6 years, 5 months ago
The first time U.S. Marines went on patrol from this base in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban were ready. The militants shot and killed a 21-year-old lance corporal just 150 feet from the perimeter.
The Marines patrolling through the green fields and tall mud compounds of Helmand province’s Sangin district say they are literally in a race for their lives. They are trying to adjust their tactics to outwit Taliban fighters, who have killed more coalition troops here than in any other Afghan district this year.
“As a new unit coming in, you are at a distinct disadvantage because the Taliban have been fighting here for years, have established fighting positions and have laid the ground with a ton of IEDs,” said Lt. Col. Jason Morris, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. “You have to evolve quickly because you have no other choice.”
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“We kind of snuck our nose in the south to see what the south was about and we found out real quick that you don’t go south unless you have a lot of dudes,” said Sgt. Adam Keliipaakaua, who was leading the patrol.
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The Marines now have a better idea of where they will be ambushed around their base and have doubled the size of their patrols to increase the amount of firepower they can direct toward the Taliban. On Thursday, the Marines killed 15 militants in an hourlong firefight, according to NATO.
Those who patrol through the main bazaar in the district center now know to look to the skies. They said the Taliban often fly white kites over the local mosque to signal the presence of the Marines.
The Taliban like to attack using so-called “murder holes” — small holes carved into strong mud walls that allow the insurgents to shoot without exposing themselves …
To avoid walking into a firefight, the Marines look to see whether kids are around. Their absence could mean an impending attack, but the Taliban also use children as spotters, so the tactic isn’t foolproof.
“A little kid will run around the corner and run back, and a minute later you are being shot at,” said Keliipaakaua.
But the threat of an ambush pales in comparison to the biggest danger lurking in Sangin and much of Afghanistan: the scores of IEDs buried in roads, trails, compounds and even canals. Many are largely constructed out of wood or plastic, making them very difficult to detect.
Three days after Ceniceros was killed, another member of 3rd Platoon, Cpl. David Noblit, stepped on an IED in a compound located in dense vegetation across the street from Patrol Base Fulod. Noblit survived the explosion but lost both his legs (for a discussion of Ceniceros, see portions of the article edited for length).
The battalion has been hit with about 40 IED attacks and has found more than 100 other bombs before they exploded.
“You want to vary up your routes to go where the enemy doesn’t expect you to travel,” said Esrey, 33, of Havelock, North Carolina. “I can walk through water ankle-high, but the bad guys probably know that’s where I want to go, so I want to go somewhere the water is chest-high.”
But the Taliban are always watching and adapting as well. One of the last Marines from the battalion who was killed stepped on an IED buried underwater in a canal.
“The tactics keep changing because they’re smart and they watch us,” said Esrey. “They don’t have TV here. We’re their TV.”
Analysis & Commentary
First, spotters and signalers are a common problem with the Taliban, as they were in Ramadi, Iraq. They have not been dealt with as harshly as I have recommended. A spotter or signaler is no different than a combatant, and they were treated as combatants by Marines in Iraq whether they held a weapon or not. Then again, dealing with the spotters as I have recommended (and the Marines actually did in Iraq) would require a change to the rules of engagement. Our generals are smarter than those successful Marines in the Anbar Province, and so we don’t do things like that anymore.
Second, having a “lot of dudes” is the equivalent of my recommendations in previous coverage of Marine combat action in Sangin. There are many locations in Afghanistan that need attention and additional troops, from the Paktika province to Kunar and Nuristan, and indeed, the whole Pech River Valley area. The border needs more mentored ANP, and even the North is coming under increasing Taliban attention.
I have made no secret of my full court press for more troops. But in this case, the U.S. Marines have the Helmand Province, and it makes no sense to have Marines on MEUs pretending that they are going to conduct a major, full scale, water-borne amphibious assault against some unknown (or non-existent) near-peer enemy while their brothers lose their legs in Afghanistan. In fact, I would suggest that it is immoral to send Marines into harm’s way without the requisite support and manpower. The support and manpower exists. It’s currently located at Camps Lejeune and Pendleton preparing to board amphibious assault docks and waste millions of dollars floating around the seas and stopping at every port so that Marines can get drunk. We can do better than that for the Marines under fire in Afghanistan.
Finally, it makes sense to fight the Taliban where they are. If we don’t they will simply relocate to the areas we are trying to secure (such as Kandahar) and fights us there. It is conducive to minimum noncombatant casualties to conduct combat operations in Sangin rather than in Kandahar if possible.