Dan Morrison with KVAL.com reports from an embed with the Marines in Helmand:
HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan – 1st Platoon, off to our west, made contact with the Taliban before we did.
4th Squad, 2nd Platoon, had already been slogging through wadis and cotton fields for a couple of hours when we heard the firefight in the distance.
4th Squad pushed on, with Cali Bagby traveling in the middle of LCpl Brennan’s fireteam and me traveling with LCpl Singleton’s fireteam. Leading both fireteams was Cpl Woodbine, Squad Leader.
This was only my second patrol, but it was turning out to be much like the first. Crossing open fields where opium poppies had been harvested in the spring, pushing our way through tall cornfields where the Marine in front of me would completely disappear if I slowed enough to let him get more than a few meters ahead of me.
We slid down wadis and waded across, hoping the water was not deeper than a couple of feet. Some came up to our thighs, and I talked to a Marine a couple of days ago who came off a patrol during which he had stepped into an eight-foot hole in the middle of a wadi.
“Man, all I could think of was I wanted to keep my weapon out of the water and dry, and I didn’t want to drown. That would be a hell of a way to die in Afghanistan,” he said.
The two fireteams were a couple hundred meters apart; Brennan’s fireteam would advance and then set up security for Singleton’s fireteam.
Crossing yet another open field is nerve–wracking because if the Taliban ambush comes – no, when the Taliban ambush comes – more than likely it will occur when you are exposed in an open field.
Overhead we could hear helicopter gunships circling, providing support.
“Those things, the gunships and even the Quick Reaction Force MRAPs, are a mixed blessing,” Singleton told me as we walked. “They keep us safe and alive, but the Taliban won’t fire on us with those guys overhead.”
It is an odd feeling to travel with men who not only know they are walking into an ambush, but who actually want it to happen. Unless the Taliban fire on the Marines, the Marines can’t close in on them and engage in a firefight.
And they very much want to engage with the enemy.
As one senior enlisted man told me, “You gotta love the ones that need lovin’, and kill the ones that need killin’.”
As we crossed a field of cotton we began to take small arms fire, AK-47s. “Go, go, go!” Singleton yelled at me as we dashed for the relative safety of a small wadi. Hunkering down in the irrigation ditch, I watched as Naval Corpsman Daniel Lowderman, from Seattle, Washington, and Singleton scan the area with their rifle scopes.
“I’ve got movement on the roof of a building,” Singleton relayed to Woodbine through his radio. “I can see the muzzle of a gun sticking out a window.”
Singleton was carrying the Mark XII, the designated marksman rifle. He requested permission from Woodbine to shoot at the target. Woodbine asked if he had positive ID, and Singleton informed him he could see the rifle muzzle. Permission was given to shoot.
“I can put one through the [expletive] hole,” Singleton said. “I don’t know now well it’s going to do, what it’s going to do, but I can try.”
Singleton stretched out in the wadi behind his weapon, his breathing became regular, and after what seemed to me like an eternity, he squeezed the trigger. Despite being ready for the shot, the sound startled me.
“Impact,” Singleton reported calmly. “Definite on the chimney. Woodbine, be advised, the first round was a solid impact, do you want me to take a second shot?”
“If you see the muzzle again take another shot,” Woodbine answered.
Platoon Sergeant SSgt Zamora, who was traveling with Brennan’s fireteam, came on the radio. “Singleton. As soon as you take the second shot we are going to move on the building.”
“Roger, that’s solid. I’m going to take two well-aimed shots just to make sure.”
Another eternity seemed to pass, then the crack of Singleton’s weapon again startled me.
“Alright team,” Zamora’s voice said on the radio, “we’re going in.”
“Hey. Yo, yo yo!” said Singleton. “Tell ‘em, tell ‘em. Hey, be advised. Stop, stop, stop.”
Singleton could see the Taliban waving a flag, but was not sure if the man was trying to surrender or was signaling other Taliban. The flag disappeared and then Singleton could see the Taliban crawling on the roof of the building.
Singleton asked for permission to shoot a third time. Although he could clearly see the Taliban, he could not see a weapon, and therefore the request for permission was denied. Unless a weapon is clearly visible, the Marines are forbidden to shoot.
The Taliban escaped.
We moved on.
