulation of the rules of engagement.

"We're facing a thinking enemy, they adapt to our tactics in order to counter them," said MacLean. "They are very cynically taking advantage of our rules of engagement. We've seen them multiple times, fleeing the area with women and children as human shields. Their spotters frequently have kids on the backs of their mopeds to deter us from firing."

"Improvised explosive devices are the biggest threat right now, coupled with them accurately firing and maneuvering on us," said Lance Cpl. Joseph S. Jones the fifth, a team leader with Charlie Company, 1/6. "Compared to last year the Taliban is more organized this time," said Jones, who was with 1/6 on their last deployment to Afghanistan where they served in the Garmsir District under the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. "They're ready for us this time – they know it's tough for us to use air, and even once helos showed up, they kept firing. They weren't scared at all. It really does suck, when we could take them out with indirect fire or air support, but we can't because they're near a compound or have civilians with them – now we have to maneuver under heavy enemy fire."

"We're forced to rely on the organic weapons in the platoon and not on outside assets," said Jones. "It definitely messes with our heads. It generates doubt instead of letting us focus on engaging the enemy, so you have to work at keeping your Marines' heads in the game and keep them focused on their job."

However, for all the difficulties the Marines face due to insurgents in the region, they have been able to positively interact with the civilians in the area who want the Taliban pushed out.

"Some parts of the area of operations you can sit down and hold a shura or speak with key leaders," said MacLean. "They want the Taliban gone, but are scared and need them pushed away."

The Afghan army soldiers are able to represent the government and its role in fighting insurgency in the region.

"I spoke with the villagers in order to build relationships and rapport with them, mostly speaking with the children," said Maj. Shakatklah, an Afghan national army soldier with Charlie Company, 1/6, through an interpreter. "It's not our first time doing this, we've been at it for years. I can talk with the people and speak with them. This is a good area, the enemy can't succeed here. It's our job to fight for our country and to fight this enemy."

While meeting with the villagers and taking notes on their concerns and grievances, the patrol served the dual purpose of allowing both parties to get to know one another personally.

"We wanted to let them know we're here and why, which is to get them the freedom they need, not take their land like the Taliban says," said Cpl. Jarrod St. Onge, a squad leader with Charlie Company, 1/6. "We were definitely welcomed. The Afghan national army soldiers being there helped to put an Afghan face on our efforts here. Our partnering with them helps to strengthen their faith in the Afghan government."

Service Members Save Afghan Lives With Blood Drive

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan – When five injured Afghans needed medical attention, Marines and sailors from 1st Medical Battalion, Regimental Combat 7, came to their rescue.



Regimental Combat Team-7, 1st Marine Division Public Affairs
Story by Lance Cpl. Walter Marino
Date: 02.02.2010
Posted: 02.02.2010 05:54

While surgeons operated on one critically wounded Afghan, an increasing amount of blood platelets was needed. As more and more blood was used, resources began to dwindle.

Luckily, 1st Medical Battalion had a plan.

"Yesterday we had several patients. But one individual needed 12 pints of blood. I talked with a surgeon, and clinical decision was made to initiate the walking blood drive," said Cmdr. Steven M. Blackwell, an anesthesiologist for 1st Medical Bn.

Phone calls were made to different units throughout Camp Dwyer asking for any available Marines and sailors willing to donate blood. The response was immediate, as Marines and sailors lined up.

"After a few calls to a few different units on base, there was a line of Marines going out the door to donate blood," said Petty Officer 1st Class Sandra L. Bridges, the center of command leading petty officer for 1st Medical Bn.

The fact that the injured were Afghans and not fellow service members did not play a factor for the Marines and sailors.

"It goes to show how willing we are to come together for the good of the people and make sure this world is a better place," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Darell L. Jenkins, an X-ray technician for the battalion.

Approximately 10 pints of blood was collected, but 1st Medical Bn. believes there is always room for improvement.

"We're trying to push pre-screening, so that we can get the paper work done before the blood drive begins," said Petty Officer 2nd Class, Ernesto Santanaa, a lab technician for the battalion. "Doing that would speed up the process."

"Pre-screening would chop off about thirty minutes," Blackwell said.

Although speed is an important factor, the safety of their patients is placed as a top priority during the process. Service members are screened for the correct blood type, and diseases such as AIDS, hepatitis B, and syphilis.

