Marine Sergeant Landon McLilly squinted into his rifle scope at a group of suspected Taliban militants in the hazy near distance. The next time he looked, they were gone. "If we go that way, I have a feeling something bad is going to happen," he said, recalling how the last time his squad of Marines had walked down the same road, they had come under fierce attack. But orders required them to interdict all potential enemy fighters, and they could not leave the area without checking out whether the people he saw were in fact Taliban.
This time around, they pushed forward without drawing major fire. But then they went too far: more than a quarter-mile beyond their designated patrol zone and a two-hour hike from the adobe outpost that Lima Company of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, calls home in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province. The column was exposed in a rutted clearing, and the gathering desert wind limited their field of vision and their ability to call in air support. Taliban gunmen quickly exploited the mix of vulnerabilities, opening fire from a mud compound on a sun-flanked ridge, shooting in short bursts that sent Marines scrambling for cover in nearby culverts.
The firefight was over in less than five minutes, and the Americans made it back to base without any casualties. It was a good day for a company that runs the risk of deadly encounters nearly every time its fighters step outside the wire.
Since the February offensive to expel the Taliban from Marjah, insurgents in the opium-producing belt have regrouped, with help from an influx of outside militants employing advanced roadside bombs and ambush tactics to prevent two Marine battalions from consolidating their grip on the area. After a postoperation lull, officers say, attacks have become more frequent and sophisticated, underscoring the adaptability of the Taliban style of guerrilla combat and the militants' knowledge of how the U.S. fights wars.
Aware of strict rules of engagement that prohibit Marines from shooting first, multiple teams of Taliban gunmen commute from desert hideouts to shadow foot patrols on motorcycles, waiting for the right moment to strike. They prefer to draw the Marines out along roads and intersections that are continually seeded with IEDs. Increasingly, the patchwork farms crisscrossed by irrigation canals are booby-trapped as well; Marines have learned to avoid them.
Complex ambushes are also on the rise. Two weeks ago, militants hiding in the tree line started firing at another Marine company squad, deliberately forcing the Americans and their Afghan army allies to run the opposite way, smack into a directional fragmentation device. The massive explosion killed one Marine instantly and, a half hour after he lost three limbs, an Afghan soldier. It was one of six brutally successful strikes in a two-week period, according to Gunnery Sergeant Matthew Small, a member of an Explosives Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team with experience in Iraq. Small, whose job is to dismantle IEDs found by units in the field, calls it the "roughest stretch" since he arrived in mid-April. "I have done nothing but postblast assessment over that time," he says, adding that the blasts have gotten "bigger and bigger" and the unexploded bombs harder to locate.
The threats have not diminished the Marines' initiative, however. Patrols go out almost around the clock, sometimes for more than 10 hours, in scorching heat that exceeds 110°F. Staff Sergeant Christopher Whitman says the upsurge of hostile engagements and resulting casualties is to be expected, given the lengths to which the Marines go to show a "heavy footprint," with less reliance on armored vehicles and air power to back them up when they get into trouble. He acknowledges that confidence building may seem painfully slow, with Marines getting shot at all the time, but there are small breakthroughs. Some local children, for instance, have started tipping officers off about where IEDs have been placed.
Still, American forces angling for local support must grapple with people's overriding fear and mistrust of armed outsiders. During a sweep of a road where bombs had repeatedly targeted Marines, Lieutenant Carl Quist asked to see a shopkeeper's identification card. "We have no IEDs," the man nervously shot back, speaking through an interpreter. "No," replied the lieutenant, "I meant your ID." The man handed him his card, then questioned when security was going to improve. "Well, that's going to depend a lot on you all," Quist replied with a sigh. "We can't build schools out here if we get shot at every time we show up." Asked by a reporter what happens to those who cooperate with the Americans, the man waited until the officer had left before running his hand across his neck.
A booming reminder of the Taliban's influence here rang out last week, minutes before a patrol squad left the base to clear another dangerous road. No other units were out at the moment, and everyone speculated that the explosion might have been caused by a militant who had accidentally blown himself up. That possibility prompted some laughs. But according to an elderly source questioned on the side of the road about an hour later, the culprit was a dog that had wandered into the wrong place and tripped an old blast wire.
Marine officers, however, remained skeptical and later discovered a more sinister truth. On their way back to base, a squad member found orange kite string hidden in a furrow. It turned out to be the pull trigger of a buried 50-lb. metal canister filled with homemade explosives, spark plugs and bolts. During its investigation, the EOD team also located what must have been the site of the blast heard earlier: it was small, without any sign of having caused any harm. Small figured that the initial blast was intended to lure Marines to the scene, where the second, larger bomb would have been triggered. That the bigger bomb was located in the bush between footbridges further suggested that the Taliban knew the Marines' precautionary habit of avoiding the beaten path. "Guys that uneducated shouldn't be so smart, but they've sure got some slick tactics," says a grunt. For the time being, he and fellow Marines stick to a basic rule to keep the odds in their favor: step where it's least convenient.
This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.