Read all of Dan’s report. A lot of water has fallen over the dam since the issue of rules of engagement first started to show itself for the campaign in Afghanistan. My category has many such reports, but in lieu of rehearsing all of them again, it is enough simply to say what this example demonstrates for us again. The ROE in Iraq was different than it is in Afghanistan, period. Do you care to take issue with this characterization?
Recall our conversations on The Anbar Narrative, including a report still profiled on the Department of Defense web site, no less.
Costa described Ramadi, a city in Iraq’s Anbar province — then one of the country’s most contentious regions — as a society that had collapsed under the weight of an endemic insurgency. With an infrastructure dilapidated by years of infighting and neglect, Costa said, most of Ramadi was in ruin when he arrived.
“I had never seen anything like that before, and that was my second deployment to Iraq,” said the staff sergeant, whose first deployment was from January to August 2005 in Kharma, a city east of Fallujah in Anbar province.
“From my experience in my first deployment, the Iraqis will live, work, play — they’ll continue their normal lives — while this war is going on around them,” he said. “They’ll stay in their neighborhoods, and they won’t move.
“But in Ramadi,” he said, “they were moving.”
Costa had heard from members of the unit he was replacing that Ramadi’s citizens were moving out in droves — in “mass exodus” fashion, as he put it. When he arrived in August 2006 in Ramadi, which in 2003 boasted a population nearly the size of Sacramento, Calif., the number of residents living in the city along the Euphrates River was reduced to a mere trickle, more akin to that of a small town, he recalled.
“There were multiple buildings that are like five-, six-, seven-, eight-story apartment buildings — huge, and totally empty,” he said. “You’d walk into a house and everything’s there: There’s food in the fridge; there’s clothes in the dresser. The people just moved.”
The staff sergeant soon realized why residents had abandoned their homes. Insurgents in Ramadi, a majority Sunni Muslim city, were violently attacking local citizens. In the midst of intense fighting, they extorted shop owners’ profits. They hiked prices at gas stations and skimmed sales revenues.
“The insurgents definitely made it a bad place to live for the civilians there,” the staff sergeant, a 10-year Marine veteran, said.
For Costa, who decided as a boy to join the U.S. military to help the “greater good,” the bleak situation in besieged Ramadi presented an opportunity to uphold the principles of selfless duty.
Costa said roughly 90 percent of the missions he and his men carried out involved protecting roads, called main supply routes, travelled by coalition convoys. Primarily, the unit prevented insurgents from emplacing improvised explosive devices along the roadside or thwarted attempts by enemy fighters to ambush passing vehicles.
But Costa also dedicated a portion of his time to cracking the insurgents’ methods of communication.
“Generally there was a guy putting up gang signs, which could either send a rocket-propelled grenade through your window or some other attack your way,” said Costa, who began to realize the significance of unarmed people on Ramadi’s streets providing information via visual cues.
“You’re watching something on the street like that happening, and you’re like, ‘What the hell is that guy doing?’” he recalled. “And then the next thing you know, insurgents start coming out of the woodwork.”
“Signalers” — the eyes and ears of insurgent leaders — informed the insurgent strategists who commanded armed fighters by using hand and arm gestures. “You could see the signaler commanding troops,” Costa recalled. “He just doesn’t have a weapon.”
To curb insurgents’ ability to communicate, Costa decided on a revolutionary move: He and his unit would dismantle the enemy’s communication lines by neutralizing the threat from signalers. Sparing no time, he set a tone in Ramadi that signalers would be dealt with no differently from their weapon-wielding insurgent comrades.
“We called it in that we heard guys were signaling, and the battalion would advise from there,” he said, recalling the first day of the new strategy. “We locked that road down pretty well that day.”
In ensuing weeks, coalition forces coordinated efforts to dismember the insurgent signal patterns entrenched in Ramadi. This helped tamp down violence and create political breathing room, which in turn allowed the forging of key alliances between local tribal sheiks and coalition operators. The subsequent progress was later dubbed the “Anbar Awakening,” a societal purging of extremism by Anbaris that ushered in a level of stability unprecedented since U.S. operations in Iraq began.
“In the end, it turned out that Ramadi did a complete 180,” Costa said. “I got pictures in September from the unit that had relieved us, and I just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think I was looking at the same city.”
But the generals know better than that now, and the Marines can’t be trusted to make good decisions under pressure. So there are different rules of engagement in Afghanistan than there were in Iraq. The officers micromanage the campaign.
More: Recon by Fire