Korkoran Village, Afghanistan — Marine Sgt. Joseph Woodard froze in mid-step at the entrance to a deserted house. His heart raced. He balanced himself on one leg and slowly backed away.
“Holy s**t,” he muttered later. “Holy s**t.”
Woodard, of Jacksonville, N.C., had just escaped a place on the casualty roll of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. Beneath his upraised foot and concealed in the dirt was a pressure-plate detonator connected to two improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The screech of a metal detector and a shout from a fellow Marine had saved his life. Lance Corporal David Baker, a 22-year-old platoon comrade, didn’t have that luck two weeks earlier in Korkoran.
“They’re (the Taliban) really good at disguising it,” said Staff Sgt. Matthew Grant, who commands an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit attached to Weapons Company’s 81 Platoon. “They take their time planting it and put it in (the ground) well.”
Improvised explosive devices in southern Afghanistan are the predominant weapon of the extremist Taliban. In Iraq, the explosive charges were mainly conventional ordnance — mortars and artillery shells left over from Saddam Hussein’s military. According to Grant, in the Nawa District of Helmand Province — a large swathe of desert hedging in farming villages — the charge is ammonium nitrate packed into plastic jugs and cans.
The average size of a charge is 50 pounds.
“We’re seeing more (anti-personnel) Directional Fragmentation Charges (DFC) and less IEDs aimed specifically at vehicles,” said 1st Lt. Clint Hall, of Weapons Company. “It’s only started recently and they’re (the Taliban) obviously out to get our dismounted patrols.”
Woodard and Baker were both on dismounted patrols, an essential feature of the “Hold” portion of counter-insurgency strategy. First you clear enemy forces out of an area, then you establish and maintain security through a 24/7 physical presence, which leads to building projects to woo local national support.
But each phase of Clear-Hold-Build is not static. Since security continues to underpin Hold and Build, clearing-type operations — presence patrols, mine clearance, the cordoning and searching of villages for enemy presence or weapons — is continuous.
“The people will side with whomever they feel safe with,” said 1st Lt. Zachary Bennett, a patrol leader with 1-5’s headquarters unit.
Lt. Hall, who commands 81 Platoon, said his men maintain five patrol outposts around the farming villages in his 91-square mile area of operation in the district. Other units maintain more than 15 others over the remainder of farming communities in Nawa, which is about 400 square miles in size.
Each outpost is manned by a squad-sized unit with a handful of Afghan soldiers.
Living is about as austere as it gets. There is no heating, no running water, sleeping cots are generally in the open.
Yet night and day the Marines and their Afghan partners go out into the villages on foot.
“Our patrols (from the outposts) aren’t done in trucks,” Hall said. “You have to be there with the people and not hiding behind a piece of steel. We do at least 100 patrols a week. Every village sees and interacts with our Marines at least every other day.
“We’ve got to separate the Taliban from the people and the people from the Taliban. We don’t need the people to survive but we need them to win. They (the Taliban) need them for both.”
The exact number of Taliban in the district and in 82’s zone is a matter of conjecture. Hall, however, believes there are about 30, with less than half that number the hardcore, full-time insurgent. The balance are the “day laborer” Taliban who perform acts of violence for money.
But that number “fluctuates, and more and more people who at one time had ties (to the Taliban) have turned over a new leaf and use their shovel now for farming instead of planting IEDs,” he said.
IED finds can number about four or five a day. That’s a 75 percent decrease from September when Nawa was still known as the “home of the boogeyman.”
Infiltration of 81’s sector comes from the neighboring district of Marjah, where Taliban forced out of Nawa earlier find safe haven. There are no coalition forces in that district.
The daily patrols and interaction with the local populace — visiting shops and homes, inquiring about their needs and helping when they can — is paying dividends. Hall said soldiers frequently receive credible tips on suspicious activity and on IED emplacements. Late last week a high-value target — a Taliban commander from Marjah — was grabbed in the Nawa village of Mangulzai close to COP (combat outpost) Sullivan, headquarters of 81 Platoon. The man’s location was given to a soldier by a villager who walked up to him during a regular patrol.
“Hold doesn’t mean we just sit with our feet up,” said Master Sgt. David Dial, a squad leader from an outpost called Norzai. “We work our area and we work it hard."