15 February 2010

Clearing phase of Operation Mushtarak continues

U.S. soldiers and one Afghan soldier exchange fire with insurgents during a patrol in the Badula Qulp area, West of Lashkar Gah in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2010. In the fight, one soldier was wounded and at least one insurgent was killed. The soldiers are operating in support of a U.S. Marine offensive against the Taliban in Marjah area. AP Photo, Pier Paolo Cito.

Alfred de Montesquiou of The Associated Press reports:

Sniper teams attacked U.S. Marines and Afghan troops across the Taliban haven of Marjah, as several gun battles erupted Monday on the third day of a major offensive to seize the extremists' southern heartland.

Multiple firefights in different locations taxed the ability of coalition forces to provide enough air support as NATO forces forged deeper into the town, moving through suspected insurgent neighborhoods, the U.S. Marines said.

In northern Marjah, an armored column came under fire from at least three separate sniper teams, slowing its progress. One of the teams came within 155 feet (50 meters) and started firing.

Troops braced for the estimated 2.5-mile (four-kilometer) march to link up with U.S. and Afghan troops who had been airdropped into the town. Small squads of Taliban snipers initiated firefights throughout the day in an attempt to draw coalition forces into a larger ambush.

Inside Marjah, sporadic firefights increased by midday as small sniper teams fired at U.S. Marines before withdrawing, hoping to lure them into chasing them into a larger ambush.

"Literally every time we stand up, we take rounds," warned one Marine over the radio.

Marines said their ability to fight back has been tightly constrained by strict new rules of engagement that make their job more difficult and dangerous. Under the rules, troops cannot fire at people unless they commit a hostile act or show hostile intent.

"I understand the reason behind it, but it's so hard to fight a war like this," said Lance Corp. Travis Anderson, 20, from Altoona, Iowa. "They're using our rules of engagement against us," he said, stating that his platoon had repeatedly seen men dropping their guns into ditches before walking away to melt among civilians.

Allied officials have reported two coalition deaths so far — one American and one Briton killed Saturday. Afghan officials said at least 27 insurgents have been killed in the offensive.

U.S. amy crew chief Spc. Emil Rivera, of Tuscon, Ariz., left, with Task Force Pegasus, keeps watch at the door of his Black Hawk helicopter as a wounded U.S. service member is evacuated, in Marjah, Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, Sunday Feb. 14, 2010. Pegasus aero-medical crews are supporting U.S. and Afghan troops taking part in an ongoing assault in the Taliban-held town of Marjah, attempting to break the extremists' grip over their southern heartland and establish government control. AP Photo, Brennan Linsley.

Nearby, another AP reporter, Christopher Torchia, has a pretty exciting day in Badula Qulp, just northeast of Marjah.

The patrol began in the early afternoon, heading off a canal road and into farmland to the west. Fifty men: an American platoon, up to 30 Afghan soldiers and 10 Canadian troops who advise the Afghans. They moved slowly, in two columns. Two Afghan soldiers with metal detectors, searching for mines, led the way.

An Associated Press reporter and photographer accompanied the patrol.

The sky was clear, the air brisk, and it was very quiet. About 700 yards off the road, the soldiers saw four or five unarmed men, watching. The men moved away. Within minutes, gunfire erupted. Caught in the open, the patrol hit the earth and returned fire.

But it was an exposed position and hard to locate the source of fire. One group of soldiers picked up and sprinted, slowly, it seemed, with their cumbersome gear, for a shallow irrigation canal. It was cover, but not for long.

“I saw five guys, moving right to left,” said Spc. Nathan Perry of Cedartown, Ga., hunkered in the ditch. He said he had felt bullets “around my feet, popping off.”

A Canadian berated an Afghan soldier whose gunfire was too close to soldiers scattered elsewhere in the field.

“You’ve got friendlies there!” he screamed. “You’ve got friendlies there!”

“Hey sir, where’s it coming from?” an American shouted to his platoon leader, 1st Lt. Gavin McMahon of Brooklyn, N.Y.

“Somewhere over there,” McMahon said. He gestured west.

The men in the ditch pushed forward, trying to reach a low earthen berm for better cover. The Taliban had a line of sight straight down the canal. Rounds snapped a couple of feet away. To the AP reporter, a civilian with no military background, it seemed counterintuitive: running forward, toward the danger. Not back.

Then the American soldier got hit. The bullet hit the shoulder piece of his protective vest, and bounced down into his chest.

Spc. Benjamin McQuiston of Tucson, Ariz., was just ahead of the man, who cannot be identified until his family is notified in keeping with U.S. military regulations.

“When the shots went off, I heard him yelling. I thought he was scared. I was yelling too,” McQuiston said later. “Then I heard him coughing. It sounded weird. I looked back and he was coughing up blood.”

With shooting all around, soldiers cut away the injured man’s shirt, and put a chest seal on the wound to prevent air entering.

“I’m going to be good,” the man said. He was able to walk and had the energy to shout an obscenity at the Taliban.

McMahon was on the radio, calling for help. The mission had immediately shifted from fighting the Taliban to getting a wounded man to safety and treatment. The patrol pulled back, different groups laying down fire while others ran to cover, bunching up against mud walls.

But it wasn’t over.

The AP reporter, hauling the wounded man’s ammunition belt, was with two or three men who sprinted around a corner, straight into another ambush. The bullets flew past just a few feet away, maybe. It was hard to tell. It was also hard to tell what was cover and what wasn’t. The only thing to do was to lie, crouch, curl up and hope.

There were glimpses of another world. A calf wandered in the midst of it all, moving its head this way and that, as though uncertain about which way to go. Up close, a big ant crawled over chunks of earth, oblivious to the adrenaline-fueled men trying to kill each other.

Spc. Andrew Szala of Newport, R.I., tried to keep the injured man talking, conscious. He chatted about the plot of a season of the American comedy series, “The Office,” a send-up of white-collar life.

“Michael starts his own paper company. Pam goes with him. Jim stays behind,” Szala said as the battle raged...

Much more at the link.

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