Marines await Taliban move in deadly Afghan valley
Friday, March 4, 2011; 5:30 AM
SANGIN, Afghanistan -- The cacophony of gunfire and bombing that dominated this southern river valley in the fall has dropped to a whisper, but U.S. Marines who have paid a heavy price battling the Taliban in Afghanistan's deadliest spot expect the insurgents to hit back hard.
Violence in Helmand province's Sangin district dropped sharply about a month ago, a development the Marines believe was driven by both the normal winter lull and significant casualties suffered by the Taliban. But the insurgents have been seeding the ground with bombs, pouring in new fighters and stepping up intimidation in preparation for a spring offensive.
The Marines say they hope their months of aggressive operations will help them counter the next onslaught.
The battle for control of Sangin looms large in the minds of U.S. commanders because the district is a narcotics hub that helps fund the Taliban and a crossroads for funneling weapons and fighters into Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual heartland.
Sangin was the deadliest district for the coalition in Afghanistan last year, according to NATO. The British lost over 100 troops here in four years of fighting - nearly one-third of their deaths in the war - and when they handed Sangin over to the Marines in September, the Taliban effectively controlled almost all the district.
The Marine battalion currently in Sangin arrived in October and together with smaller units attached to it has waged over 500 firefights and sustained over 30 deaths, with another 175 wounded, many from homemade bombs hidden in fields and mud-walled compounds.
In November, when this reporter was last in the district, insurgents were repeatedly attacking the main base next to the district center, and even in the bazaar, considered the safest place in Sangin, Marines had to throw smoke grenades to thwart snipers.
The coalition responded by boosting Marine and Afghan force numbers by about 50 percent. The Marines in Sangin have also waged a fierce campaign of airstrikes, dropping at least 50 500-pound bombs, firing 30 Hellfire missiles and unleashing over 100 helicopter rocket and gun attacks.
"It has taken us killing hundreds of Taliban and suffering a lot of hard hits, but we literally go anywhere we want in the battle space now," said Lt. Col. Jason Morris, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment currently in Sangin.
Also, the Afghan government has struck a deal with tribal elders in northern Sangin not to attack coalition troops, though there's no guarantee it will hold.
The Marines see signs that the Taliban are feeling the pressure. "Taliban leaders in Pakistan have called commanders back and chewed them out, saying 'Go back up there and be a man and get your jihad on,'" said Morris.
The test will come in the spring, when the weather warms and foliage returns to give the Taliban cover. Insurgent leaders are known to have told fighters in Sangin in late January to switch from gunbattles to seeding the ground with IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, and platoon leader Lt. Joe Patterson sees the results. He estimates the number of IEDs hidden in the alleyways and fields in his area have roughly doubled.