Marines Hunting Afghan Sniper in Sangin, "He hit a moving target in a space this big," said Capt. Jim Nolan, Lima Company's commander, holding his hands about nine inches apart.
SANGIN, Afghanistan—Somewhere in this dusty town, concealed among the cornfields, irrigation canals and mud-walled compounds, is a man the Marines particularly want to kill.
They don’t know what he looks like. But they know he is a very good shot with a long rifle, and, every day he remains alive, he is drawing Marine blood.
In the seven days since the men of Lima Company, Third Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment arrived in town, the Sangin sniper has persecuted them with methodical, well-aimed shots, fired one at a time. His toll so far: two men killed—one American and one British—and one man wounded.
Two Marines have survived hits they say came from a second shooter, believed to be less proficient and careful than the first.
Sangin has for years been a hotbed of insurgent activity in volatile Helmand province, and, in its first days here, Lima Company has pressed through a belt of farmland between the Helmand River and a main road, Route 611. The Marines have been met with hidden explosives and ambushes.
But the sniper has caused the most damage—a deadly reminder that the Taliban insurgency has its share of well-trained fighters capable of frustrating the allied mission.
“He’s hitting people—that’s very disruptive,” said 1st Sgt. John Calhoun, 41 years old, from Konawa, Okla. “But it’s not interfering with what we’re trying to do here.”
The sniper struck first on Aug. 13, the day after Lima Company arrived. A Marine stepped out of his armored vehicle just 100 yards or so from a secure U.S.-British patrol base. He threw away some trash and exchanged a few words with another Marine. The sniper fired a single, lethal shot.
On the same day, a British army engineer—20-year-old Darren Foster from Carlisle, England—was in a guard post in front of the same patrol base. British troops have built a covered, bunkered pathway so the guards aren’t exposed to enemy fire as they walk down from the hilltop base. The post is protected by bulletproof glass, except for small gaps through which the guards fire their weapons. The sniper timed his single shot and killed the engineer as he walked past the opening.
“He hit a moving target in a space this big,” said Capt. Jim Nolan, Lima Company’s commander, holding his hands about nine inches apart.
On Aug. 14, a U.S. tank mechanic took a round in the torso as he carried sandbags across a small bridge. The protective plate in his body armor stopped the round.
“We think it’s the same guy,” said Gunnery Sgt. Edward Rivera, 39, of Poway, Calif.
Other Marines believe the evidence suggests a second shooter, less accurate and armed with a smaller-caliber weapon.
Then on Sunday, the snipers hit twice. First, Lance Cpl. Derek Simpson took a round to the head.
One of the Marines’ tank-like mine-clearing vehicles had slipped off of a dirt bridge, knocking the track off the sprocket wheel. The Marines hitched it to a tow-tank and pulled until the track came completely free, then set to work putting it back in place. Lance Cpl. Simpson, of Third Combat Engineer Battalion, was working on the project and talking to some other Marines when he felt a hard blow to his head.
The sniper’s bullet had apparently hit the tank and ricocheted into the front right side of Lance Cpl. Simpson’s helmet. It punched into the Kevlar shell, but didn’t penetrate all the way.
Lance Cpl. Simpson, who was raised in Gary, Texas, can’t recall if he was knocked to the ground or threw himself there to avoid another shot. Another Marine dragged him to cover. He lay on his back as a friend pulled off his helmet to reveal a bloody welt on the right side of his forehead. Two Navy corpsmen, the Marine equivalent of Army medics, decided against stitches.
“I feel blessed,” he said. But he also felt guilty for leaving his comrades. “I want to be out there with everyone else,” he said. “It’s not fair that I’m alive and in here, and they’re still out there.”
Fifteen minutes after Lance Cpl. Simpson arrived at the patrol base, another Marine went down near the same spot. Again, just one shot.
Back at the patrol base, Sgt. Johnny Bailey watched a live video feed of the scene at the bridge and tried to find out which way the Marine had fallen. “That way I’ll know the direction of the shot,” he said.
The Marines send their own snipers out hunting. The Marine scout-snipers, who go through extensive training, are reluctant to grant that title to the insurgent gunman. They might allow him “marksman,” a lesser honorific.
“He’s a decent shot—not a great shot,” one Marine sniper said as he headed out the patrol base to try to kill the insurgent. He had heard the thump and crack of each of the sniper’s shots. He estimates from the sound that the Sangin sniper is less than 600 yards away from his targets. Still, the Sangin sniper appears careful and clever.
