Page last updated at 12:00 GMT, Saturday, 12 December 2009

Fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan

As President Obama announced plans to send 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan to tackle the Taliban, Mark Urban spent time with some of the troops on the front line in Helmand province.

An Afghan man rides past US marines in Helmand province
There are currently about 100,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan

"I heard Kilo company lit up nine guys today," said Craig, a young US marine, his face illuminated by the flickering flames that separated us.

Craig, square-jawed and of Irish American stock from Boston, looked like a young Kennedy stranded in Afghanistan. Night had fallen over the shattered compound in Now Zad where we were bedding down.

The company that Craig and I were attached to, Lima, had spent its day blasting its way through an area of abandoned farms believed to be host to dozens of Taliban.

But the enemy, pausing only to shoot at the vehicle that brought us in, had not given Craig and the other members of Lima Company the fight - and the kills - they had hoped for.

"You seem disappointed?" I asked another member of the squad, Josh, a gravel-voiced lance corporal from Missouri.

For the marines in Lima or Kilo companies... this operation was their chance to challenge the Taliban to a stand-up fight and kill them

"Sure we are," he replied without hesitation, his blue eyes peering out of a tired face blackened with camouflage cream.

These soldiers were taking part in an operation called Angry Cobra, a big set-piece offensive involving more than 1,000 marines, Afghan, British and Danish troops. Its aim was to break the Taliban hold on Now Zad, a district centre in northern Helmand province.

'Dry run'

For four days, we watched close up as huge explosions echoed around the natural amphitheatre of high peaks surrounding the Afghan town.

With each great blast, the marines had whooped or shouted "get some!"

Map of Afghanistan

Drones had wheeled noisily but unseen above us, trying to pinpoint the enemy, and the thump of helicopter rotors had added to the general cacophony.

Some of the American high-ups saw the operation as a dry run for other set-piece assaults on Taliban strongholds.

We can certainly expect more of those now that President Obama is increasing US forces and urging them to subdue Afghanistan's insurgency in short order.

But for the marines in Lima or Kilo companies it was all a bit more straightforward - this operation was their chance to challenge the Taliban to a stand-up fight and kill them.

'Dark sub-text'

Two events during the few weeks leading up to Operation Angry Cobra had hardened the marines' resolve.

In one, back in October, an American sniper team operating in the town had come to grief on two IEDs (improvised explosive devices) killing one and wounding nine others.

Washington's new plan for the war promises plenty of action

The other incident was murkier both in its confused detail and dark sub-text.

Marines had mortared two men believed to be setting an IED in an area not far away. A villager later presented two dead children at their base, claiming they had been killed by American fire.

But the children, according to those who had seen them or photographs of them, had been shot. The marines said they had information that a local Taliban commander had ordered it, just so that the Americans would be blamed.

When I asked one young officer about that business, the night before we went out on the operation, he had fixed me in his gaze and said: "I will be happy to go out and kill those people."

Elusive foe

But the Taliban were hardly going to make that easy.

Taliban fighters
The Taliban have said they will step up their fight against the US and its allies

More than 20 years ago, when talking to Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan while I covered their war for a newspaper, they often used the word "dushman" which is Persian for enemy.

Some, however, who had taken part in sweeps to try to catch their elusive foe, corrupted "dushman" to "duchi", meaning spirits or ghosts.

And so it proved in Now Zad. The Americans said they had killed 12 guerrillas, taken a similar number of detainees and found caches containing dozens of IEDs. But most of the enemy had lain low.

The American plan was well thought-out. They had inserted Kilo Company by helicopter to block off one possible line of Taliban retreat, and a British force off to the east had been there to impede another.

They had moved swiftly through the belt of booby traps surrounding their base by firing off minefield-breaching rockets, blasting lanes through the IEDs.

But their enemy, for the most part, had proven elusive.

The new emphasis in Now Zad is shifting to bringing in the governor, clearing IEDs and re-building.

By their earlier actions, the Taliban had goaded the marines. Sitting that evening with the tired squad in an abandoned Afghan farm, I realised that the Americans had been denied a chance to quench that anger.

But there will be other opportunities soon enough.

The Taliban who evaded Operation Angry Cobra may show themselves again soon, and Washington's new plan for the war promises plenty of action.

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