Fighting Taliban treachery
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Spurts of dust kicked up in the field to the left of the US Marines and the clatter of gunfire grew louder. The Marines began to run, their bodies taking on the hunched and wary posture of troops under fire. Shouting into radios, officers were struggling to catch up with the ambush that was beginning to envelop them.
More regular, disciplined shots sounded close by. A pall of ugly brown smoke hung in the clear dawn air several hundred metres away, marking the spot where a bomb explosion had initiated the Taleban ambush. It was 6.45am.
I was in the middle of the first squad of Marines. We pounded headlong towards a mud compound ahead. As we got to about 10ft of the corner of the building, the world went suddenly and inexplicably silent and everything turned white.
Being blown up was too quick to be frightening. Instead, the sensation was one of odd detachment.
The bomb — it was, we later discovered by looking at the debris, two devices strapped together — was buried at the base of the wall on the corner of the compound. As they went off the blast wave completely stopped my hearing, lifted me into the air and spun me through 180 degrees.
Time slowed. I landed staggering, half off my feet, and blinded by a pall of dust; much of it seemed to be in my mouth. Blast-proof protective glasses had saved my eyes from damage and after a period of time that I couldn’t measure but which must have been a few seconds, sound began to return, distorted by a shrill ringing.
Someone was shouting “casualty”. Someone else was yelling with what sounded like pain. As the dust began to thin I realised I was now facing the way I had come. I looked down and found all my limbs still attached — a heavy bulletproof plate covered my chest and Kevlar my abdomen and neck. To my right someone was on the ground. I wondered if he was dead.
“Who planted these bombs?” another American demanded. “I have no idea,” he replied — to derision.
By now the temperature was around 52C (125F) and the Marines were fighting the elements. As they moved forward again the engineers found a fourth bomb, buried in a wall. It was defused. Intelligence reports suggested that the Taleban were massing fighters for an attack. Many of the soldiers were relieved that, at last, they might be able to shoot back.
But if the Taleban were still around they remained hidden, wary of the Cobra helicopters overhead. Instead, the Americans were advancing on to the fifth and largest bomb of the day.
Again, luck and keen eyes would come to their aid. As they traversed a field Private Joseph Helmick, 25, spotted something odd — two stakes buried in the ground. They were a marker for a watching bomb triggerman. The unit halted and as Fox Company’s explosives experts moved forward with their minesweepers, they found a command wire and two separate 40lb cylinders of explosive. These were detonated, scattering earth over a 100m area.
As they pulled up the wire they discovered it appeared to lead to the village mosque. As had been the case all day, none of the locals appeared to know why.
There are a remarkable number of violations of the Geneva Conventions by the Taliban in this story ending with the use of a religious facility for attacks. There is also some clever playing with the US rules of engagement in the gamesmanship of an enemy camouflaging himself as a civilian.
But the story also reveals the ineptitude of the Taliban bomb makers. As it turned out there were very few casualties from their explosions.