In Afghanistan, A Test of Tactics
Under Strict Rules to Protect Civilians, Marines Face More Complex Missions

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.

"I have a man with an RPG -- 600 meters," Funke shouted, referring to a rocket-propelled grenade. Moments later, Lance Cpl. Michael Barton, 21, from Troy, Pa., on his first patrol since suffering heatstroke, took a shot with his MK12 marksman rifle, hitting the fighter in the chest.

"They're in the two-story window," one of Paz's squad members called.

"Then take it out!" Paz ordered.

As the Taliban fighters began to fall back, Paz ensured no civilians were nearby and then called in a mortar strike, effectively ending the firefight. Under the cover of Cobra helicopters, he led his men back to their base. They congratulated one another as reports filtered in that up to three Taliban fighters were killed.

"They thought it was just a little four-man team," Paz said. "They didn't know I had 16 men and I split them down the middle."

Cat-and-Mouse Clashes

Twenty-four hours later, Taliban fighters launched a brazen, mid-afternoon attack on the Marine combat outpost.

The direct strike on the compound was a first, Marines said, but they were not sure whether it was in retaliation for the previous day or whether it was a probing attack on a newly arrived platoon of Afghan soldiers and their British mentors.

Bullets from Taliban fighters 400 yards away started hitting the compound's south wall. Some Afghan soldiers fired automatic rifles from the mud rooftop and blasted away with heavy machine guns mounted on armored vehicles below. Other Afghan soldiers pulled out their cellphones and started taking pictures; an unfazed few played a game of checkers in the courtyard.

Meanwhile, Marines and British soldiers -- some half-dressed and without helmets -- scrambled into position as the British commander sought to gain control of the fight. A shirtless British soldier shouldered a Javelin missile. Paz arrived with reinforcements.

After about 40 minutes, a vehicle pulled up on the eastern fringe of the desert, picked up three men and drove off -- apparently providing a getaway for some of the Taliban fighters.

"We're brand new," said Capt. Henry Stow, commander of the British mentor team. "I've got no doubt this was a probing attack just to establish our defenses, our reaction speed."

Soon after the attack, Paz led a patrol to a nearby village to confront an elder, Mustafa, about Taliban presence in his area. The elder blamed the problem on an adjacent village. "It was not from us," Mustafa said. "The Taliban were over there."

The next day, Echo Company decided to attack Taliban fighters operating south of its outpost, in the vicinity of Herati. Early that morning, a squad of Marines moved to a rise west of the village where they had briefly taken fire the day before. A second squad, led by Sgt. Nathan Harris, 25, of Yadkinville, N.C., maneuvered to assault the insurgents on their flank.

"We're in position," the forward squad radioed to Harris. Almost immediately, gunshots rang out.

Harris and his men moved quickly toward the battle, watched intently by Afghans from fields and rooftops. Then, suddenly, a crackle of rifle fire sent the Marines diving for cover in a muddy field behind a row of trees. About 300 yards away, a second group of Taliban fighters -- alerted to the Marines' approach -- had opened up on Harris's squad, which now faced Taliban fighters on either side.

With his men pinned down, Harris ordered the firing of grenades and shoulder-launched rockets at the Taliban positions. The firefight continued until U.S. attack helicopters arrived and the company lobbed 10 81mm mortars at the Taliban fighters, enabling Harris's squad to move again.

Pushing south into Taliban territory, well beyond the "limit of advance" set by higher-ups, Harris spotted a compound flying the white Taliban flag and stopped to talk with an Afghan farmer. "The Taliban are coming next to our compound and fighting you. We don't like that," said Haji Noor Mohammed, who has a family of eight. "We want peace. Maybe you should go from here."

Harris apologized for the mortar round that had landed in Mohammed's field, told him to stay inside and moved on to other houses.

Suddenly, gunshots erupted, and Harris and Sgt. John Spring, 22, of Windham, Maine, returned fire. One of Harris's men spotted a fighter moving east and shot him, forcing him to crawl.

But then an order crackled over the radio: "Withdraw!"

Commanders did not want Harris's thinly spread squad drawn deeper into the Taliban's turf. Harris bristled but followed orders.

As the Marines headed back to their base, two Harrier jets screeched low overhead to discourage the Taliban from attacking. According to the pilots, Harris said later, Taliban fighters swarmed the area.

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