Page last updated at 17:40 GMT, Friday, 2 October 2009 18:40 UK

Battling the Taliban at close quarters


US helicopter comes under Taliban fire in Afghanistan

The BBC's Ian Pannell has spent two weeks with the US Marines in southern Helmand province.

Sgt Harris knew the Taliban were watching and anticipated an attack.

He had intelligence to suggest the insurgents had spotted the patrol moving closer and that they were bringing their machine-guns forward.

"You hear them on the radio praying and then they say Allah Akbar [God is great] and open fire," he said.

Within minutes his prediction was borne out.

Shots landed nearby and the marines returned fire.

The deafening sound of a dozen rifles and machine-guns erupted, cartridges flying through the air, the thud of rounds hitting the ground.

We dived low behind a line of sand dunes for cover.

Wounded marine

Sgt Harris screamed orders over the deafening clatter to three groups of marines from Echo Company.

"Their rounds are getting close," a voice can be heard saying, before a series of urgent orders is issued.

US troops in southern Afghanistan

"They're on your side of the canal; pick it up guns...

"Hey, get Chip shooting across the canal, get on that weapon...

"They're getting hit over there, you've got to shoot the ditch!"

One of the marines was shot through the chest and an emergency medical team was called in.

Such is the regularity of this kind of exchange that the sergeant knew that the insurgents would again open fire when the helicopter arrived to evacuate the wounded marine.

As two medical helicopters appeared on the horizon, the insurgents took aim.

Shooting down a helicopter would be an obvious public relations coup.

The marines stormed up the sand dune, stood on top and unleashed a violent, deadly volley into the Taliban positions.

In a storm of bullets and dust, the injured marine was whisked away for treatment.

Two days later, there was another similar gun battle. This time a marine was killed. In three months the regiment has lost 13 men and many more have been wounded.

This is what passes for "routine" at COP (Combat Outpost) Sharp in Mian Poshtay, a remote village in the southern Helmand River Valley.

Hold the ground

Every few days the marines from Echo Company face battles like this. It is the very edge of America's sphere of influence and where the insurgents are at their strongest.

US medical helicopter
Shooting down helicopters is an obvious Taliban public relations coup

Since the marines from Second Battalion, 8th Regiment arrived in Garmsir District, they have successfully engaged the insurgents, pushing them further away from populated areas; clearing, holding and building in line with modern counter-insurgency strategy.

But Mian Poshtay is their most remote, southerly base and here they have few resources to be able to push much further, let alone hold the ground.

It is a graphic illustration of why the overall commander of the Nato-led Isaf mission in Afghanistan has warned that without more troops, the mission could fail.

Cpl Robert Williamson is only 22 years old, yet he has already served two tours of Iraq and is now in Afghanistan with Weapons Company, part of the 2/8.

He has received two Purple Hearts for his service and has more experience than most here of dealing with insurgencies at the sharp end.

"In Iraq, the insurgents spray and pray, they pop over, shoot and run away. Here, these guys are actually staying and fighting and setting up ambushes."

He describes being caught up in gunfights and bomb attacks. Lance Cpl John Marrero makes a point that they all agree on, the need for more resources.

"We are making progress here, we have come a long way, but we need more troops on the ground right now."

The pressure is on to produce results and to do so within the next 12 months.

The commander of the regiment, Lt Col Christian Cabannis, says he must answer to two different audiences with very separate needs - the Afghans and the American public.

'Short-sighted strategy'

He acknowledges that next summer cannot look like this one in Afghanistan.

US soldier in southern Afghanistan
Troops have to make their way through often difficult terrain

"The reality is that we should be able to show tangible progress within a year because if we can't, the nations that are participating are rightly going to go back and look and say 'is it worth our blood and treasure?'".

A small unit of Afghan soldiers patrols with the marines, trying to gather intelligence on the ground and win the support of local villagers.

The international community wants thousands more Afghan security forces trained and deployed as soon as possible. But that will take years to accomplish; a timeframe that looks increasingly unpalatable.

President Barack Obama is reviewing Afghan policy, for the second time this year.

There are a number of competing views with the military arguing for more resources and some, in particular US Vice-President Joe Biden, arguing for a scaling-back and a re-focusing on al-Qaeda targets instead.

But in a speech in London this week, Gen Stanley McChrystal criticised such ideas.

"A strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a short-sighted strategy," he said.

This has been the bloodiest year for British and American troops since 2001.

Most agree that the conflict is now at a critical juncture, with some calling for greater engagement and others for a less ambitious, tighter focus.

Whatever President Obama decides, the window of opportunity to win this war is rapidly closing and the next year will be critical to the future outcome.

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