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Marines wrestle with exasperation in battle for hearts and minds

Accidental Counterinsurgency: Musa Qala, Afghanistan

By MATT MILLHAM | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 1, 2011

PATROL BASE MIRAGE, Afghanistan — First Lt. Tor Peery stood in front of a black and white map tacked to a piece of plywood in his command center, raised a massive arm and pointed to a pizza-slice-shaped bit of acreage south of the blue thumbtack representing his current position.

“I call this the Bermuda Triangle,” he said, using his finger to trace the outline of the slice, the pointy end of which comes to within a few hundred yards of Patrol Base Mirage’s doorstep. “If you go in, you probably won’t come out, because this is all just laced with IEDs.”

The triangle is also the nerve center of Taliban activity in their little piece of Afghanistan.

Two months ahead of President Barack Obama’s target date for a reduction in forces, Marines in this part of Helmand province are still fighting daily battles with Taliban militants who have recently returned from their winter hideouts.

Mirage, ringed by fields of yellowing wheat and harvested poppy plants, is among the most violent sectors in the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment’s area of operations, which includes the districts of Now Zad and Musa Qala.

Though commanders in many parts of Afghanistan predicted that Taliban fighters would not return in force this year to face coalition troops who are more entrenched in more areas than ever before, Peery’s 3rd Platoon of Company K on the southern edge of Musa Qala expected a fight.

And they’ve gotten one.

During their first month at Mirage, 3rd Platoon inflicted so much damage on insurgents that the area’s Taliban commander ordered his men in April to stand down while, according to intel shared with the unit, the commander tried to secure reinforcements and additional weapons.

The ceasefire ended May 19 with a brazen, coordinated assault starting with an attack on an Afghan police convoy and ending with one Marine seriously wounded.

“It was like all hell broke loose,” said Peery, a Rochester, N.Y., native and 3rd Platoon’s commander.

After ambushing the police, Taliban attacked Mirage and Padlek, a hand-dug hilltop observation post, with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and assorted heavy and light machine guns. They similarly assaulted the Afghan police station, and in the melee, snuck up to the compound and detonated an improvised bomb against the compound’s outer wall, wounding the police chief.

Ever since that battle, which lasted for hours and resulted in three friendlies wounded — two Afghan police and a Marine who was shot in the arm — “I just want to go out and shoot everybody I see,” said Lance Cpl. Jamie Hayward, a 21-year-old squad automatic weapon gunner from Chester, Vt.

“We came here knowing we were going to take casualties; it was just in the back of your mind, you know,” he said. “We weren’t getting shot at, and then all of a sudden they brought it one day, and they’re not letting up.”

While many Marines, especially junior guys, want to take on the enemy — estimated at 30 mostly foreign fighters — they’re holding back, taking their opportunities to strike when they can get them. For many, those opportunities aren’t coming quickly enough. Some Marines are champing at the bit to get into the “Bermuda Triangle” and take out known enemy positions.

That slice of land is small but treacherous, the last corner in a 30-square-kilometer area of operations (about 11.5 square miles) still off limits to Peery’s platoon. In addition to the bombs strewn throughout the area, the Marines take daily indirect fire — usually mortars — from a place they call “the Armory” near the triangle’s fat southern end. They’ve known about the armory for months, yet higher headquarters have repeatedly denied authorization to take it out, for fear of causing civilian casualties.

“A lot of materiel is going in and out of there every day,” Peery said. “We can’t do much about it. We want to raid it at some point.”

A central tenet of Gen. David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy is that no civilians are harmed in the operation.

The Taliban, well aware of this, ensure that women and children are at the armory whenever fighters are present, Peery and others said. If the Marines try to strike, civilian casualty accusations will follow.

“Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing,” Peery said. “They’re going to come back and they’re going to fight another day, and when they do and there’s no civilians in the area, then they’re going to lose their life.”

“But a civilian death or casualty would be astronomically bad for us. It would set us back a year possibly, maybe more.”

So the armory is a damned-if-you-do situation. Many Marines who came itching for a fight and Taliban blood are frustrated beyond measure.

Rather than barge into known enemy strongholds and risk civilian lives, 3rd Platoon patrols through the bazaar and hands out gum and candy to children. They’ve carried out small projects to improve two mosques, fixed roads and built culverts to improve irrigation. They’ve pushed a proposal to the Afghan Ministry of Education for a school.

Such actions appear to be winning the locals over to the Marines’ side. Many influential elders refused to interact with the Marines until three weeks ago. One of those who finally showed had been a fence-sitter, but after seeing the Marines’ actions, offered to feed Peery tips on Taliban activities.

“What we’re doing in the bazaar is like a base for everything,” said Lance Cpl. Chad Edward Smith, a 21-year-old machine gun team leader from Frederick, Md. “You start to open up to these people and they’ll open up to you. I think we’re taking the right way, the right step forward.”

But many want a different approach.

“Basically what’s going on is we’re trying to fight a war that’s focused on hearts and minds when there’s still enemy out there and the enemy threat is greater than anyone else wants to admit,” said Cpl. Joshua Piero, a 23-year-old team leader from Los Angeles.

“It’s really frustrating,” he said. “We’ve even been down there about 150 meters (164 yards) from the armory, requested to go in and see what the [expletive] was up, and we got denied.”

Except for the May 19 assault, Taliban fighters have all but refused to fight the Marines head-on. They prefer to fire on the Marines from the maximum range their weapons will allow, usually from behind buildings “so if something were to happen, like [a] civilian casualty, they’ll blame it on us,” Peery said. “They want to have those civilian casualties to blame on us.”

millhamm@estripes.osd.mil

twitter.com/mattmillham

Marines wade through an irrigation canal during a foot patrol to insert snipers who were to reconnoiter an area south of Patrol Base Mirage, headquarters of 3rd Platoon, Company K, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment.
MATT MILLHAM/STARS AND STRIPES

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