The Marines move on Marja: A perilous slog against Afghanistan's Taliban
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN -- For the Marines of Charlie Company's 3rd Platoon, Sunday's mission was simple enough: Head west for a little more than a mile to link up with Alpha Company in preparation for a mission to secure the few ramshackle government buildings in this farming community.
It would take nine hours to walk that distance, a journey that would reveal the danger and complexity of the Marines' effort to wrest control of Marja from the Taliban.
The operation to secure the area, which began with an airlift of hundreds of Marines and Afghan soldiers on Saturday and continued with the incursion of additional forces on Sunday, is proceeding more slowly than some U.S. military officials had anticipated because of stiff Taliban resistance and a profusion of roadside bombs.
In perhaps the most audacious Taliban attack since the operation commenced, a group of insurgents firing rocket-propelled grenades attempted to storm a temporary base used by Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment on Sunday evening. The grenade launch was followed by three men attempting to rush into the compound. The Marines presumed the men to be suicide bombers and threw grenades at them, killing all three.
The attack on the Bravo patrol base was one of several attempts to overrun Marine positions Sunday. All were repelled.
"The enemy is trying last-ditch efforts," said the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Cal Worth.
The intensity of Taliban opposition is forcing the Marines to move cautiously, which sometimes means spending hours to advance only a few hundred yards, as Charlie Company's 3rd Platoon discovered Sunday.
At 6:30 a.m., the Marines disembarked from their trucks, which had been parked single-file along a de-mined path cut through a muddy field seeded with homemade bombs. Tires served as urinals. Shaving, the Marines' daily ritual no matter how grim the environment, occurred atop the vehicles.
Thirty minutes later, it was clear that the armored trucks were not going to get the Marines to their destination. The temporary bridge across the canal ahead of them, installed by combat engineers the day before, was starting to slip. And the road ahead was deemed to be littered with improvised explosive devices.
The first shots
So at 7:30, they set off by foot, accompanied by a contingent of Afghan soldiers fresh out of boot camp. To avoid homemade bombs, they walked across the fields, trudging through mud and over small opium-producing poppy plants.
They hadn't been walking 15 minutes when the first shots rang out. Everyone dropped to the ground.
They looked for the shooter. But there were no more shots, just the crowing of a rooster.