Military Commanders: Obama's Afghanistan Plan Won't Work Without Afghan Help

But Grattan said the most critical shortage was the lack of Afghan forces. While the centerpiece of NATO commander General Stan McChrystal's strategy to win this war has been to partner with the Afghans, Grattan's battalion in Khan Neshin had to work with no Afghan soldiers at all, and could work only with a few dozen border guards and barely a dozen policemen, although others are in training.

Since parts of Helmand remain in Taliban hands, the Marines combine their work in holding the ground they have secured with raids into enemy territory.

On the way to raid Safaar Bazaar, 20 miles northeast of Khan Neshin, Grattan rode in an armored vehicle flying the Jolly Roger. His goal was to disrupt a Taliban haven. "They can't be left thinking any place is safe."

The raid began with a convoy of 40-plus vehicles fording the Helmand river. In a ruse, the Marines pushed west into the desert until darkness fell. Then they turned and looped north, stopping only to dig out bogged-down vehicles. Staying hidden, they reached an attack position just after 2 a.m. They swooped in at dawn on Thursday.

For all the deception, the Taliban had still known the Marines were coming. Rather than fight in the open, they chose to fight from a distance and tie down the Marines. They slipped away from Safar Bazaar -- and left behind a deadly ghost town pocked with IEDs.

Bomb disposal technicians moved through the silent marketplace, lined by squat brick buildings. The metal shutters had all been pulled down.

Then one Marine lay down in the dirt in the middle of a street and began to brush the dust from a pressure plate linked to a massive bomb. Other Marines took shelter where they could at the edges of the street. Everyone but a wandering donkey and a handful of Kuchi, Afghan nomads, had disappeared.

The Taliban Strikes

For all the technical expertise involved, the work still comes down to one brave man, alone and exposed, face to face with a bomb. The man I was watching asked not to be named.

"I am just glad to be helping save lives," he told me. Since July, two of the battalion's disposal technicians have died while defusing bombs.

As I sheltered with some Marines beneath an awning of thatched twigs, some used black humor to break the tension.

"I wish they'd get back to shooting at us, rather than this s***," said a Marine. As two Cobra attack helicopters flew over, one man joked: "Shoot the road! Shoot up the bazaar!"

After an eternity, we watched as the lonely man in the street disarmed the pressure plate and placed a charge to blow the bomb apart. "Get back into cover. Watch out for secondaries!" he yelled. "Controlled det! Two mikes!" he warned, meaning that a controlled explosion was due in two minutes. Then came the blast. When the debris settled there was a six-foot crater in the tan dirt of the street.

As the Marines resumed clearing the town, cutting open locked metal shutters, searching buildings, the Taliban struck. At 12.40 p.m. two mortars slammed into homes beside the market. They seemed to be coming from beyond some fields to the left.

The Marines began to fire back, and soon I heard the deep sound of cannons from the light armored vehicles (LAV) nearby on my left.

The Marines saw men piling their mortar tube into a truck and escaping. After six hours the soldiers had cleared about 100 yards of the town's main street.

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