"One time we had a guy say, he was B-positive, but was actually B-negative. That's why we pre-screen," said Santanaa.

Through the battalion's hard work, innocent lives were saved, and will continue to be saved. However, to do so, the medical staff needs its resources, and thus relies on the willingness of the service members to donate blood.

"We need service members who belong to Camp Dwyer and predominately stay on base," said Blackwell, from Mobile, Ala. "We collect blood every Friday and Saturday."

As the battalion works to increase their walking blood drive, the importance of their work was realized.

"They don't have any medical infrastructure here. We're the only medical place around for them," said Blackwell. "Not too long ago, a child with tetanus was brought here. We don't see tetanus back in the United States because we all get vaccinated. We took care of that child. Hopefully his family was aware that we did that for him. I think we're not only here to save lives, but I think we're also here to make a positive impression on the people, and win the hearts and minds."

Marine deaths underline US struggle in Afghanistan

CAMP FIDDLER'S GREEN, Afghanistan — The incident, deadly and tragic as it was, rated only one short sentence on the official NATO website.


By Jason Gutierrez (AFP)
February 2. 2010

The violent deaths of Marine Sergeant Daniel Angus, 28, and Lance Corporal Zachary Smith, 19, on January 24 underscore how quickly things can go from bad to worse in the frontline battle against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.

Angus was a Marine squad leader on a patrol in the outskirts of Marjah, a Taliban stronghold in Helmand province in what was to have been a routine show of force ahead of a major push weeks away.

The Marines had previously gone into the area, where they faced potshots from Taliban snipers, but were never under serious threat.

The day, however, would turn into one of the bloodiest suffered by the Marines 1st Battalion, 6th regiment since they deployed in December in the first wave of President Barack Obama's promised surge.

The death toll of foreign soldiers fighting in Afghanistan under US and NATO command hit 44 in January -- the highest for that month since the war began more than eight years ago -- compared with 25 in January 2009.

The number of Americans who died last month in the conflict was almost double the number for January last year, at 29 compared with 15, according to the icasualties.org website, which keeps a running tally.

Three more foreign troops died on Monday, NATO reported.

The United States and NATO deploy 113,000 troops in Afghanistan, with another 40,000 due over the course of the year as part of a renewed strategy that emphasises development and the "reconciliation" of Taliban fighters.

Most of the incoming troops will be deployed in Helmand, which along with neighbouring Kandahar province has been the hub of the insurgency since the Taliban regime was removed from power in late 2001.

On January 24, First Lieutenant Aaron MacLean led his unit on a foot patrol near insurgent bastion Marjah, expected to be the scene of a major offensive this month.

MacLean's unit is among the first Marines outfits sent into Helmand since the surge was announced.

"Suddenly we were taking shots from three sides, they tried to get to our rear but were not successful," he said, describing the fateful day.

About 30-40 Taliban militants, possibly backed by foreign fighters, ambushed them just as they neared a cluster of homes, he said.

"The day that Daniel and Zachary died, the platoon was in an area which is known to harbour a large number of the enemy," MacLean said during an emotional memorial service rarely seen by the public at a forward operating base.

Angus and Smith were tasked to move to another area and provide cover for Marines flat-bellied on the dust.

An expert rifleman, Smith was fending off enemy fire when he stepped on a remote-controlled bomb, known as an IED, or improvised explosive device, which threw him metres (yards) into the air.

"Without regard for his own safety and shouting for other Marines to watch out for a secondary bomb, Angus rushed to Smith's side and ordered his men away knowing full well the risk," he said.

"He died instantly from the blast," he said.

The three-hour firefight, MacLean said, proved the Taliban were adapting to the Marine strategy and were well entrenched in Marjah, a poppy growing region where victory could give Washington its first vindication for the fresh surge.

"That is the nature of the beast," MacLean said. "Marine infantrymen are aggressive by trade and things can go from bad to worse out here."

Angus, 28, left behind a wife and daughter, and Smith his high school sweetheart whom he had just married before deploying.

Both were honoured in an emotional ceremony on January 30 and were posthumously awarded the purple heart for combat heroism.

Their rifles, helmets, boots and dog tags were displayed, as one by one weeping colleagues paid their respects under the searing noonday sun and a 21-gun salute followed as a mournful Christian hymn played over speakers.