During the U.S.-led offensive earlier this year in Marjah, another Helmand province hot spot, one insurgent sniper positioned himself two or three rooms deep inside a building, concealed well enough to hide the flash of his rifle’s muzzle. His shots would travel room-to-room through the building, exit through a small hole in the exterior wall and hit Marines on a rooftop outpost. It took Marine snipers days to locate and kill him.
Sangin Area of Helmand province has been scene of nearly a third of the 300 British soldiers’ deaths since 2001
Of the 300 British soldiers who have died in Afghanistan since 2001, 96 have been in Sangin, the most dangerous place in the country for Nato soldiers. The 300th victim is the seventh marine commando to have been killed or fatally wounded there in as many weeks. At least 16 British troops have died after being shot in the Sangin area in that time. Four years after UK troops deployed there, the Taliban continue to aggressively contest control of the Helmand town, which has become infamous for the vast number of improvised explosive devices used by insurgents, which have been responsible for most British deaths. The town is also responsible for more than 10% of the daily casualties of the entire Nato mission.
Sangin has a long history of being troublesome for foreign troops. It was the scene of the first major military engagement in the south during the second Anglo-Afghan war of 1878, when the British fought a cavalry battle against 1,500 fighters. But today it is the drugs trade and tribal politics that have helped to make it a particularly lethal place to operate.
The town is close to tracts of well-irrigated land for growing poppies, and its proximity to the country’s main highway makes it an important smuggling centre for opium and other goods. Analysts and diplomats familiar with the area say the high level of violence is in part due to drug smugglers keen to maintain a level of mayhem that allows their trade to flourish.
Weak and corrupt local government – a nationwide problem – also plays its part in fuelling local support for insurgents. That is further complicated by infighting between communities, a problem largely made possible by the decline of the tribal system, which was damaged by factional fighting during the civil war of the 1990s.
Scores of British troops have been killed in Sangin since Tony Blair, egged on by overconfident British generals, dispatched more than 3,000 service men and women to Helmand in 2006.
Ever since, they have been vulnerable to attacks, first by small arms fire and mortars, then roadside bombs, now by both, as they established isolated patrol bases to search for a hidden enemy and tried to give assurance to local Afghans frightened of the Taliban but distrustful of British troops.
They set up more and more forward bases and checkpoints in the area between Sangin and their supply base at Camp Bastion near the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. Their vulnerability was compounded by a shortage of helicopters.
British troops in Helmand were spread too thinly, yet Gordon Brown blocked requests for more troops.
The last big British push was Operation Panther’s Claw, which began in late June 2009 and was wrapping up in August when Simon Valentine became the 200th soldier to die since the invasion in 2001. That was a campaign designed to make an area of central Helmand safe for people to vote in the Afghan presidential elections.
The operation was concentrated in an area roughly along a line running north-east to south-west from Sangin to Gereshk to Lashkar Gah – part of what is called the green zone of the Helmand river valley. The map of Helmand has changed little in the 11 months that it has taken for 100 soldiers to be killed and many more to suffer life-changing injuries.
Instead of mounting grand offensives designed to seize more territory from insurgent control, the British mission was focused on the long, slow slog of counterinsurgency – holding on to areas they already had.
British commanders said they hoped it would be a turning point in the eight-year conflict. It was not. The operation took nearly 3,000 British troops, many engaged in heavy gunfights, to capture an area the size of the Isle of Wight. Security is said to be better now for the local population but the operation did not achieve the breakthrough hoped for. Ten British soldiers were killed in the operation, including Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, commander of 1st Battalion the Welsh Guards. Many more were wounded.
By the turn of the year, the US was sending thousands more troops. They now total about 20,000 in Helmand, more than double the number of British soldiers in the province, and more are on their way.
The US took over the key town of Musa Qala, won, lost, and then recaptured by British troops after fierce gun battles. But British troops were left to patrol Sangin.
Senior British military officials are still smarting over suggestions that the US had to take responsibility for southern Iraq three years ago – let alone Musa Qala now – because the British could not cope. While the US marines launched a much bigger operation to the south of Lashkar Gah, British commanders argued at the time that they had responsibility for most of the areas where the majority of Helmandis live.
In February this year British troops took part in Operation Moshtarak, an effort to further strengthen government control around Helmand’s provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. However, UK troops focused on Nad-e-Ali, where there was already some British presence, while the US marines mounted an offensive against Marjah, a predominantly rural area where the Taliban were in complete control and where fighting has been more intense.
But even without taking part in major offensives, the attempt to continuously guarantee the security of areas that have previously been “cleared” of insurgents is dangerous work for the British. The necessary “presence patrols”, usually on foot, are vulnerable to ambushes and ever-more sophisticated homemade bombs. This year troops have seen an increasing number of landmines with no metal content, rendering metal detectors useless.