Forget the Fables about Afghan Marksmen

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Forget the fables about Afghan marksmen, C.J. Chivers says, after spending a month and a half in Helmand Province with the Marines. The Taliban insurgents may be resourceful, organized, clever, and even brave, but they can’t shoot:

They knew the network of irrigation canals and used them as trench lines. They littered the fields and small terrain features with hidden bombs rigged to pressure plates. They deployed spotters with radios on motorcycle patrols, which tried to find the Marines and relay word of their movements and activities. They also chose when to fight, and often opened fire on the Marines in the late afternoon, when the sun was low in the sky. Why? Because Marine patrols originated to the Taliban’s east, and as the Marines walked generally westward across the flat steppe toward the area where the Taliban hid, the Marines were walking into the angled sunlight, which illuminated them perfectly for the Taliban, but forced the Marines to look into hard light, and squint. This was an environment in which small-arms clashes were almost inevitable, and in which the Taliban would often get to fire the opening shots. It should have been a place where the Taliban might succeed. What did the numbers show? By early February, when Marine units began massing for the push on Marja, Capt. Thomas Grace, Bravo Company’s commander, estimated that his platoons had been in at least two dozen firefights, often in open terrain. Some of the fights lasted several hours. At least one lasted a full day and into the night. How many of the company’s Marines and the Afghan soldiers who accompanied them had been shot? Zero.Farther west along Route Olympia is an intersection known as Five Points, so named because several dirt roads meet there. The juncture provides access to northern Marja. Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan, the command that planned the attack on Marja, deemed this essential terrain for securing the region. In January, another unit — Charlie Company, First Battalion, Third Marines — was assigned to fly in by helicopter and seize and hold the intersection. This happened in February, a few days before the larger assault began. It prompted a determined Taliban response.

Once the Taliban realized the Marines had leapt by air over their outer defenses, they clustered near Five Points and fought Charlie Company intensely, especially in the first few days. During this time, according to the company commander, Capt. Stephan P. Karabin II, his Marines were in about 15 firefights. Again the Taliban had certain advantages. They knew the ground well enough that their fighters stashed small motorcycles in canals that had been drained. After ambushing the Marines, they sometimes dropped into a dry canal, ran through the maze, jumped on their bikes, started the engines and blasted away at speeds that no one pursuing on foot could hope to match. Smart tactics. But the Taliban did not always run. They often held their ground and fought, perhaps feeling protected by the canals that did contain water, which typically separated them from the Marine patrols they chose to fire upon.

To change the character of the fighting, Captain Karabin ordered his Marines to patrol on foot with their .50-caliber machine guns. These would be lugged along in pieces, and when a firefight began, the Marines assigned to them would put them together, mount the weapons on their tripods, load belts of ammunition and open fire. (A M2 Browning machine gun and tripod weighs nearly 130 pounds; this does not include the weight of the ammunition.) The heavy guns tilted the fighting more fully in the Marines’ favor. But the fact that M2s were used this way said something about how the Taliban fought; some of this fighting was pitched. How many of Charlie Company’s Marines were struck by Taliban bullets in these engagements? Once again, none.

Neither of these companies was spared casualties. Four separate bomb blasts killed two Marines from Bravo Company and wounded nine Marines from Charlie Company. But the Taliban’s rifles were another story. Together the two companies were in about 40 firefights against the main guerrilla force in a nation that is considered, by the conventional wisdom, to be a land of born marksmen. And not a single bullet fired by the Taliban found its mark.

Kilo Company, a fairly large unit (~300 men) suffered some casualties (8 shot, 2 fatally) from 10 days of heavy fighting:

On many days, Kilo Company’s patrols would be ambushed while crossing flat, open ground, with no vegetation concealing the Marines’ movements and no place to take cover without running a couple of hundred yards or more. Often many Taliban gunmen would open fire simultaneously, and a large number of rounds would fly into the area where the patrol walked. Rounds would snap and buzz past helmets. Rounds would thump all around in the dirt. But usually no one would be struck. It happened again and again.When Marines did get hit, it often appeared that the fire came from PK machine guns or the local contingent of snipers — not the riflemen who make the Taliban’s rank-and-file. One day, after a few hours of fighting in which the Taliban had not yet hit any Marines, a corporal from Second Platoon stood upright, exposing himself above the waist and looking over a wall as bullets flew high overhead. He didn’t flinch. “What’s everybody ducking for?” he said. He cupped his hand to his mouth and shouted an expletive-laden taunt at the Taliban gunmen shooting from concealment on the opposite side of a field. The editors would never allow the corporal’s words to be printed here. But they amounted to this: You guys can’t shoot.

Yes, some of this was probably adrenaline and undiluted cockiness, the kind of behavior that Marines can thrive on. But this cockiness was not just attitude. It reflected a discernible truth. Much of the incoming fire was not coming close.

It’s no longer 1897, and the average Afghan is no longer a warrior, a politician, and a theologian.

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