Acknowledging the men's ultimate sacrifice, Lieutenant Colonel Calvert Worth told his men to stick to their mission and celebrate the lives of the two young troops, describing Smith as just an "average American kid".

February 1, 2010

29th annual Cobra Gold opening ceremony kicks off exercise, promotes unity

UTAPAO, Thailand – The 29th annual Cobra Gold exercise presented the perfect picture of unity among nations as the exercise kicked off with an opening ceremony, Feb.1.


By U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jovane M. Holland
February 1, 2010

Hosted by the Kingdom of Thailand, Cobra Gold is an annual Thailand and U.S. co-sponsored joint and multi-national theater campaign plan exercise designed to train a coalition task force comprised of the armed forces of Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Singapore and the US.

As the ceremony began, the participating nations marched in one after the other, displaying a brilliant spectrum of different uniforms and flags.

Lt. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, commanding general, U.S. Army, Pacific and co-exercise commander, said the annual exercise was an exceptional opportunity for the participating nations to develop lasting friendships and enhance cooperation.

“It’s imperative our separate militaries learn to work with each other; together and rehearse for the day their services are needed to answer that call for help,” said Mixon.

During Cobra Gold 2010, participating nations will participate in a Global Peacekeeping Operations Initiative Exercise, a Command Post Exercise, HCA projects and field training exercises.

Eric John, U.S. ambassador to Thailand, said it is imperative the various militaries work together to support peace and stability.

“This is the capstone of military operations, from disaster relief to real combat capabilities,” said John while speaking of Cobra Gold. “It is very much a mark of each participating military’s commitment to the welfare of their nation.”

Mixon said he was proud of the past achievements of Cobra Gold 2009, and was sure Cobra Gold 2010 would also be a major success.

“I firmly believe Cobra Gold remains unparalleled in preparing our militaries for the real-world priorities of humanitarian assistance as well as supporting peace, stability and reconstruction throughout this region,” Mixon said. “Thanks to all of your efforts, Cobra Gold remains a mark of our combined commitment to regional stability in Southeast Asia

As Marines Move In, Taliban Fight a Shadowy War

KARARDAR, Afghanistan — The Marine infantry company, accompanied by a squad of Afghan soldiers, set out long before dawn. It walked silently through the dark fields with plans of arriving at a group of mud-walled compounds in Helmand Province at sunrise.


Published: February 1, 2010

The company had received intelligence reports that 40 to 50 Taliban fighters had moved into this village a few days before, and the battalion had set a cordon around it. The Marines hoped to surprise any insurgents within.

But as the company moved, shepherds whistled in the darkness, passing warning of the Americans’ approach. Dogs barked themselves hoarse. The din rose in every direction, enveloping the column in noise. And then, as the Marines became visible in the bluish twilight, a minivan rumbled out of one compound. Its driver steered ahead of the company, honking the van’s horn, spreading the alarm. Spotters appeared on roofs.

Marine operations like this one in mid-January, along with interviews with dozens of Marines, reveal the insurgents’ evolving means of waging an Afghan brand of war, even as more American troops arrive.

Mixing modern weapons with ancient signaling techniques, the Taliban have developed the habits and tactics to evade capture and to disrupt American and Afghan operations, all while containing risks to their ranks.

Seven months after the Marines began flowing forces into Helmand Province, clearing territory and trying to establish local Afghan government, such tactics have helped the Taliban transform themselves from the primary provincial power to a canny but mostly unseen force.

Until last year Helmand Province had been a zone outside of government influence, where beyond the presence of a few Western outposts the Taliban enjoyed free movement and supremacy. The province served as both a fighters’ haven and the center of Afghanistan’s poppy production, providing rich revenue streams for the war against the central government and the Western forces that protect it.

In areas where they have built bases, the Marines have undermined the Taliban’s position. But the insurgents have consolidated and adapted, and remain a persistent and cunning presence.

On the morning of the sweep, made by Weapons Company, Third Battalion, First Marines, a large communications antenna that rose from one compound vanished before the Marines could reach it. The man inside insisted that he had seen nothing. And when the Marines moved within the compounds’ walls, people in nearby houses released white pigeons, revealing the Americans’ locations to anyone watching from afar.

