By SEBASTIAN ABBOT
The Associated Press
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.
"We have traded the constant gun battles of the past with now finding multiple IEDs on every route we take," said Patterson, 31, from Owasso, Oklahoma.
The Marines have received reports of new insurgents coming into Sangin, and several new white Taliban flags have gone up in the district. The level of small-arms fire has also picked up.
"They are right now in their reconnaissance phase and are waiting for an opportunity to kick off their attacks," said Morris, 40, the battalion commander from Oceanside, California.
The British military, whose strategy in Sangin has been widely criticized, are likely to be watching closely. The arrival of the Marines raised concerns among some about the perception of the U.S. finishing a job the British couldn't handle.
The British strategy was to build a string of small patrol bases, but so many soldiers were needed to defend them that they left the insurgents with wide freedom of movement. The Marines immediately closed about half the 22 bases to free up troops for more aggressive patrolling. But they have since expanded outward again and now have about the same number of bases as the British had, though many of them are deeper in Taliban territory.
"It's a tough balance because if you just occupy bases, you can't do enough patrols," said company commander Capt. Matthew Peterson, 34, of Las Cruces, New Mexico. "But if you just patrol, you don't have constant overwatch."
The Marines said aggressive patrolling loosened the Taliban's grip and a battalion-size operation cleared the main road of IEDs, giving the force much more elbow room. Until then, said Morris, "if you owned a patrol base, you could perhaps influence positively and move around freely within 50 or 100 meters of where you were."
Soon it will be the Marines' turn to test whether their tactics have worked. "There is always some trepidation over whether we have pushed too far out, but we won't really know until we have experienced it and know what the enemy is capable of bringing to the fight," said Morris.
The Marines now have a couple hundred more troops than the outgoing 1,200-strong British force. The number of regular Afghan police has tripled to 350, and 200 elite police who had previously fought in the Taliban sanctuary of Marjah have been sent to Sangin.
The Marines have also spent nearly $3 million on development projects and have been rewarded with an increase in tips from the public about the location of IEDs and Taliban weapons caches.
But that support could weaken as more Taliban fighters move in. Afghans in one area who previously would chat with patrolling Marines now won't even look at them.
"The biggest challenge is that the Taliban won't quit," said Capt. Chris Esrey, a 33-year-old company commander from Havelock, North Carolina. "Right now I think they are on their heels, but we know they are resting and refitting and we are not done fighting."
Abbot spent 10 days embedded with U.S. forces in Sangin in November. He returned for another 10 days in February and March. Associated Press writer Mirwais Khan contributed to this report from Kandahar, Afghanistan.