Afghan Strategy Poses Tactical Tests for Marines

These scenes show three separate firefights in southern Afghanistan, where Marines have been clashing regularly with Taliban forces. British troops and Afghan National Army are also fighting in the area. Video by Ann Scott Tyson, edited by Francine Uenuma/The Washington Post
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009

MIANPOSHTEH, Afghanistan -- The new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan, as articulated in military headquarters and congressional hearing rooms, puts the emphasis not on killing Taliban fighters but on winning over the local people. But in this highly contested swath of Helmand province, Sgt. Anibal Paz's squad is likely to be ambushed before he has time to sit down for tea.

The sergeants' war that Paz fights is often craftier and more complex than the war mapped out by generals, and it's always dirtier and bloodier. Young Americans and Afghans set out to taunt and lure their foes, then try to outsmart or outgun them. The running clashes that result send villagers fleeing their fields, hampering the U.S. Marines' overarching mission of making the local population feel secure.

Paz, 26, of Fall River, Mass., and his fellow troops in Echo Company, 2nd battalion, 8th Marines arrived by helicopter in this cluster of farming villages in early July and seized a crossroads in the Helmand River valley where the Taliban until then had free rein. The Taliban valued the intersection as a place to organize, train and move fighters, as well as weapons, north from the Pakistan border into population centers across Helmand and beyond.

Now Taliban fighters are resisting the American advance, by seeking to inflict U.S. casualties and thwart Marine efforts to win over villagers. The elusive insurgents blend easily into the population, invisible to Marines until they pick up a weapon. They use villagers to spot and warn of U.S. troop movements, take up positions in farmers' homes and fields, and attack Marines from spots with ready escape routes.

The Marines, under strict rules to protect civilians, must wait for insurgents to attack and then attempt to ensnare them. Limited in their use of airstrikes and artillery -- because of the danger to civilians and because aircraft often frighten the Taliban away -- Marine riflemen must use themselves as bait and then engage in the riskier task of pursuing insurgents on foot.

Split-Second Decisions

Paz, a Portuguese immigrant whose father fought in Mozambique for the Portuguese special forces, said he joined the Marine Corps "to stay out of trouble." More mature in looks and demeanor than his 26 years would imply, he is a veteran of one of the Marines' most intense urban clashes in recent times -- the campaign to retake the Iraqi city of Fallujah.

Paz's platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Timothy Funke, 34, of Bangor, Mich., is another Fallujah veteran. Funke, nicknamed "Papa," has a cynical streak and an unromantic view of warfare that stands in contrast to Paz's triumphalism.

In combat, the two men think alike, maneuvering fluidly with few words exchanged. As sergeants, they also know intimately the strengths and weaknesses of their men -- which Marine can be counted on to be aggressive and which one nearly passed out from anxiety in his first firefight.

All those calculations factor into split-second decisions when the chaos of gunfire erupts, as it did one recent afternoon. As Paz and his men advanced toward the village of Herati through a cornfield, he sent a small team of Marines north in full view of the Taliban's rooftop spotters. "Let them see you," Paz ordered. He then divided the rest of the Marines into two groups, aiming to catch the Taliban fighters off guard.

Six insurgents began shifting along a nearby tree line. Moments later, they opened fire.

"I've got impacts!" yelled Paz's machine gunner.

"Fire on it!" Paz ordered. But at first the gunner couldn't see where the bullets were coming from, so Paz took aim and shot a few bursts with his rifle. Funke's men also returned fire, cutting off the Taliban fighters with small arms and a grenade launcher. Cpl. Andrew Gendron, 23, of East Thompson, Vt., spotted a man in black shooting an AK-47 at the Marines from behind a wall near the entrance to Herati. Gendron opened fire, and the man dropped.

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