Invisible enemy stalks Marines in Afghan town

Taliban fighters bombard patrols, then vanish into terrain

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During the second gunbattle, Marines radioed for a mortar bombardment to suppress their attackers. A wave of shells exploded along the outer wall of a compound, shaking the area and kicking up vast brown clouds of dust.

When Cpl. Martin arrived afterward to assess the damage, he found the father of a family who claimed he’d seen no Taliban in the area at all — a common refrain.

“It’s one of the most frustrating things out here,” Cpl. Martin said. “We know there’s Taliban in the area, and they’re like, ‘No, they’re not.’”

“I pressed him about it because I saw the guy right outside his compound shooting at me with a rifle, but he still said no,” Cpl. Martin said. “I’m not sure if they think we’re stupid or if they’re so afraid of the Taliban they won’t talk.”

U.S. forces across Afghanistan say the key to turning the tide in the 9-year-old war rests largely on civilians turning against the Taliban. In Marjah, though, that has yet to happen on any significant level, despite the steady presence for more than eight months of two Marine battalions and their Afghan counterparts.

“They always ask us, ‘Why do you need our help anyway? You’re the ones with the guns. … You have the planes, you have the helicopters,’” Cpl. Martin said. “They don’t realize that just the information that they give us is the most helpful thing.”

Some residents, having heard about President Obama’s pledge to begin withdrawing Americans from Afghanistan next summer, said they doubt U.S. forces will be in Marjah for long, Marines say.

Whenever U.S. forces leave, the people who live here think they’ll be left with an ineffective and undedicated force of Afghan police and soldiers — and, of course, the Taliban, who are already among them.

“They don’t know who to trust,” Cpl. Long said.

Neither do the Marines.

On the eve of the Sept. 18 parliamentary elections, one U.S. base in Marjah hosted a delegation of 20 government poll organizers. Two of them were detained, though, after they were found to have smuggled in a pressure-plate bomb and a pair of grenades.

On election day, the base was attacked in a six-hour firefight. Insurgents, with clear knowledge of the base’s interior, angled their machine-gun fire up and over the walls in an attempt to strike the vulnerable tents inside.

During a patrol one week later, Marines were astonished to find a crude drawing of what was clearly the exterior of the base, scrawled in white chalk on a wall in a man’s home. Lines of fire were drawn at what appeared to be the post’s guard towers.

“This looks a lot like an attack plan to me,” said Lance Cpl. Patrick Cassidy, 23, of Stroudsburg, Pa. The Marines’ base was only a couple of dozen yards away, on the other side of a wide canal built with U.S. aid money a half-century ago.

Bismullah Nazir Ali, the home’s white-bearded owner, pleaded innocence. No Taliban had been there or in his fields, he said.

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