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Taliban deploy human shields against U.S. Marines

U.S. Marines were exchanging heavy fire with insurgents during a recent battle in the southern Afghan town of Nabuk when a woman and child suddenly appeared from a Taliban gunner's position.
Image: File photo of Cpl. Chun shooting a grenade while under fire from Taliban insurgents during a gun battle in the town of Nabuk
Cpl. John Chun of New Jersey, from the 1st Battalion 8th Marines Alpha Company, shoots a grenade while under fire from Taliban insurgents in the town of Nabuk, Helmand province, on Nov. 1.Finbarr O'reilly / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

U.S. Marines were exchanging heavy fire with insurgents during a recent battle in the southern Afghan town of Nabuk when a woman and child suddenly appeared from a Taliban gunner's position.

"The Taliban were using them as screeners," said Sergeant Thomas James Brennan, a platoon leader with the U.S. Marines.

"I'm glad we didn't pull the trigger because I'm pretty sure they didn't want to have anything to do with it," he said.

It was one incident among many faced every day by troops in Afghanistan's violent south as they fight Taliban-led insurgents, incidents which make progress slow even though leaders in Washington and Europe are looking for signs of success.

NATO leaders will gather this week in Lisbon, far from the tiny village of Nabuk, with reconciliation and security transition in Afghanistan at the top of their agenda.

With U.S. President Barack Obama also to review his Afghanistan war strategy next month, U.S. and NATO commanders have been talking up their successes lately, saying they have slowed the Taliban's momentum in key areas like Helmand province.

But, as Brennan can attest, it has been a hard fight.

After the civilians appeared, Brennan's unit called for back-up but a quick reaction force was hit by a roadside bomb as it sped toward Nabuk, a hilly maze of mud compounds and alleyways in Helmand's Musa Qala district.

The "improvised explosive device," or IED, delayed the medical evacuation of four wounded Marines, including Brennan.

The incident showed how the Taliban don't use "traditional" tactics. "They don't fight fair," Brennan told Reuters.

Musa Qala is an important battleground in the war against Afghanistan's insurgency, and the narcotics industry which helps fund it. Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world's opium, used to make heroin, most of it in the south.

U.S. Marines have been in Musa Qala since March, when they took over from British troops. Security has improved in the district center but outside it is still a Taliban stronghold.

"The district center and the government they have in place now is ripe for turning the corner," said U.S. Marines Major Justin Ansel. "We are at a tipping point, but it's a very fragile tipping point."

Winning trust
Ansel said security must continue to improve and radiate out from the town center in order to win people's trust. A deadline for U.S. involvement would make winning hearts and minds hard.

While ordering an extra 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan last December, Obama also said he wanted to start a gradual drawdown from July 2011, depending on the readiness of Afghan forces to take over. That transition will be discussed in Lisbon.

"Having a timeline, that makes it more challenging, but definitely not insurmountable," Ansel told Reuters.

"It's unrealistic to give it a timeline. I think it's more event-driven than time-driven," he said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has set 2014 as the target for Afghan forces to assume total security responsibility, a goal U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have called realistic.

Counterinsurgency tactics championed by U.S. General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, follow a strategy of clearing, holding and building, something the Marines have been able to do in Musa Qala.

But it takes time, and involves luring Afghan men away from the insurgency with jobs.

Opium is king
"A really solid measure of our effectiveness is when local nationals start pointing out where the IEDs (roadside bombs) are. Right now it's about 25 or almost 30 percent of our finds. That means they are trusting us," Ansel said.

At Sangin, only 20 km (12 miles) south of Musa Qala, other Marines arrived in September and have been battling hard against a determined enemy. Casualties have been high there.

Desolate mountains and ridges flank wadis running through the valley. When it rains, the wadis fill and bring life to the valley, where small farming villages grow corn, nuts and wheat. But the value of those crops is dwarfed by opium.

The immediate concern for the Marines is the war against insurgents, not drugs. Brennan's squad has made some gains in Nabuk, about 3 km from the district center.

"It's a slow process. Every 500 meters we push the Taliban back, it allows 100 meters worth of civilians to come back into town. If we can get them back to their homes we can really start making a difference," Brennan said.

"I'm a piece of the puzzle and if we're not doing our job, then the rest of the puzzle can't fit together."