Marines launch their first post-surge operation

Operation Cobra's Rage aims to take back the city of Nawzad from the Taliban

The attack came just 12 minutes after leaving the base – short, staccato bursts of Kalashnikov fire hitting the open-top, seven-ton truck. A shot went through the driver's windscreen, others flew over our heads, forcing us to huddle down as more bullets smacked against the side. The Taliban were hitting back as military convoys rolled towards one of their main strongholds in Helmand.

This was the first big offensive since the announcement that 30,000 more US troops were to be dispatched to what is now very much Barack Obama's war. The mission had been postponed while intense political debate on the reinforcements took place in Washington. What happens here, and in other operations which will unfold in the coming months, will determine whether the surge, the strategy which curbed the ferocious violence in Iraq, has a chance of success in Afghanistan.

The Independent accompanied a force of around 1,500 – two-thirds US marines, the rest British, Danish and Afghan – as it launched Operation Khareh Cobra, "Cobra's Rage" in Pashto. Their target was Nawzad, once the second largest town in the province, which passed into Taliban hands two years ago. Since then, the town had become an important arms and opium storing centre for the insurgency, as well as a "blooding ground" where young jihadists cut their teeth. One strip of land, known as "Pakistani Alley", has been a transit point for foreign fighters, mainly, as the name suggests, Pakistanis, to other parts of Helmand.

The doctrine presented by General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in the country, calls for places like Nawzad to be recaptured and protected. British forces had been involved in fierce combat with the Taliban here. But there were never enough troops to hold the ground. The massive American influx into southern Afghanistan, with 9,000 more marines due to join 11,000 already here, is designed to change that.

The sheer size of the operation for Nawzad made it impossible to disguise the build up of forces. Interception of Taliban radio traffic showed commanders speculating about whether the attack would be towards the south or the east; in the end, it came from all sides, with an air assault preceding an armoured thrust. British troops formed a screen to prevent militant fighters escaping towards Musa Qala.

Camp Cafaretto, the US forward operating base, has a number of British connections. One of those who planned the operation, Captain Andrew Terrell, had spent two years on attachment with the Royal Marines in England. There is also a resident Brit, a lieutenant, John (who did not want his surname published) from south London, who was an archaeologist before joining the marine corps. "I had an American girlfriend who was in the Navy, and then 9/11 happened and I decided to join. I don't have any problems being here. The people want security. That is what we are trying to provide," he said.

Some US servicemen said they felt a sense of being involved in a moment in history because of the timing of the mission so soon after the presidential decision. There was also a sense that this was payback time. Their comrades had been killed by booby traps in the district centre, and the use of roadside bombs and mines made the Taliban, in the eyes of the American forces, an enemy as cowardly as it is ruthless. Chaplain Michael Taylor told the young marines as they prepared for combat: "You are the instrument of the Lord's wrath and indignation. Be strong in administering justice. As you face death, whether you deal it out or receive it, it is better to be true to yourself than be a coward who hides at home refusing to protect the innocent." Then there was a warning to remain true to the mission's ideals. "Be pure in your justice,' the chaplain said. "Examine if we have become the men we hate."

Two hours later, there was more firing in our direction from surrounding hills as we scrambled down from the trucks at a rendezvous point. Further along came the deep booms of "Mic-Lics", line charges cutting channels through ground pitted with roadside bombs and mines.

The next hours were spent with Lima Company of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, as they smashed through walled compounds in an area called the Water Margin. Watching a door blown away, Lieutenant Dan Frank said: "It's not a pretty sight, but it's the way to get the job done. My men are the best guys you would want beside you in a fight, but I am not sure I would want many of them to date my sister."

What were the chances of reconciling Taliban fighters, part of Nato's new strategy, a young marine was asked. "If he genuinely wants to come over that's fine," he said. "But if he keeps fighting, well we've just got to take care of him, kill him."

A unit coming down from the north came across Taliban attempting to flee the closing trap. The fighters, in groups of two and three, slipped through the narrow alleyways, spraying shots as they went. The American forces returned fire, attempting to box their enemy into groups, and then called in air strikes; the missiles hitting with deafening noise, throwing up dense swirling clouds of dust and debris.

The marines found dozens of bombs and booby traps in the Water Margin. A search revealed mortar rounds in a building at the entrance to the village of Changowlak. The house owner, Izatullah, was taken away protesting his innocence, someone had left the weapons in his yard, he said, without his knowledge.

Were there Taliban fighters in the village? A group of locals were asked. "They don't stay here, but they come at night and they ask for food and stay," began Jamal, 16, before being angrily interrupted by Mohammed Kabir, 62. "Don't listen to him. There are no Taliban here, no Taliban at all," said the elder. "Listen, we get pressure from both sides. The Taliban create trouble and then we get problems from the foreigners sending their aeroplanes to carry out bombings. Why don't they build us roads and hospitals? That is what we need."

An Afghan soldier, Mainullah Khan, shrugged. "You cannot blame him for denying the Taliban have been here. These soldiers will go away, but he has to live here and the Taliban could come back one day." But are the Americans not staying on? "That is what the British said and then they went away. People will judge for themselves."

Akhbar Jan, a farmer, piped up. "This is our land, we need it to live,' he said. "They are using this for fighting. We will accept that if it means that then we get some benefits. We do not want the Taliban here. We do not want any more war. There has been too much violence, too much."

Back at the US base, Colonel Martin Wetterauer, the commander of 3rd, 4th Marines, was asked how his mission reflected on Mr Obama's decision to send reinforcements. "We have shown that, with adequate numbers of troops, you have more options on the battlefield," he said. "You can take ground quicker and you can hold it. We can then bring in the district governor and start reconstruction, and then, hopefully, people can return to a normal life."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before