The Taliban and their supporters use other signals besides car horns and pigeons, including kites flown near American movements and dense puffs of smoke released from chimneys near where a unit patrols.

“You’ll go to one place, and for some reason there will be a big plume of smoke ahead of you,” said Capt. Paul D. Stubbs, the Weapons Company commander. “As you go to the next place, there will be another.”

“Our impression,” he added, “is the people are doing it because they are getting paid to do it.”

Late in the morning during the company’s sweep, the insurgents fired a few bursts of automatic rifle fire from outside the cordon. Later still, they lobbed a single mortar round toward the company. It exploded in a field without causing any harm.

No one could tell exactly where the fire came from. This showed another side of the Taliban’s local activities. Wary of engaging the Marines while they were ready and massed, fighters risked nothing more than this harassing fire.

The sweep was not entirely fruitless. In several houses, Afghan soldiers found sacks of poppy seeds, which they carried outside, slashed open with knives and set on fire. In a few houses, they found processed opium and heroin. But the Taliban’s fighters had proved elusive again.

Another example of the insurgents’ patience has been their selection of locations for hiding bombs, which the military calls I.E.D.’s, for improvised explosive devices. Many of these bombs are detonated by the weight of a person or vehicle that depresses a pressure plate.

The steppe is vast. The pressure plates are small — often covering not much more surface area than a man’s boot. To emplace the bombs where they are most likely to kill, the Taliban watch the Marines’ habits carefully, including how small units react in the first instants of a firefight.

While the Marines scatter, take cover and maneuver, using walls and small rises as firing positions to bound from, the insurgents take note. “This is what they do: Shoot, and observe where the Marines go,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Baker, the battalion’s commander. “And where the Marines go, that is where they will put an I.E.D.”

On two patrols the battalion made last month, the Taliban’s sense of their enemy’s previous movements seemed well developed.

On one, a Marine stepped on a pressure plate rigged to a bomb that did not explode. The pressure plate was located against a wall on a knoll with a commanding view of surrounding ground. The Marines said units had used the knoll as a firing position many times.

On another, an antitank land mine had been placed in the dirt on a turnaround loop beside one of the province’s main roads — exactly where an Afghan police unit often parks its cars.

Part of the Taliban’s enduring tactical position, the Marines say, is related to their control of Marja, a well-defended de facto capital just outside the Marines’ current area of operations. At least hundreds of Taliban fighters have taken refuge. The town is protected by elaborate defenses and by a network of irrigation canals built by a United States development program a half-century ago.

From within Marja, the Marines also say, the Taliban manufacture improvised explosives and send fighters and suicide bombers on attacks throughout the province, including the suicide raid last week into Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital.

When Marine units approach Marja, the dangers rise. The insurgents run an active picket network, some of the workings of which were visible late last week on a Bravo Company security patrol that left Observation Post ManBearPig at Treekha Nawa.

After picking their way westward, searching for hidden bombs as they moved, the lead Marines crept toward the top of a low, rocky bluff. They peered over the opposite side at a group of mud-walled compounds several hundred yards ahead.

This was the outer perimeter of Marja, which was about eight miles away.

The Taliban’s spotters went to work. A man on a motorcycle sped down the road and entered one of the compounds. Heads appeared over the walls, above small holes from which Taliban fighters might fire assault rifles and machine guns. (The Marines call these “murder holes.”)

The civilians who had been outside disappeared. Both sides quietly eyed each other from just outside of rifle range.

The Bravo Company commander, Capt. Thomas J. Grace, had ordered patrols not to become decisively engaged with the Taliban’s fighters in this no man’s land. The company is the forward line of Marine presence, and has limited manpower to consolidate on new ground after a fight.

“There is absolutely no reason to go out there and kick in doors and get in a big fight,” he said. “Because you can’t hold it.”

Several thousand more Marines are expected in the province later this year, Marine officers say, which will allow the Afghans and Americans to clear and hold a larger area than they control now, and ultimately to displace the Taliban from Marja.

In the interim, at the Marines’ most forward positions, the two sides probe each other with patrols. On this day, the patrol leader, First Lt. Ryan P. Richter, could see the trap.

