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Fighting ghosts in deadly Afghan theatre

As the United States prepares to announce troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, US marines in one of its deadliest districts are fighting against time to capture territory from the Taliban.

world Updated: Jun 22, 2011 10:44 IST

As the United States prepares to announce troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, US marines in one of its deadliest districts are fighting against time to capture territory from the Taliban.

Sangin has been a byword for danger for years. The last marine battalion here lost 29 men in seven months and when British forces left in 2010, about a third of their total deaths in Afghanistan had come in Sangin.

Although commanders say the situation is now less critical, troops still face fierce resistance and a suspicious reception from many in the district, part of southern Afghanistan's Helmand province.

This leaves them fighting against the clock to firm up their position as foreign combat forces in safer parts of Afghanistan start withdrawals due to be completed across the country by the end of 2014.

Although there is no suggestion of American combat troops leaving the toughest battlegrounds like Sangin any time soon, political momentum is increasingly swinging behind downgrading rather than upgrading resources.

Across southern Afghanistan, the heart of the Taliban insurgency and the Western focus of the near decade-long war, troops are facing the battle to hold ground and take new territory.

In Sangin, though, the stakes are even higher than elsewhere.

First Battalion 5th Marines have fought bitterly to secure a "safe zone" of two square kilometres (less than a square mile) around the district bazaar.

There they have commissioned development projects to build support for the Kabul government. Afghan flags fly from businesses on the main shopping street and marines paid to pave the main Route 611, once littered with Taliban bombs.

The Americans also claim control of an overlapping area 10 by 15 kilometres square where they face sporadic Taliban fire.

But when they try to push into new territory, just a few kilometres from the district centre, they face "shoot and scoot" attacks by Taliban.

On one recent patrol, Taliban machine-gun fire rattled out from a hole carved into the mud wall of a compound, hitting 22-year-old marine Corporal Joel Perez in the shoulder.

"It's like fighting ghosts," said navy medic James Trafny as he treated Perez, referring to the Taliban's tactic of vanishing after attacking.

Further on still, towards the Kajaki dam which supplies hydro-electricity to the region, are highly dangerous areas controlled by more senior Taliban and foreign fighters, mainly from Pakistan.

First Battalion 5th Marines have lost at least five men since arriving three months ago but say they are making progress due to a heavy patrol schedule.

As fighting intensifies over the summer, commanders say the real struggle will be to secure new ground.

"We can hold what we've got -- the question is how much can we expand it?" said battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Savage.

"A lot of that depends on the trust of the people. It only takes three or four people (Taliban) in a neighbourhood to make them scared to even talk to you."

In the safe zone, the marines' focus is on building support for President Hamid Karzai's government through development projects.

But in areas where fighting is heavier, this kind of scheme is impossible and some locals say the ongoing battles have alienated them from both sides.

"The Americans shoot in the village where there are families living (while) the Taliban are everywhere -- they are always causing trouble for us," said wheat farmer Abdul Kadir out in the fields in the village of Kotozai.

Troops say few residents are helping the Americans in the area, where black and white smoke rises from homes as marines arrive, a possible warning signal to local insurgents.

President Barack Obama will order his promised US troop drawdown from Afghanistan in a primetime address on Wednesday.

A senior defense official said on condition of anonymity that the president would "likely" order the return of about 5,000 troops this summer and 5,000 more by the end of 2011.

War skeptics argue that after the deaths of more than 1,600 US service personnel and at a monthly cost of nearly $10 billion a month, the American commitment is unsustainable at its present size of 99,000 US troops.

Obama will stick with his vow to begin pulling out US forces after an 18-month troop surge, but is expected to heed Pentagon warnings that an overly swift withdrawal could imperil hard-won gains against Taliban insurgents.

Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates has urged only a modest drawdown in order to "see through" the battle but his nominated successor Leon Panetta has backed a significant cut while stressing it must be conditions-based.

In Sangin, though, the battle looks likely to continue regardless of what is decided in Washington.

"We'll definitely hold what we've got. But we'll have continual contact in... outlying areas," said Savage.

First Published: Jun 22, 2011 10:42 IST