Taliban Insurgents Reemerge
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan -- Taliban fighters who evaded a major Marine Corps thrust into insurgent-held towns along the Helmand River valley this month are now probing Marine positions and using roadside bombs to impede U.S. troop movements, according to senior Marine officers.
Several hundred Taliban had been occupying the populated agricultural lands, known as the “green zone,” where the Marines are now setting up positions. Many of the Taliban fighters laid low during the offensive, the officers said.
In recent days, however, insurgents throughout the area have reemerged to mount fresh attacks, said Col. George S. Amland, deputy commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, which has some 4,000 troops operating in central and southern Helmand.
The Taliban, Amland said, is looking “for weak points or points that he thinks he can exploit and come back and reclaim the territory that he has left.” While usually unwilling to attack the Marine units head on, the Taliban is instead relying on “hit and run” tactics, said another officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he had not been authorized to speak on the record.
After observing the Marines, the Taliban fighters have attacked with makeshift bombs known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
“The use of IEDs has proliferated,” Amland said. The bombs are relatively unsophisticated and made of readily available agricultural materials, but are nevertheless lethal.
Two Marines on a road-clearing crew were killed Monday in Helmand’s Garmsir District, after they traced the wire of a suspected bomb into a house that was rigged to explode, according to an officer with their unit. Since the U.S. launched its Helmand operation, Western troops in Afghanistan have been dying at a rate of three a day, far higher than the normal rate.
The bomb attacks have slowed or obstructed the Marines’ use of the network of narrow, unpaved dirt roads that link farming villages in the river valley. The bombs have already disabled several vehicles which are further hampered by their bulk in navigating the primitive roads. The Marines’ mine-resistant armored protection vehicles “are just too big for those roads,” said Col. Eric Mellinger, operations officer for the Marine
Commanders have made some roads off limits, instead requiring slow-going travel through adjacent deserts, or foot marches through fields and canals. Many of the supplies for the troops are being flown in by helicopter.
Taliban insurgents, meanwhile, have lost some freedom to operate as the Marines have pushed deep into areas that have not been occupied by coalition forces since the U.S-led invasion of Afghanistan overthrew the Taliban government in 2001.
Still, the Taliban are able to hide in plain view by blending in with the population. U.S. officers say local residents continue to receive threatening notes from the Taliban warning them not to cooperate with coalition forces. “They are still intimidated, still getting night letters saying ‘don’t meet with the coalition,’” said Mellinger.
At the same time, large swaths of the river valley remain without coalition forces, including Marja, which is near the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. Insurgents are known to be taking refuge there, Amland said. U.S. military reports indicate that senior Taliban leaders are not employing their best-trained fighters, and as a result the attacks are not highly sophisticated, officers said. “The Taliban senior leadership is husbanding their assets. They know the guys who choose to fight us will be killed,” one officer said.
Overall, officers say they expect a drawn-out campaign against the Taliban in the Helmand River valley, with Marine deployments expected to continue here for years.
“We know the Taliban are going to come back and challenge us and lay IEDs, terrorize the population and try to make us cause civilian casualties,” said Mellinger. “They’ll do all these things for the battle of influence, and we have to continue to convince the population that we are here to help.”
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