His platoon had been in many firefights here. If the patrol continued over the bluff and into the open, it would be enveloped by fire from three sides. In the contest of Helmand Province, he said, this remained for the moment Taliban turf

Counterinsurgency, One Stuck Truck at a Time

Counterinsurgency, in some circles and by some descriptions, can sound like a glamorous military art. More than often it is not.


February 1, 2010, 1:18 pm

Early last Thursday morning, a group of Marines from Bravo Company, First Battalion, Third Marines, was driving the company commander from the battalion headquarters back to Spin Ghar, where the company’s command post is located. They moved in a column of M.R.A.P.’s, the large armored personnel carriers that resemble bank vaults on wheels. M.R.A.P.’s are manufactured in several variants. All of them have weights measured in tens of thousands of pounds.

The Taliban’s fighters have been burying bombs and land mines along trails and roads the Marines use. To try to minimize risks, the patrol leader, Sgt. Steven J. Habon, opted to take a less-traveled route home, through a boggy portion of the Helmand Province steppe.

In theory, this made perfect sense. In practice, though, it raised questions: Should the vehicles stay on the narrow Afghan road, and risk detonating a mine or homemade explosive device, or should they ride off the road, where they risked getting stuck? If a vehicle were to sink too deep into the muck, the Marines might lose the day trying to retrieve it.

At one of the first patches of standing water, a place where traffic was channeled and the risk of a hidden mine seemed higher, the answer revealed itself. The lead driver opted to turn off the compacted trail. He pulled into the dirt beside a puddle that was knee-deep and several acres wide.

The soil alongside the road looked firm and dry. This was an illusion. The dry dirt, it turned out, was a crust atop muck. Within a few yards of leaving the trail, the M.R.A.P. sank to its rear axles. Soon its wheels were spinning in mud that looked like chocolate pudding.

Over the next half-hour or so, as Afghans watched from afar, the Marines used steel cables and two other M.R.A.P.’s to drag their stuck vehicle out.

The members of military patrols are not the only people at risk from hidden bombs. Land mines and booby traps on roads endanger Afghans, too, and several Afghan vehicles had tried to pick their way down this same trail. One of them, a flatbed cargo van laden with crates of produce and cartons of Tyson chicken, had become similarly stuck a few hundred yards away.

The Afghans watched the Americans pull out their M.R.A.P. with what seemed like envy. All they had to retrieve their vehicle was a small tractor and a rope. At last an elderly man walked across the distance separating the Marines and the Afghans. The Marines had no translator with them. The man spoke no English. It was obvious what he wanted: an M.R.A.P. to pull his van free.

There was no way an M.R.A.P. could make it across the mud to where the Afghan van was stuck. But there were other ways to help. First Sgt. Sean R. Greenleaf led a group of Marines on foot to the idled van; they brought with them a thick tow strap. The first sergeant waded into the water and used the Marines’ strap to connect the tractor to the van.

“Kara Kara Zar!” Sergeant Habon shouted. (He later said that his platoon’s interpreter had taught him several phases of Pashto; this one, he said, meant, “Go slowly.”)

The tractor clanked into gear. The Marines in the water shoved and pushed. The van slid out of the mud and was dragged up onto dry dirt. “You’re good, bro!” Sergeant Habon shouted.

After exchanging handshakes and smiles, the Americans and the Afghans parted.

Bravo Company, First Battalion, Third Marines operates in what has proved to be one of the most dangerous areas of Helmand Province. Its Marines occupy the pair of isolated outposts near Marja, an insurgent stronghold in a dense belt of poppy cultivation. They are typically in firefights a few times a week, skirmishing with what would seem to be the Taliban’s pickets around their Helmand stronghold.

A Marine in Sergeant Habon’ squad, Lance Cpl. Jacob Meinert, was killed earlier this month by an explosive device.

Herein is one of the many challenges of counterinsurgency operations: asking troops under fire, and civilians living in constant danger and worry, to set aside their mutual frustrations and suspicions.

Put another way, if Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s plans for making Afghanistan more secure are to work, young Marines and soldiers, who face constant violence from an enemy hiding within the population, must be emotionally disciplined enough to seek connections to that same population.

And the Afghan population — which has suffered over the years from the actions of both the Taliban and Western forces, and is weary with distrust for the country’s weak and corrupt central government — must be open to the possibility of engagement.

How this will play over time is anyone’s guess.

In the interim, counterinsurgency can be as unglamorous as a roadside towing service, in cold water and foul muck, provided by troops who have been shot at for months.

