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Originally published July 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 8, 2009 at 10:32 AM

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Taliban dress as women, sneak past Marines

U.S. Marines trapped Taliban fighters in a residential compound and persuaded the insurgents to allow women and children to leave. The troops then moved in — only to discover that the militants had slipped out, dressed in burqas, the loose enveloping robes some Muslim women wear.

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — U.S. Marines trapped Taliban fighters in a residential compound and persuaded the insurgents to allow women and children to leave. The troops then moved in — only to discover that the militants had slipped out, dressed in burqas, the loose enveloping robes some Muslim women wear.

The fighters, who may owe their lives to the new U.S. commander's emphasis on limiting civilian casualties, were among hundreds of militants who have fled the offensive the Marines launched last week in southern Helmand province.

The fighters moved into areas to the west and north, prompting fears that the U.S. effort has only moved the Taliban problem elsewhere, Afghan defense officials said.

Violence here is at its highest levels since the Taliban fell in 2001. Even with the addition of 17,500 troops that President Obama has ordered to Afghanistan, commanders fear they won't have enough troops. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has a strategy to "clear, hold and build" in areas wrested from Taliban control.

McChrystal's plan is modeled after the 2007 strategy in Iraq, where the United States sent an additional 30,000 troops to secure Baghdad and the perimeter. At its peak, there were more than 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

The offensive, called Operation Khanjar, or "Strike of the Sword," includes roughly 4,000 Marines and 750 Afghan security forces.

Since the Marines began their offensive on Thursday, Taliban fighters have moved to northern Helmand province near Baghran, an area controlled by German forces, and the eastern edge of Farah province, largely under Italy's control, said Gen. Zahir Azami, the Afghan Ministry of Defense spokesman. Taliban movement into those areas has prompted complaints from German and Italian commanders.

On Monday, images from a Predator drone showed a dozen fighters and at least 15 to 20 civilians inside a mud-brick compound in the village of Khan Neshin, about 60 miles north of the Pakistani border.

Because of the civilians, the U.S. troops held fire and instead used a military translator and village elder to persuade the militants to free women and children.

Two groups — children and what appeared to be women in burqas — left the compound. When the Marines entered, they found no one. The fighters clearly had donned burqas and slipped away among the civilians, according to Marines who took part in the mission.

The Americans didn't have female Marines with them to search the robed figures and make sure no men were among them in disguise. McChrystal has said he would rather see militants escape than for civilians to be harmed in battle, and this week implemented a new policy aimed at preventing civilian casualties, which have been a source of friction between the U.S. and the Afghan public and its leaders.

Afghan defense officials said they believe the Taliban fighters stayed in the country and did not travel to nearby Pakistan, where they often take refuge, because they believe they can wait out the latest operation, even as U.S. officials have stressed that once they clear an area they will stay until the security situation has stabilized.

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"They want to carry on fighting. They don't want to escape during the summer. This is the height of fighting season," Azami said.

Before the operation, their biggest of the Afghan war, Marine commanders believed up to 1,000 insurgents were operating in the fertile valley. But most of them fled without a major battle, instead launching scattered but ineffective attacks.

U.S. officials privately say they have seen less fighting during the one-week offensive than they originally anticipated. Helmand is Afghanistan's biggest province and was once known as its breadbasket, but now more than 90 percent of Afghanistan's poppy production comes from the province, making the area a major cash supplier for the Taliban.

Tribal rivalries for control of the lucrative trade have contributed to instability that the Taliban exploited.

Now that the Marines are in place, said Col. Eric Mellinger, the operations officer for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, other U.S. agencies can come in and help farmers grow wheat and other traditional crops.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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