Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Snipers Imperil U.S. Troops in Offensive in Afghanistan via NYTimes

Snipers Imperil U.S. Troops in Offensive in Afghanistan

Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Marines and Afghan Army soldiers fought as they were attacked Monday in an open field in Marja by the Taliban. More Photos >

Published: February 17, 2010

ARJA, Afghanistan — In five days of fighting, the Taliban have shown a side not often seen in nearly a decade of American military action in Afghanistan: the use of snipers, both working alone and integrated into guerrilla-style ambushes.

Five Marines and two Afghan soldiers have been struck here in recent days by bullets fired at long range. That includes one Marine fatally shot and two others wounded in the opening hour of a four-hour clash on Wednesday, when a platoon with Company K of the Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, was ambushed while moving on foot across a barren expanse of flat ground between the clusters of low-slung mud buildings.

Almost every American and Afghan infantryman present has had frightening close calls. Some of the shooting has apparently been from Kalashnikov machine guns, the Marines say, mixed with sniper fire.

The near misses have included lone bullets striking doorjambs beside their faces as Marines peeked around corners, single rounds cracking by just overhead as Marines looked over mud walls, and bullets slamming into the dirt beside them as they ran across the many unavoidable open spaces in the area they have been assigned to clear.

On Wednesday, firing came from primitive compounds, irrigation canals and agricultural fields as the bloody struggle between the Marines and the Taliban for control of the northern portion of this Taliban enclave continued for a fifth day.

In return, Company K used mortars, artillery, helicopter attack gunships and an airstrike in a long afternoon of fighting, which ended, as has been the pattern for nearly a week, with the waning evening light.

The fight to push the Taliban from this small area of Marja, a rural belt of dense poppy cultivation with few roads and almost no services, has relented only briefly since Company K landed by helicopters in the blackness early on Saturday morning. It has been a grinding series of skirmishes triggered by the company's advances to seize sections of villages, a bridge and a bazaar where it has established an outpost and patrol bases.

Over all, most Taliban small-arms fire has been haphazard and ineffective, an unimpressive display of ill discipline or poor skill. But this more familiar brand of Taliban shooting has been punctuated by the work of what would seem to be several well-trained marksmen.

On Monday, a sniper struck an Afghan soldier in the neck at a range of roughly 500 to 700 yards. The Afghan was walking across an open area when the single shot hit him. He died.

The experience of First Platoon on Wednesday was the latest chilling example. The platoon, laden with its backpacks, was moving west toward the company's main outpost after several days of operating in the eastern portion of the company's area.

Marines here often stay within the small clusters of buildings as they walk, seeking the relative protection of mud walls. But it is impossible to move far without venturing into the open to cross to new villages. As First Platoon moved into the last wide expanse before reaching the command post, the Taliban began a complex ambush.

First bullets came from a Kalashnikov firing from the south, said First Lt. Jarrod D. Neff, the platoon commander. The attack had a logic: to the south, a deep irrigation canal separates the insurgents from anyone walking on the north side, where the company's forces are concentrated. Vegetation is also thicker there, providing ample concealment.

There have been several ambushes in this same spot since the long-planned Afghan and American operation to evict the Taliban and establish a government presence in Marja began. Each time, the Marines and their Afghan counterparts have run through the open by turns, some of them sprinting while others provided suppressive fire.

The routine had been a long and risky maneuver by dashing and dropping, without a hint of cover, as bursts of machine-gun bullets and single sniper shots zipped past or thumped in the soil, kicking up a fine white powder that coats the land. At the end of each ambush, each man was slicked in sweat and winded. Ears rang from the near deafening sound of the Marines and Afghan soldiers returning fire.

As First Platoon made the crossing under machine-gun fire, at least one sniper was also waiting, according to the Marines who crossed. After the Taliban gunmen occupied the platoon's attention to the south, a sniper opened fire from the north, Marines in the ambush said.

The Marine who was killed was struck in the chest as he ran, just above the bulletproof plate on his body armor, the Marines said. The others were struck in a hand or arm. (The names of the three wounded men have been withheld pending government notification of their families.)

All three were evacuated by an Army Black Hawk helicopter that landed under crackling fire.

Whoever was firing remained hidden, even from the Marines' rifle scopes. "I was looking and I couldn't see them," said Staff Sgt. Jay C. Padilla, an intelligence specialist who made the crossing with First Platoon. "But they were shooting the dirt right next to us." The sniper also focused, two Marines said, on trying to hit a black Labrador retriever, Jaeger, who has been trained for sniffing out munitions and hidden bombs. The dog was not hit.

The platoon was just outside the company outpost when the ambush began. A squad from Third Platoon rushed out and bounded across the canal, trying to flank the Taliban and chase them away, or to draw their fire so that First Platoon might continue its crossing. The squad came under precise sniper fire, too, while the company coordinated fire support.

First the company fired its 60-millimeter mortars, but the Taliban kept firing. Company K escalated after the Third Platoon commander reported by radio that several insurgents had moved into a compound near the canal.

The forward air controller traveling with Company K, Capt. Akil R. Bacchus, arranged for an airstrike.

About a minute later, a 250-pound GPS-guided bomb whooshed past overhead and slammed into the compound with a thunderous explosion.

"Good hit!" said Capt. Joshua P. Biggers, the company commander. "Good hit."

After the airstrike, two pairs of attack helicopters were cleared to strafe a set of bunkers and canals that the Taliban fighters had been firing from.

They climbed high over the canal and bore down toward a tree line, guns and rockets firing. Explosions tossed soil and made the ground shudder. First Platoon pushed toward the outpost.

For all the intensity of the fighting in this small area of Marja, and in spite of the hardships and difficulties of the past several days, both Captain Biggers and the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, suggested Wednesday that the seesaw contest would soon shift.

Company K had been isolated for several days, and by daylight was almost constantly challenged by the Taliban. But on Wednesday morning, before the latest ambush, the battalion had cleared the roads to its outposts, allowing more forces to flow into the area, significantly increasing the company's strength.

By evening, as Cobra gunships still circled, the results were visible to the Marines and insurgents watching the outpost alike. The company had more supplies, and its contingent of several mine-resistant, ambush-protected troop carriers, called MRAPs — each outfitted with either a heavy machine gun or automatic grenade launcher — had reached the outpost.

Colonel Christmas looked over the outpost's southern wall at the vegetated terrain beyond the canal. "We'll be getting in there and clearing that out," he said.
Unidos Venceremos! United We Will Win!
~Peta~de~Aztlan~ Sacramento, California, Amerika
Email: @Peta_de_Aztlan

"Those who make peaceful revolution impossible,
make violent revolution inevitable."

~ President John F.Kennedy ~ Assassinated November 22, 1963

No comments: