Invisible Taliban Harass US MarinesMarch 29, 2010
So US Marine Lieutenant Jackson Smith prepares to take his leave. Suddenly, gunfire rips through the dust on the outskirts of Marjah, a settlement that last month was the focus of a major US-led offensive to clear out the Taliban.
Smith’s men dash to the nearest wall for protection, amid the din of at least two assault rifles.
More than a month after US Marines led 15,000 troops into action in Marjah, on the poppy growing plains of southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province, the Western-backed government does not have the area under complete control.
Operation Mushtarak, launched on February 13, is the biggest offensive since the 2001 US-led invasion kicked the Taliban regime out of Kabul and the first test of a US strategy to end the war as soon as possible.
Crouched down in the dust, the Marines try to position M-4 machine guns on a low wall to return fire. On a hill overlooking the village, an Afghan soldier fires a heavy machine gun and the ground shakes.
“OK, guys, we move to the next wall,” orders Smith as the firing gets heavier.
“It’s ours, ours, no worries!” shouts Sergeant Robert Kayser as the soldiers duck down on hearing the rat-a-tat-tat of an American heavy machine gun.
The streets are deserted in the village of mud, cement and straw-built farmhouses. Through a small hole in a wall a family gestures at Taliban fighters firing slightly further along, from a house near a mosque.
The soldiers advance with difficulty: one Marine falls over while scaling a low wall. Another, weighed down by two rocket launchers and his gun, falls into the water while stepping over an irrigation canal.
Bullets continue whistling overhead.About half an hour later, the Taliban cease fire and the soldiers advance.
An Afghan soldier under Commander Amanullah — a northerner who fought against Soviet troops in the 1980s and emanates nonchalance under fire — insists he has seen an insurgent near the mosque.
Marines and Afghan soldiers enter a house and question the head of the family, a man apparently in his 50s.
Amanullah becomes impatient: “It happened right outside your home and you didn’t see anything, you didn’t hear anything, just like usual,” he snaps.
The man insists he was going to have a cup of tea near his poppy fields and took shelter on hearing the first bullet.
The Marines fan out around his home. “Hey guys, don’t go on that road, it’s loaded with IEDs,” shouts one.
On the road — a track between fields — bombs have wounded four Americans and an Afghan soldier in recent days.
The Taliban haven’t been found and the troops resume their patrol. Children play in the street and life seems to return to normal. Some even come and shake the Marines’ hands.
But no one tells the Marines they know where the Taliban are hiding. They insist the last fighters fled weeks ago.
“They lie — of course they lie. They are scared to death. They won’t say where the Taliban are. Taliban must have hidden their weapons. They must be somewhere in a compound. Who knows?” says Sergeant Kayser.
In the courtyard of one farm, it is not the attack that preoccupies a group of three Afghans. “You killed our dogs. If you continue, the people will hate you,” says one.
“Where was the shooting coming from?” retorts Sergeant Kayser.
The Afghan with the long white beard gestures vaguely in the direction of a Marine encampment. “You promise, but you don’t keep your word,” he charges.
“What did we promise?” asks the sergeant.
“Not to come at night anymore,” says the man.
“We are not coming during the night, searching houses. We patrol at night to kill Taliban,” says the sergeant.
“Patrol, OK, but don’t fire on us,” says the Afghan.
“We don’t shoot at you,” replies the sergeant calmly.
On the way back, firing echoes at least three kilometres (two miles) away in a neighbouring district.
“It’s supposed to be a quiet area. But nothing is easy here,” says Smith.