Marines' Offensive Shows Strains with Afghan Forces

Taliban insurgents melt away in the face of overwhelming force.

December 07, 2009, 4:17 PM

CHANGOWLAK, Afghanistan Dec. 7, 2009— -- An offensive by U.S. Marines easily took the Taliban town of Now Zad today, killed 25 insurgents and captured another dozen.

But the victory also showed the fragile alliance between the Marines and the Afghan security forces which they are trying to build into a force to defend Afghanistan.

The Marines' assault through Taliban country in Helmand Province, dubbed "Operation Cobra's Anger," swept through the village of Now Zad. The town has been in the Taliban's hands for several years now and had become a training ground for the group's bomb makers.

The show of force was so overwhelming that most of the insurgents left town, but not before 25 were killed and a dozen captured.

Also captured were hugh caches of weapons and bomb making material that had been hastily buried. Among the arms were rocket propelled grenades and guns, weapons that the poorly equipped Afghan National Police wanted to take for themselves.

The Marines, however, insisted on blowing up the weapons, ammunition and explosives.

"Look, I have only one clip of ammunition. I could use those bullets right there," said Afghan Police Sgt. Azrak Maman.

Frustrated Afghan forced walked off the job in protest of the Marines' insistence on destroying the weapons, but then returned to join the Marines in the continuing offensive. The tension between the Marines and police highlighted the fragile relationship between U.S. and Afghan forces.

President Obama has authorized the deployment of another 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan with orders to blunt the growing Taliban influence and quickly train Afghan security forces to take over the fight. The president expects to begin withdrawing American troops in 2011.

Afghan forces, however, are poorly equipped, badly paid and often poorly led. The encounter in Now Zad highlighted many of the problems facing Obama's new policy.

The "Cobra's Anger" offensive has encountered little resistance in the four days of the attack even as it pushed south, and Marines suspect that Taliban fighters from farther north had fled to this area.

Marines Take Town, Tell Afghans They Must Keep the Town

Now Zad was once the second largest town in Helmand Province with a population of about 30,000. It has been reduced to ghost town under Taliban rule, and Taliban fighters had planted thousands of homemade bombs and dug in positions throughout the valley at the foot of the craggy Tangee Mountains.

One area of town is so heavily mined, Marines refer to it as "no leg alley." Since 2005 several Marines have lost limbs there because of small bombs planted apparently not to kill, but to maim.

The Marine advance continued on to a town south of Now Zad, looking for insurgents as well as their weapons.

They are also trying to secure control of the area, building checkposts and outposts as they go.

"It's a show of faith that we are going to be here for them. That's one of the reasons we are moving out here in a much smaller position, right here with the people," Lt. Col. Martin Wetterauer, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, told ABC News.

Once the Marines have secured the area, however, it is the Afghans who are expected to hang on to it.

Capt. Andrew Terrell, commander of Lima Company, made that clear in the town of Changowlak today.

"I'm going to give you back what the Taliban took away, but you've got to keep," he told his Afghan partners.

Marines eased their tactics today, releasing four suspected insurgents after village elders vouched for them and signed a statement saying they would be responsible if the suspects helped the Taliban again.

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