Key to Afghan battle: ‘Go slow’
02-19-2010 07:11 AM
MARJAH, Afghanistan — Afghan Lt. Col. Ghullam Dastagir was hunched over a map, going over his battalion’s operations with Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson.
“We took over this area,” Dastagir said Thursday, sweeping his hand over a section of the laminated map. “They are on the run.”
A Taliban rocket whistled past. Someone yelled, “Incoming!” It exploded harmlessly in a large puff of smoke in a nearby field. The men looked up briefly and turned back to the map.
U.S. forces here in the Taliban stronghold of Marjah are under orders to “go slow,” troops say. It’s part of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s aim of protecting the people rather than just killing the enemy: Hold down civilian casualties to avoid alienating those you wish to win over to your side.
“There’s no rush,” Nicholson said. “Time is on our side.”
The battle for Marjah began six days ago, and if it takes its place among the annals of notable Marine Corps battles, it may be for the bloodshed it avoided as much as for the defeat of the enemy.
Commanders have been cautious about approving airstrikes, NATO says, and troops are operating under rules that forbid firing unless fired upon.
The rules of engagement result in a more methodical pace than Marines are accustomed to.
“It can be frustrating for the Marines,” said Marine 1st Lt. Brian Jaquith, 27. “But I appreciate the extra level of scrutiny because it’s going to mean less collateral damage.”
The battle for Marjah differs from previous Marine urban battles, such as Hue City in Vietnam or Fallujah in Iraq. Both towns were pummeled, leaving entire blocks of homes and businesses reduced to rubble.
In Marjah, NATO says 15 civilians have been killed, 12 of whom died from two errant rocket attacks.
Among the unique aspects of Marjah when compared with other battles in Iraq and Afghanistan:
Afghan forces are partnered at every level with Marines, and they are fighting. Their presence is not “cosmetic,” Nicholson said.
The ratio of U.S. to Afghan troops is almost 2:1 in Marjah, compared with 10:1 last year when the Marines launched an offensive in the southern Helmand River Valley, he said.
The Afghan government met with civilians well before the offensive started, holding 25 shuras, or meetings of village elders, in the two months leading up to the attack, Nicholson said.
Civilian aid convoys for reconstruction of roads and markets are idling outside the battlefield, waiting to swoop in. “Things are ready to go,” said Chris Green, the political officer for Helmand’s Provincial Reconstruction Team in Lashkar Gah.
Unlike the early days of the Iraq war, when U.S. and Iraqi forces remained largely separate, American Marines are living, eating and fighting with the Afghan soldiers.
“The Iraqis were a fig leaf in the beginning,” Marine Col. Paul Kennedy said.
In Marjah, Marines and Afghan soldiers have been methodically squeezing the Taliban out of the city, suffering four deaths as of Thursday.
Automatic weapons fire and the blasts of rocket-propelled grenades echoed from the center of the city, where Taliban militants were trying to hang on to their territory.
Senior Marine officers told the Associated Press that more than 120 Taliban fighters have died.
The officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to release the information.
“This is a good operation,” Dastagir told Nicholson. “If we continue this way, we will have great success.”
Jaquith said the Afghan soldiers are aggressive but “extremely disciplined.”
Hamid Hamza, 18, who lay on a dirt berm north of the city, said he hasn’t taken off his boots in a month.
“We have engaged directly with the enemy,” he said, looking down the barrel of his M-16 rifle. “We have faced their ambushes.”
Gulzaman, a 26-year-old soldier who like many Afghans goes by one name, said residents have been wary of the government soldiers.
“But by the time we are ready to leave, people want us to stay,” he said.
Sayeed Wakhan, a 45-year-old farmer, was working in his small field to the sound of gunfire and said he was not sorry to see the Taliban go.
“The Taliban didn’t allow us to work,” he said, laying down his shovel. “They didn’t allow us to use water” to irrigate the fields. “They forced us to build them homes. They were cruel people. They were like animals.”
Whether the people of Marjah accept those who came to replace the Taliban will depend on whether their lives improve, a U.S. military official said.
“The transition to the Afghan forces, the governance part, the economic part, that will be the question mark that will determine how permanent this is,” said Brig. Gen. David Berger, director of operations at Headquarters Marine Corps.
“Open the markets,” Nicholson told Dastagir. “Get the roads open. That will be very bad for the Taliban.”
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