Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Afghan Taliban snipers the bigger enemy in Marjah
By Golnar Motevalli
When thousands of U.S. Marines swept into the centre of the southern Afghan town of Marjah this month, they had prepared for a huge improvised explosive device (IED) threat and sporadic Taliban gun attacks.
Instead, they found Taliban snipers with fatally accurate shots and some of the worst examples of home-made explosives they had ever come across.
Corporal Thomas Gibbons-neff, a 22-year old sniper from Darien, Connecticut spends most days in a single position in the village of Koru Chareh in the town of Marjah, looking down a scope on his rifle watching for Taliban gunmen.
“We have never experienced this level of threat, this trained foe. In 2008 it was a completely different time of fight,” said Gibbons-neff, who was deployed to Helmand in 2008.
The Marines are reluctant to use the term “sniper” to refer to Taliban gunmen, preferring to call them “trained marksmen” because, while their skills have markedly improved since last year, they are bad at covering their tracks.
Empty bullet shells have been found littered outside a mosque the Marines believe one sniper used as a position in the village of Koru Chareh.
“It’s nothing like Stalingrad but it’s almost on a personal level, he’s been harassing, he shot one guy in the chest and one guy in a helmet,” Gibbons-neff said, referring to a battle between Soviet Russia’s Army and Germany during World War Two.
When Bravo Company of the First battalion, Sixth Marines, to which Gibbons-neff is attached, arrived in Marjah they were taking gun fire from Taliban fighters from all directions. After taking one fatality on the first day from a single round, it became clear to the Marines that the immediate danger in Marjah was not bombs, but a well-trained, well-equipped and improved shooting team.
“They are definitely better trained than I anticipated or speculated,” said Tim Coderre a law enforcement advisor to Bravo company who used to be an Army sniper in Iraq.
All Bravo company’s casualties so far have been the result of direct fire from Taliban gunmen. Last week Coderre found the body of one insurgent gunman, and said he was carrying what looked like a World War Two-era British Enfield rifle.
“Comparing this with Iraq, I’m surprised with the accuracy. Capable and proficient … A team, two people, could conceivable suppress a size of three companies,” Coderre said. “Someone sticks their head up and you get a round which just misses or hits you will paralyse a unit, there’s probably nothing more lethal other than unmanned aerial stuff,” he added.
While their shots have taken the Marines aback, and led many to suspect the Taliban has some form of disciplined sniper training programme, the insurgents’ use of IEDs – the hallmark of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, which has caused more foreign troop and civilian deaths than any other weapon in the war – was staggeringly flawed.
“(The operation) was built up to be bedlam, like IEDs everywhere, all different types, like the Taliban’s last stand, a defensive measure to stop us from entering. And now they just hope that they can hurt somebody,” said Staff Sergeant Thomas Williams from Saskatchewan in Canada.
Williams leads an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit attached to Bravo Company. In Bravo’s area of operation in Koru Chareh village his team have detonated 22 IEDs altogether: “We’ve had zero wounded and zero killed in action (from IEDS).”
The worst IED Bravo has found, and possibly the most poorly-planned, was a daisy chain of 19 bombs lining a street in Koru Chareh’s bazaar. It was attached to a “kite line” – a piece of string linking the bombs to a roof top, which triggers the daisy chain when pulled.
“In theory it would have been great fireworks sure, but the triggerman would’ve had to have been there for it to happen. Even if we were in vehicles, it would’ve popped tyres,” Williams said.
“How they come up with the ideas I don’t know. Who signs off on it? I don’t know. That guy must have been retarded,” he added.
Another surprisingly sloppy example of an IED was an amphibious bomb which insurgents floated down a canal and detonated as it got near to a large mine-resistant armoured vehicle. It caused superficial damage.
“The one they floated down the pond is pretty strange … ‘A’ for effort, ‘F’ for effectiveness,” Williams said.