A strike force of US marines punched through Taliban frontlines in southern Helmand today as part of an Afghan “mini surge” intended to weaken the insurgents’ grip on the war-ravaged south.
The marine force, numbered in the hundreds, exchanged fire with Taliban fighters as they pushed through Garmser, a town abandoned by its inhabitants in recent years and ringed by poppy fields.
The American soldiers are the core of a new 2,300-strong reserve force under the control of the US commander of international troops in Afghanistan, General Dan McNeill. The Helmand mission aims to disrupt drugs and smuggling routes into nearby Pakistan.
The marines landed before dawn today, some trundling in on Humvee trucks and others arriving by helicopter. Within a few hours, insurgents armed with guns and rocket launchers poured out of a local madrasa, sparking fighting that lasted several hours.
The combat petered out by late morning after US helicopter gunships pounded suspected Taliban positions with rockets. Casualty figures were unknown. “We’re ready to push up against the enemy. I know the boys are pretty hungry,” said lieutenant Tom Lefebrvre, platoon leader of a mortar team stationed less than a mile from the fighting.
The operation was coordinated with the British military, which has a fortified base in the town and several outposts in surrounding areas. Scottish infantrymen provided covering fire as the marines passed through their lines, while British commanders coordinated surveillance of Taliban movements.
In the surrounding poppy fields, some farmers and hired labourers fled in fear. The difficulty of securing Garmser symbolises the broader problems of taming Helmand. Only two and a half years ago the town had a thriving market, but since clashes between British forces and the Taliban it has become a ghost town.
This morning Corporal Lachlan MacNeil, stationed at a British observation post, saw 40 fighters in 10 vehicles leave a madrasa outside the town and speed towards the advancing marines. He said the insurgents appeared to be using a tunnel system to attack the Americans, because after opening fire with a heavy machine gun they quickly disappeared from view. The militants were led by diehards from Pakistan and central Asia countries, he said.
An hour after he spoke, Cobra helicopter gunships fired Hellfire missiles into two buildings near the madrasa. The fighting slowed and the Americans bedded down near the town for the night. The marines are part of a 2,300-strong reserve force under McNeill. Another 1,200 marines have arrived to train the notoriously weak Afghan police. The deployment to southern Helmand is the first major US operation in the area since late 2001, when US soldiers touched down at a remote airstrip in southern Helmand.
Lefebvre said their objective was “force projection”. “The war on terror is about keeping the terrorists at bay. Anything we can do to keep them away from the home front is good,” he added.
For now, British efforts in Helmand are concentrated further north in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, and in the Sangin Valley. “We’re in a holding pattern until the centre is clear,” said Battlegroup South commander Lieutenant Colonel Nick Borton. “Then we will come down and sort this place out.”