The New York Times reports that enemy snipers have replaced Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) as threat number one for U.S. troops attempting to “sanitize” Marjah Afghanistan. “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.” I’m no military expert (I just play one on the Internet), but one wonders if the campaign’s very public announcement—designed to win hearts and minds by allowing “good” Afghans to leave the area before the offensive—gave enemy combatants too much time to plan ambushes and establish sniper redoubts. The Times doesn’t raise the point, but it does provide a picture of fear followed by overwhelming force. Tactical descriptions after the jump.
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 Marjah operation is the first test of President Obama and General Stanley A McChrystal’s “new” strategy for winning the war in Afghanistan. Judging from the General’s general demeanor, it’s based on Sun Tzu’s Anctient Art of War. To wit this pearl dropped before the media swine at every opportunity: “The shot you don’t fire is more important than the one you do.” Last September, Time magazine shared this anecdote.
One day last week, when a briefer informed him that two Taliban had been killed the day before by soldiers using a multiple-rocket launcher, McChrystal dryly noted, “That’s an awful lot of firepower to kill two people.”
You ain’t seen nothing yet. But first, The Time’s vivid dispatch from a normally hostile source (The Times) includes one detail that could create a PR victory at home. Call me cynical, but someone needs to get the name of that Labrador to the press corps, stat!
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.
And now the part of the report that indicates that the spin about “McCyrstal lite” is a myth, as the sniper-plagued troops call in the big ass hammers to crack some Taliban walnuts.
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.
Standard stuff, but is this really the best way to win this war?