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The Marines move on Marja: A perilous slog against Afghanistan's Taliban

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Monday, February 15, 2010; A01

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.

There would be no straight path to the destination. The adobe-walled compounds along the way -- and for hundreds of feet to the north and south of their route -- would have to be cleared.

The plan was that the Afghan soldiers would knock on doors whenever possible. In this counterinsurgency operation, the Marines have been told that the people of Marja are the prize. Don't alienate them. Don't knock down doors unnecessarily.

A few minutes later, another shot echoed across the poppy field. Word quickly made it down the line: A Marine ahead fired on a menacing dog while searching a housing compound.

Before anyone could find the owner to make amends, a rattle of gunfire came toward the Marines from the west. The Marines and the Afghan soldiers returned fire with M4 carbines and belt-fed machine guns.

Eighteen minutes later, what sounded like a lawn-mower engine could be heard overhead. A small, unarmed drone, launched from a nearby base, circled above. It revealed what the Marines couldn't immediately see from the field: Three insurgents, one of whom was carrying a walkie-talkie, had been killed.

As a squad from the 3rd Platoon moved gingerly forward, unsure if there were more insurgents unseen by the drone, Worth received a report over his radio: The Marines from Bravo had just hoisted the Afghan flag at a bazaar to the northwest.

Each of his companies have been given Afghan flags, he said. He made it clear that the Stars and Stripes was not to be raised in Marja.

"No end-zone dances," he said. "This is their country."

By then it was safe to approach the owner of the dog, a middle-aged farmer named Jawad Wardak, who was standing in front of his spacious mud-walled house with five young men who he said were his sons and nephews. There were large stacks of dried poppy plants on his driveway, and his fields were filled with small poppy saplings, which will grow to harvest height by spring.

"I'm very sorry about your dog," Worth said. "Hopefully we haven't done any damage to your home."

Wardak shrugged. "It's no problem," he said.

Worth didn't want to pass up the opportunity to make a friend. "We're bringing the government of Afghanistan back here," he said.

Wardak said nothing.

"You will see more forces moving through here so that the Taliban goes away," Worth continued.

Some of the Afghan soldiers assigned to the 3rd Platoon also didn't want to miss an opportunity. One of them asked Wardak's nephew for food.

"We'll give you a meal," Worth said to the soldier. "This is not why we're here. We don't want to impose ourselves. We're guests here."

But the nephew came out with three large pieces of flatbread anyway, and the soldier left content.

'Expand from here'

Across a dirt road from Wardak's house was an irrigation canal. Fording it would require stepping through thigh-high water, but getting back in the trucks was not an option. A team of route-clearance Marines, with devices that detect and detonate roadside bombs, was discovering devices every few hundred yards. By the end of the day, it would find a dozen on the road paralleling the 3rd Platoon's journey.

It was even worse on other routes. On a road perpendicular to the one the 3rd Platoon was following, Charlie Company's 2nd Platoon discovered a 10-foot wall embedded with 70 bombs.

As soon as the Marines had crossed the canal, Worth noted that his Marines did not plan to check every house on the way to their objective. "We're engaged in a counterinsurgency," he said. "We're not going to be kicking down every door."

As he uttered the word "door," a piercing crackle of gunfire came from a housing compound to the northwest of Wardak's house. Everyone dove to the ground.

The Marines responded with their rifles. When that didn't seem to do the trick, they fired mortars and shoulder-launched rockets. After 10 minutes, the firing ceased. Four insurgents lay dead.

Worth said the slow, methodical pace the Marines are using to move into the area has kept them from "desperate situations" that result in units calling in air and artillery strikes, which have greater potential of causing civilian casualties.

Even so, he said, he aims to secure Marja's government center soon and then extend anti-Talilban clearing operations to other parts of the area. "We're going to expand from here," he said. "We'll bring more locals into the security bubble as quickly as we can."

Two hours later, at 4:30 p.m., the Marines walked into a walled-off courtyard used by Alpha Company. They were wet and tired but had suffered no casualties. Their mission had been accomplished.

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