Wednesday, May 27, 2009

U.S. soldiers' options limited to protect Afghans from Taliban

By Philip Smucker

BERMEL, Afghanistan — The Taliban took shelter in the U.S.-built school they blew up last year before they began the 400-foot climb, rockets in hand, to the American bastion on the hill.

Wrapped in space blankets — thin foil sheets familiar to campers — to avoid detection by the thermal imaging cameras in the U.S. outpost, they zigzagged up the escarpment. Troops at the base said insurgents had come right up on the helicopter landing zone, fired their rockets, then disappeared "like ninjas into the night."

Fortress Margha, with its grenade launchers and mortars sticking out from behind sandbags and bulletproof windows on three watchtowers, is a safe redoubt for the American troops stationed there. Within its walls, soldiers play ice hockey and video games that imitate guerrilla warfare.

For the Afghans who live in a medieval world of mud homes with interlocking walls in the valley below, however, reality is a reign of terror.

Taliban fighters rule the day and the night in the Bermel district, using threats and atrocities to control the civilian population, Afghans in the valley told a visiting reporter in interviews over two weeks. Accompanied by Arab and Chechen advisers, they behead civilians or sever their hands to force their cooperation. One of the latest Taliban edicts is a ban on cutting trees, so that insurgents can hide and lay ambushes for foreign troops.

From a distance, the U.S. base in Margha, occupied by a platoon from the 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division out of Fort Richardson, Alaska, is a monument to a risk-averse, shorthanded American strategy in Afghanistan.

That could change with the arrival of an additional 17,500 American combat troops and of Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a hard-charging special operations man, to replace Gen. David McKiernan, who'd been faulted for failing to implement counterinsurgency strategy quickly enough.

The small U.S. base can be defended against as many as a thousand insurgents at once, confident American soldiers said. That sums up their dilemma, however: The fortress protects American troops, but it does little to help win a guerrilla war that's now in its eighth year and about to enter another violent summer.

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