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Standoff evidence of Afghan challenge


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POSTED: Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Kaneohe Marines patrol slowly along streets laced with land mines and lined with abandoned shops and homes. As night falls over this Afghan ghost town, the only sounds are the howling of dogs and the creaking of tin roofs in the wind.

Three years after its residents fled, the once-bustling town of Now Zad is the scene of a stalemate between a company of newly arrived Marines and a band of Taliban fighters. The Americans have plenty of firepower, but not enough men to hold seized ground.

“;We would just be mowing the weeds,”; said Capt. Zachary Martin of any move to drive out the Taliban.

The deadlock shows how a shortage of troops has hindered the Afghan war and points to the challenges for the Obama administration as it sends 21,000 extra Marines and soldiers to the south to try to turn around the eight-year conflict. The influx will bring U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to about 68,000 by late summer—roughly half the current level in Iraq.

It's unclear if more troops will be deployed to this town in Helmand province, the heart of the Taliban insurgency and the opium trade that funds it. For the meantime, it appears Now Zad is too valuable to abandon to the insurgents—but not valuable enough for an all-out offensive.

The 300 or so Marines in the town are with Kaneohe's Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.

They regularly patrol areas close to the Taliban front lines, skirmishing with them and risking attacks from the area's biggest killer—IEDs. During the past month, improvised explosive devices have killed one Marine and wounded seven. Four of the men suffered double leg amputations.

Now Zad remains so dangerous that this is the only Marine unit in Afghanistan that brings along two trauma doctors, as well as two armored vehicles used as ambulances and supplies of fresh blood.

Apart from a small stretch of paved road, the Marines patrol only behind an engineer who sweeps the ground with a detector. The men who follow scratch out a path in the sand with their foot to ensure those trailing them stay on course. Each carries a tourniquet.

“;It's a hell of a ride,”; said Lance Cpl. Aenoi Luangxay, 20, on his first deployment. “;Every step you think, 'This could be my last.'”;

The men of Golf Company know where to find their enemy—to the north of town, in a maze of compounds and tunnels that back onto lush pomegranate orchards.

The Marines have fortified observations posts on two hills. In one of them, the men sleep in “;hobbit holes”; dug into the earth.

Each day, they aggressively patrol to limit the Taliban's freedom of movement. They also keep a 24-hour watch on the battlefield using high-tech surveillance equipment and fire mortar rounds at insurgents spotted planting bombs or gathering in numbers.