Marines take over a Taliban haven

Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 19, 2011

GARMSIR, AFGHANISTAN - The Marines strode single-file across dusty farmland that the Taliban had controlled days earlier, facing little resistance beyond a boy who said, "Please, don't step on the poppies."

Not a single bullet was fired in the first few days of Operation Godfather, a 400-man offensive conducted with Afghan forces to clear out the last insurgent haven along the central Helmand River valley in Afghanistan's Garmsir district.

Marine officers concluded that the show of force beginning Friday - helicopters rushing through the sky, trucks hauling ready-to-be-built bridges, and convoys spanning the desert horizon - had caused the Taliban to back down.

"If we were here alone, we'd be shot at," said Lt. Brett De Maria, while leading a morning patrol through farming villages. "But we've got air support and tons of vehicles."

The offensive seemed a surreal departure from the past year of brutal violence and fighting in Helmand province, the epicenter of Afghanistan's opium industry and a corridor to Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. Almost 40 percent of the 499 U.S. deaths in Afghanistan last year occurred in Helmand, according to the Web site, which tracks U.S. combat fatalities.

Marines recovered about two dozen weapons caches - evidence, they said, that the Taliban had planned to fight under better circumstances at a later time.

The hidden weapons also reflect the difficulties of combat in the dead of the Afghan winter, when temperatures plummet so low that fingers and toes surrender to an aching numbness.

Another possible reason the operation proved less violent came from a Marine infantryman. He noted that Marine patrols are smaller in Sangin, a district in northeastern Helmand where 29 U.S. troops have been lost during the past half-year.

"They're patrolling seven, eight guys, while we're 31 deep," the infantryman said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because his comment could be interpreted as a criticism.

There are key differences between the Taliban in Sangin and Durzay, the main village in Garmsir, which was targeted by Operation Godfather, said Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, the regional commander for southwestern Afghanistan. The insurgency in Sangin is mostly composed of local fighters defending their home turf, while those in Durzay are "professional cutthroats" who smuggle opium and stepped out of "the bar scene in 'Star Wars,' " he said.

"Durzay is a spot on the map where they sell their evil things, so they're not going to fight to the death," Mills said.

The Taliban does tend to go after smaller patrols, some Marine officers said, because of the insurgency's own modest size. In parts of Garmsir, just one or two men with a pistol can intimidate a whole village.

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