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.
An order came not to bother trying to recover any more IEDS -- to destroy them instead. There were six more in the town, and the technicians destroyed them.
By now help had arrived to search for the Taliban firing team. Choppers were circling, jets were overhead, and above them a Predator drone scanned the terrain.
Finally, the crew of an armored vehicle on a hill saw men hiding in a clump of trees, unloading a rocket from a truck. The Americans unleashed hell – mortars, explosive rounds and artillery. When the thuds and explosions had subsided, orange flame and smoke covered the fields.
It was hard to imagine anyone could have survived, but from a distance no one could tell. The Taliban disappeared, the smoke cleared and the silence returned. Before sundown the Marines finished clearing the marketplace, jumped back into their trucks and drove back to Camp Payne.
Via such raids, and their work around Khan Neshin, Grattan's battalion has established 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 30 mile stretch of riverside that separates Grattan's bases in the district of Khan Neshin from other Marine units based farther north. And when the Americans are not in Safar Bazaar, the Taliban return.
To sustain gains on the ground in a country of more than 250,000 square miles, even an augmented American force will clearly need the help of Afghan troops. In Helmand, the offensive launched in July by just over 5,000 Marines was backed by only 700 Afghan troops. But brigadier general Larry Nicholson told aides that, for an effective counter-insurgency campaign, he would rather have 700 Marines and 5,000 Afghan troops.
"It is not enough just to send in the troops," one senior commander told me. "We will be wasting the lives of our fallen servicemen unless Karzai and his government match our commitment."
This week, the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, said he had won a promise from Karzai to dispatch a brigade of 5,000 Afghan soldiers down to Helmand. And Obama's plan includes a commitment to a rapid expansion of Afghan forces.
"We must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government," said the president Tuesday night, "so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future."
On the ground, many troops are skeptical that such promises will be delivered; many believe much more radical measures are needed -- like the training of a reliable police force, recruited from local tribes, that could garner support from the mainly Pushtun people from which the Taliban draw their fighters.
"This part of the world is fiercely suspicious of outsiders," said one U.S. military intelligence officer, who was personally skeptical the military campaign could ever succeed. "Simply sending more troops from the north of the country is not going to subdue the revolt."