Darvishan, Afghanistan – Taliban-led rioting rocked this district center in Helmand Province Tuesday following allegations that U.S. troops had desecrated the Koran and mistreated women during a raid to detain suspected Taliban gunmen.
The violence in Garmser district, quelled by a restrained use of force as well as by non-kinetic persuasion, left at least one Afghan gunman dead as well as three unidentified Afghan civilians, officers of the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, said at COP (combat outpost) Delhi on the outskirts of Darvishan.
One Afghan soldier and two other local nationals were wounded.
No Americans were killed or injured.
The circumstances surrounding the deaths of the three unidentified Afghan civilians was not immediately known.
“S**t happened fast,” Lt. Col. John McDonough, commander of 2-2, said at a meeting with his officers later in the evening. “There were plenty of opportunities to shoot people today and everyone showed restraint.
“These 19-year-old kids we have didn’t shoot back and instead helped de-escalate things. I’m proud of everyone.”
Marines said violence began at mid-morning when up to 300 men, moving in groups led by men carrying large sticks, swarmed around the Garmser District Government Center in Darvishan after shots were fired at an Afghan police headquarters about 700 yards distant.
Several trucks were set alight and a school was put to the torch.
An undetermined number of gunmen had fired AK-47 rifles at the Afghan outpost and at the district center with semi-automatic weapons as another group of men approached the main U.S. base a half a mile away and shot at the facility before being forced back by U.S. Marines and Afghan troops and police.
“It was like watching the movie “Blackhawk Down’ about Mogadishu (Somalia) except it was downtown Darvishan and I was in it,” said Master Sgt.Bill Heyob, who had gone to reinforce an embattled unit of just nine Marines at the district center.
Heyob said a large mob of men throwing stones surrounded the re-enforcing team and they had to back up slowly to turn around and approach the center from another direction rather than open fire on the rioters.
Heyob and men in his mine-resistance armored vehicle escaped injury during the melee but the windows of his troop carrier were spider-webbed from multiple gunshots.
“My gunner kept yelling he had definite targets, people shooting at us, but he couldn’t fire back because there were unarmed people around them,” Heyob said.
During confrontations U.S. Marine Harrier jets streaked low overhead and dropped flares to spook demonstrators. Helicopter gunships did the same.
Marines said a U.S. sniper in a guard tower shot and killed one gunman and that a second gunman may also have been killed.
An Afghan army soldier at the district center was wounded by a gunman and later evacuated by U.S. helicopter to a medical facility.
Afghan security police, meeting with U.S. Marines late Tuesday, identified several men seen leading the rioting as known upper-level Taliban commanders. They also said many of the rioters were seen entering Darvishan earlier in the morning in vehicles traveling from areas south of the town.
Garmser, in the opium growing area of volatile Helmand province, has traditionally been as Taliban stronghold. Although seriously degraded by U.S. and Afghan forces in recent months they remain a force to be reckoned with, Marines say.
Their main weapon is the improvised explosive device (IED) which is planted along the district’s two main roads and along converging footpaths around farmers’ fields. Only occasionally do they conduct small-arms ambushes.
In Barcha, a small village 6 miles from Camp Delhi, Marines of Golf Company find on average two to five IEDs a day.
It was in the Barcha area where the rumor of desecration of Islam’s holy book and manhandling of women originated.
According to sources, Special Operations forces swooped down on a house in a compound Monday night near Barcha to arrest Taliban suspects. A rumor quickly spread that the Americans had cut pages of the Koran in the house with a knife and had pushed into a room with women and tied them up.
In Afghan culture, interaction with a woman not of your family is strictly forbidden.
By early afternoon rioting groups had separated to other sides of the Helmand River near the town and the situation calmed, Marines also contacted village and town elders they had worked with since October and held an emergency Shura (council) with them and district officials to explain the situation and convinced them to go to the rioters and end the violence.
“In two hours you destroyed three years of work,” the district governor reportedly told the elders, according to a witness. “You say a Koran was maybe destroyed. You destroyed more than 300 when you burned the school.”
Helmand Province’s governor was reportedly on his way to the Garmser district to investigate the violence.
“While denying these allegations, we take them very seriously and support a combined investigation with local Afghan authorities,” Maj. Gen. Michael Regner, deputy chief of staff operations for international forces, said in a press release from Kabul.