From The Sunday Times, November 1, 2009
Stephen Grey in Safar Bazaar
Under the harsh sunlight, a lone grey donkey sauntered across one end of a silent street; halfway down the far end, a US marine lay in the dirt, exposed and alone — brushing the dust from a pressure plate linked to a massive bomb.
A few days ago this town, deep in Taliban territory, was thronged with up to 800 residents and traders. This is Helmand’s biggest drugs market, but today all but a handful of Kuchi, the Afghan nomads, have vanished.
Somehow the Taliban knew the marines were coming. Rather than fight openly, they left behind a booby-trapped ghost town littered with improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Since July, two bomb disposal technicians attached to the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance battalion have been killed in such circumstances.
For all the techniques they employ, this work still boils down to one man of courage making a lonely walk. The man I was watching asked not to be named. “I am just glad to be helping save lives,” he told me.
As we sheltered beneath an awning of thatched twigs, there was a sense of foreboding, broken only by black humour. “I’d be totally amazed if no one gets hurt today,” said one sergeant.
“I wish they’d get back to shooting at us, rather than this s***,” said another marine. As two Cobra attack helicopters flew over, one man joked: “Shoot the road! Shoot up the bazaar!”
After what seemed an age, the pressure plate was disarmed and a charge placed to blow the bomb apart. “Get back into cover. Watch out for secondaries!” yelled the bomb technician before the warning of “Controlled det! Two mikes! [minutes]” and then the sharp blast, throwing up a cloud of debris and leaving a 6ft crater.
A year ago, a strike like this into the Taliban’s heartland would have led to a gunfight. But by using explosives made from fertiliser, the insurgents have mastered the IED. Their next best choice is a stand-off weapon like a mortar or a rocket and we would see those, too, before too long.
Last summer the US marines brought 10,000 soldiers to join British and other Nato forces in Helmand. But the existence of Taliban strongpoints such as Safar Bazaar is testament, said marine officers, that the number deployed is still far too short of that required to control this province.
Commanding his marines from an armoured vehicle flying the Jolly Roger as they advanced through the desert, Lieutenant Colonel Tim Grattan, the battalion’s commanding officer, said the best that could be done was to disrupt Taliban havens. “They can’t be left thinking any place is safe,” he said.
Deploying to Helmand with only two companies of infantry, less than 40% of his battalion’s strength, Grattan blamed an “artificial cap” on troop numbers set in Washington.
He said his battalion, after an initial fight in July and August, was beginning to establish a 20-mile security zone along the Helmand river.
But the American drive south is still 70 miles short of Pakistan and a chain of smuggling towns that dot the border. It has also left pockets of Taliban strength, including the 30mile stretch of riverside that separates Grattan’s bases in the district of Khan Neshin from other marine units based farther north.
“There is no doubt we can interdict and deny the Taliban a route in from Pakistan, but we need the forces to do it,” Grattan said.
The most critical shortage is of Afghan forces — the centrepiece of Nato commander General Stanley McChrystal’s strategy for turning this war. Fighting alongside the 5,000 marine combat troops are just 700 Afghan soldiers. None was deployed to Grattan’s sector last week. Khan Neshin district has barely a dozen policemen and a few border guards, although others are in training.
In the ruined castle that is the Khan Neshin administrative centre, the governor said he sometimes felt abandoned by the government in Kabul.
“The government does not support me,” said Massoud Ahmad Rassouli, a 27-year-old who had trained as a pharmacist. “It’s the marines who support me. Not even my salary is paid by the government.”
The marines and civilian agencies have in four months opened a school, funded the rebuilding of long-derelict canals, held shuras [(town meetings]) with elders, opened a radio station, funded a job creation scheme and are doling out cheap loans to tradesmen. All this has helped to prove the value of evicting the Taliban.However, Grattan cautioned that until the surrounding areas were cleared the Taliban would try to return.
The raid had begun when a convoy of more than 40 vehicles forded the Helmand river from the base at Camp Payne, east of Khan Neshin.
In a ruse, the marines at first pushed west into the desert until darkness fell. Then they turned and looped north, stopping only to dig out bogged-down vehicles and staying hidden, to reach an attack position just after 2am. They swooped in at dawn on Thursday.
For all the deception tactics, the Taliban had seen them coming. “Anyone who thinks they’re not being watched in this country is being a bit foolish,” said Captain Christopher Conner, whose Charlie Company conducted the raid. In July, when they first raided this place, the marines found tons of poppy seed. This time the Taliban had removed any illicit produce and left only a nest of IEDs. Seven were found and destroyed.
As the marines pushed slowly through the bazaar, the Taliban sprung the next part of their trap. At 12.40pm two mortars nose-dived into homes beside the market.
From where I stood, the Taliban firing points were across fields to the left.
Puffs of smoke appeared as the marines began counter-fire, then came the deep belly-thumps of cannon firing from the light armoured vehicles (LAV) on the near left.
The marines could see men loading the mortar tube into a truck and speeding off, but the vehicle got away. After six hours the soldiers had barely cleared 100 yards down the streets of squat brick buildings, cutting open locked metal shutters in their search.
An order came not to bother trying to recover any more IEDS — to destroy them instead. By now helicopters were circling, jets were flying overhead and a Predator drone was high above, trying to spot the Taliban firing team.
Finally, the crew of an LAV perched on a hill to the west saw men unloading a rocket from a truck in a clump of trees.
This was the signal to unleash hell: thuds from the LAVs’ heavy cannon, orange sparks of explosive rounds detonating and grey smoke rising. Then came mortars — a pop from the launch site behind me, then the crump of the explosion. First a round to check they were on target. Then the order “Fire for effect!” and a barrage.
Artillery came, too — a screech of rounds and then sharp thuds, explosions, a flame and billowing smoke that enveloped the fields.
The artillery was off target and was told to stop shooting. More mortars and more cannon were fired instead.
It was hard to imagine anyone could have survived. The Taliban disappeared, the smoke cleared from the fields and the town returned to silence. Just before sunset the marines finished clearing the bazaar, jumped into their trucks and drove back into the desert.