Bombs and ambushes as Marines inch into Taliban bastion

Note the apparent effect of widespread discussion of current ROE:

Bombs and ambushes as Marines inch into Taliban bastion

By Jason Gutierrez (AFP) – 23 hours ago

SOUTHEAST OF MARJAH, Afghanistan — The crisp crackling of AK-47s breaks the morning silence as US Marines inch towards the outskirts of a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan's southern province of Helmand.

Within minutes, three squads of the Marines' 1st Battalion, 6th Regiment's Alpha company are pinned down in an open, dried-out poppy field by gunfire from unseen Taliban militants hiding in mud houses metres away.

"Stay down, stay down. Get me an eye on these guys," Staff Sergeant Stephen Vallejo barks as he directs his men into an embankment facing the gunfire.

At least two suspected Taliban militants are sighted, one of them lighting up a haystack as a signal for reinforcement. More gunfire ensues, the smell of gunpowder wafts in the cold air, and then silence.

In the distance, women and children are in the firing line of the Marines -- either forced by the Taliban to stay there as human shields or they are unperturbed by the fighting.

"We can't engage them because there are civilians in the direct path," Vallejo says, calling in the unit's position to base and asking for exact coordinates to pin down the enemy fire.

His men positioned in the embankment let off a volley of machine gunfire, sending fragments of the mud house flying into the air. Nearby, an elderly man herds his family away to safety.

Young Marines in their early 20s are visibly shaken.

Soldiers from Afghanistan's army, who are being trained by the Marines to take over once they begin gradually pulling out in 18 months, provide seemingly chaotic support to those up front.

One interpreter props himself down on the earth and begins to pray during a lull in the fighting.

The Marines are on one of the patrol missions to inch closer to Marjah in Helmand province, which produces the bulk of the world's opium poppies, the main ingredient in the production of heroin.

Marjah is described as one of the last bastions of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, and dislodging them from this area is part of the US government's overall strategy to push them away from population centres.

Some 10,000 Marines have already poured into the region, and an all-out push into Marjah is on the drawing board. Related article: Taliban part of 'political fabric' of Afghanistan

The Taliban could either fight to the death or abandon the town, but pushing them out without bloodshed is preferred.

"The best battles are won are without a fight," says one lieutenant.

The initial push into Marjah, however, has met resistance. Taliban fighters hidden in farming communities take potshots at advancing Marines.

Heavy sporadic fighting over the past few days has left at least three Taliban fighters dead. Forces also arrested an elderly man whose shed yielded over 500 kilograms (1,200 pounds) of processed ammonium nitrate and other materials used in making bombs.

One US sergeant was killed during an earlier patrol after stepping on an improvised explosive device (IED) planted in an open field.

"Watch out for disturbed earth, these are clever fighters, they plant IEDs where they know we may be going," Vallejo says.

"What really angers me is that we are prevented from making further contact. They are either using the women and children as human shields or they (the women and children) just don't care about the fighting," he said.

"Most likely, it's the former. They know our rules of engagement," he said.

The radio crackles into life some 20 minutes later. It's the forward operating base calling them to pull back. For now, the operation ends.

"But we'll be back to get these guys," Vallejo vows. Moving away, a rifle grenade explodes into the Taliban position, sending a plume of smoke into the air as artillery fire is heard in the distance.

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