The Marines walked back to their M.R.A.P.’s, climbed back inside and continued their drive. They had to reach Spin Ghar, where there was another patrol to walk later in the day.

US casualties in Afghanistan sow seeds of anger, frustration

SOUTHEAST OF MARJAH, Afghanistan: Anger, frustration and a hunger for revenge are running high among US Marines as casualties mount on the frontline of the battle against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan


AFP, 1 February 2010, 07:46am

On a base near Marjah, a Taliban stronghold in Helmand province, Marines are grieving the deaths of a sergeant and corporal killed by the remote-controlled bombs that have become the scourge of the long-running conflict.

Commanders try to keep the men's rage in check, aware that winning over an Afghan public wary of the foreign military presence and furious about mounting civilian casualties is as crucial as any battlefield success.

"It causes a lot of frustration. My men want revenge, that is only natural," says First Lieutenant Aaron MacLean, 2nd Platoon commander of the 1st Battalion, 6th Regiment Charlie company.

"But I keep telling them that the rules are the rules for a reason. If we simply go crazy and start shooting at everything, in the long run we will lose this war because we will lose the support of the population."

He too is frustrated, accusing the Taliban of manipulating the rules of engagement by using women and children as shields and shooting from hidden positions before dropping their weapons and standing out in the open.

"They know we can't shoot them if they don't carry guns or without positive identification. They are fighting us at another level now," MacLean said.

MacLean recently led his unit on a routine foot patrol near Marjah, expected to be the scene of a major offensive this month to drive the insurgents from one of their last bastions of control.

What the Marines encountered was a likely precursor of the battle to come.

They were met by fierce gunfire from Taliban gunmen who pinned them down for three hours at the expense of two of their men.

One corporal stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) -- the remote controlled bombs now the main weapon in the Taliban arsenal and which military intelligence officials say claim up to 90 percent of foreign troop lives.

The corporal's legs were blown off and he was thrown metres (yards) into the air.

A second IED killed a sergeant who rushed to the corporal's aid as bullets flew everywhere, MacLean said.

Three others were wounded in the clash, making it one of the bloodiest days for US Marines since US President Barack Obama's December announcement of a fresh troop surge in the war to eradicate the Taliban.

The death toll of foreign soldiers fighting in Afghanistan under US and NATO command hit 44 in January -- the highest for the month since the war began more than eight years ago -- compared with 25 in January 2009.

The number of Americans who died last month in the conflict now in its ninth year was almost double the number for January last year, at 29 compared with 15, according to the icasualties.org website, which keeps a running tally.

The US and NATO currently deploy 113,000 troops in Afghanistan, with another 40,000 due over the course of the year as part of a renewed strategy that emphasises development and the "reconciliation" of Taliban fighters.

Most of the incoming troops will be deployed in Helmand, which along with neighbouring Kandahar province has been the hub of the insurgency since the Taliban regime was removed from power in late 2001.

MacLean's unit is among the first Marines outfit to be sent into Helmand since the surge was announced.

On the day of the ambush, Marines hunkered down in tents inside the camp as information about the encounter came in.

Some had tears in their eyes as the names of casualties were made known. Others held tightly to their weapons and yelled at their enemy on the horizon.

"We were attacked treacherously. We came under fire from everywhere, but the rules of engagement prevent me from doing my job," said Lance Corporal Mark Duzick, who was in the unit that was ambushed.

Outside a tent housing the Marines unit responsible for firing mortars stands an improvised cross bearing the inscription: "Here lies the 81st, death by stand down."

Last year was the worst yet for foreign troops fighting in Afghanistan, with 520 soldiers dead, up from 295 in 2008. More troops will mean more casualties, military experts say.

For Afghan people, too, 2009 was the deadliest, with the UN putting civilian deaths at 2,412 for the year, compared to 2,118 in 2008.

While most are caused by the Taliban, the insurgents easily exploit civilian casualties to spread distrust among the public for foreign and Afghan troops.

As the nature of the fight has changed, with the Taliban increasingly using suicide attacks and IEDs, there had been no traditional winter hiatus and defence ministry spokesman General Zahir Azimi said spring is likely to be ferocious.

"We will have the most intense clashes come the spring, and will shed the most blood this year," he said