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Small US units lure Taliban into losing battles

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 31, 2005


It's mid- morning on June 21, and Lt. Timothy Jon O'Neal's platoon has just been dropped onto a dusty field north of a mud-walled village of Chalbar. Their mission: to check out reports that a local Afghan Army commander has defected to the Taliban and burned the district headquarters, and is prepared to fight.

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Within minutes, it becomes clear that the reports are true, and the platoon is in trouble. The radio crackles with Taliban fighters barking orders to surround the Americans. Gunfire comes from the hilltops. Lieutenant O'Neal's men are easy targets. The Taliban have the high ground.

* * *

This has been the most violent year here since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. The US Army is moving in smaller numbers to lure the Taliban out of hiding for fights they cannot win. The result: More than 1,200 enemy deaths this year, including high-level commanders. But it is also a strategy with profound risks, and one that may be difficult to sustain in Zabul Province - a region so unstable that commanders call it the "Fallujah of Afghanistan" - as current troops return home, their replacements as yet undecided.

Through interviews with soldiers of Chosen Company, of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the Monitor has reconstructed two recent battles that illustrate how this strategy works, and how it may have weakened the Taliban movement's effectiveness as a military force - for now.

* * *

As the Taliban start shooting, O'Neal's platoon scurries for cover. But there's no panic. "They think, without a doubt, they have us outnumbered," recalls O'Neal, a native of Jeannette, Pa., and leader of 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company. "We've got only 23 people on the ground, and I would say the Taliban had over 150 before the day was over."

But O'Neal and his men are not alone. Just to the south, 1st platoon is clearing a village; to the east, the 3rd platoon are marching toward Chalbar. O'Neal's platoon calls for close air support from nearby Apache helicopters. But on the ground, 2nd platoon will have to hold its own, and fight for every inch - uphill.

Tactical advantages

Much is made about the high-tech gear that US soldiers carry: body armor, rapid-firing machine guns, night vision goggles. But the chief advantage of the US military - especially in a low-intensity conflict, pitted against a crudely trained force like the Taliban - is training and air power.

Taliban fighters, meanwhile, appear to gain courage from numbers, the ability to swarm a smaller enemy unit. A sense of safety in numbers, however, is often the Taliban's undoing if a US platoon can fix an enemy's position long enough for aircraft or other infantry units to arrive. This is the backbone of US military strategy in Zabul, and one reason why the Taliban have lost so many fighters this year.

"We've had a lot of success with textbook tactics, getting the smallest element engaged, and then using other assets to just pile on," says O'Neal. "The Taliban are more willing to engage with us when we have smaller numbers."

Not Taliban bait

Lt. Col. Mark Stammer, the commander at Forward Operating Base in Qalat, is quick to clarify that the US Army is not using small units as "bait."

"I've never sent a squad in as bait," says Colonel Stammer, a native of Redfield, S.D. "I'm sure that it has emboldened the Taliban to attack. But there's no fight where our squads have made contact and lost. Whenever the Taliban fight us, they're decimated."

Darting from boulder to boulder, Sgt. Justin Hormann, a native of Melbourne, Fla., is leading a team of about six men up the hill, just behind 1st squad leader, Staff Sgt. Michael Christian of Montrose, Pa. Above them, about 50 Taliban fighters are raining down a torrent of gunfire with their Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades.

Sergeant Christian reaches a shallow plateau on the hill, and pulls himself up to establish a fire position. Almost immediately, he's shot. He crouches behind a boulder and shouts out, "I'm hit." The Talib who shot him is barely 30 feet away.

Sergeant Hormann can see his squad leader is bleeding and needs immediate help. "When he got hit, they were right in front of us," recalls Hormann, while on break between missions at the Forward Operating Base at Qalat. "He could see the fighter in front of him, but he couldn't see the Taliban who was just alongside him."