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SANGIN, Afghanistan — Lying on a dusty rooftop, Lance Cpls. Jacob Bisek and Daniel Buzalsky watched suspiciously as a man down the road peered at them. He was pointing at the Marines and holding a cell phone, raising the prospect he was a Taliban spotter.
Seconds later, the explosion hit. An insurgent had snuck up on them and hurled a grenade onto the roof, sparking a fight in which Marines inside the compound threw grenades over a wall back at the attacker. Bisek and Buzalsky did not sustain any serious injuries, but the Marines learned later that their attacker died from shrapnel wounds.
"I was about to peek over, and that's when it exploded," said Bisek, adding his hearing still wasn't right two weeks later. "For the longest time, I didn't believe it was a grenade. It landed five feet from my face, and it didn't do anything."
The April 15 attack underscores the volatility that Marines will face this summer in Sangin, arguably the most notorious place they have fought during the war in Afghanistan. More than 50 have been killed there in less than two years, and at least 500 more have sustained catastrophic injuries, mainly from improvised explosive devices.
The U.S. military is withdrawing thousands of Marines from Helmand province this year and has helped to pacify large parts of it. Insurgents continue to operate regularly in Sangin, however. Marines there face ambushes with small-arms fire, attacks with grenades and a maze of IEDs that still worry troops daily.
Leading operations this summer in Sangin will be 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms, Calif. The unit, commanded by Lt. Col. David Bradney, replaced a sister battalion, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, early in April.
Bradney, a career infantry officer who regularly patrols with his Marines, acknowledges the fight will be difficult. By Sangin's standards, 3/7 had a relatively quiet deployment, but the widely held assumption is that violence will spike once the harvest of opium-producing poppy is complete in May. That happened last summer, when 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., was deployed there. The Marines of 1/7 have spent weeks preparing for it.
"Once we get done setting the force, we'll start aggressive operations," Bradney said. "We know the compounds, we know who lives in the compounds, and when we see changes to that, we can react."
Signs of progress
There are signs of improvement in Sangin. For one, Marine forces cleared Route 611 late last year during Operation Eastern Storm, pushing northeast to neighboring Kajaki. The road parallels the Helmand River, and serves as the main route in the region.
IEDs are rarely found on 611 anymore, Marine officials said. About 13 miles of the road running southwest from Kajaki are still unpaved, but a multinational project is planned to fix the road and connect the two districts.
Sangin also held elections for a new district community council on March 27. More than 2,000 people voted, electing at 26 men and one woman, Afghan officials said. Eight seats remain open, and will be filled in a future election.
"That election never would have happened last year in Sangin," said Lt. Col. Larry Kaifesh, who oversees Afghan governance projects in Helmand for I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward). "To see 2,000 people come out, that's a huge sign of success on not only governance, but that security has improved."
Prolonged attacks on Marines outside the wire also have declined. As of April 30, no conventional unit in Sangin had declared a "Troops in Contact" incident within the last 10 months, a period that includes last summer's fighting season, Bradney said. Insurgents are still ambushing Marines, but infantrymen are operating in large enough elements that frequently they can fight their way out before air or artillery support is needed.
The Marines also have built strong relationships with some villagers in the region. Although civilians won't all speak to Marines for fear the Taliban will punish them, some have quietly pointed out IEDs and shared other details about Taliban operations, Marines said. The tone is set in part by Mohammad Sherrif, the district governor. A former school teacher in his 70s, he wears a long white beard, and has attended memorial services for Marines killed in Sangin.
Bradney credited the last battalion in Sangin, 3/7, with doing a "masterful" job of denying insurgents the ability to hide IEDs, slowing down the main threat in the region. Marines with 3/7 regularly killed insurgents with artillery strikes while they were planting IEDs, and 1/7 has followed suit, Bradney said.
The unit uses two kinds of white tethered blimps loaded with surveillance equipment — the Precision Ground Surveillance System and its larger cousin, the Persistent Threat Detection System — to find sinister activity from afar. Once an insurgent is identified burying an IED or carrying a weapon, he can be targeted from miles away by the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System.
Bracing for the fight
One area of Sangin where Marines are girding for a fight is the Fish Tank. Marines there with Baker Company, 1/7, were attacked frequently early in April, before the Taliban instructed local fighters to put down their weapons and harvest opium-producing poppy, Marines said. Violence across Sangin already has picked up since, Bradney said.
The attacks started as soon as 1/7 arrived in theater, said Cpl. Manuel Espinoza, a fire team leader with 2nd Squad, 3rd Platoon. On April 6, enemy fighters opened fire on the squad twice with AK47s and tossed two grenades at the Marines during their first independent patrol. No Marines were hurt, but they have heard that a "grenade cell" of enemy fighters is operating in the region, and expect they'll cross paths with it again.
"They fight differently than we do," Espinoza said of the insurgents they've encountered. "They were shooting even with kids present. They had no regard for that."
Marine Corps Times joined the squad on a patrol in the Fish Tank on May 1. The area is physically different than the rolling green fields of poppy and wheat that dominate Helmand. Instead, a dusty maze of narrow alleys, sharp corners and small doorways greet the Marines, making it difficult to see potential attacks.
The squad, overseen by Sgt. Johnathan Cook, pushed out from Patrol Base Fulod early in the morning. Lance Cpl. Jason Aguilar, a combat engineer, led the patrol carefully through the network of compounds while wielding a metal detector. He and Espinoza paused several times to point out potential IEDs, paying close attention to piles of trash, animal corpses and stones piled in unnatural ways. Insurgents have used all of them to hide explosives.
The mission took on an especially eerie tone because during a patrol the previous day villagers in the region had attempted to avoid the squad. The poppy crop in the Fish Tank is harvested several days earlier than in Sangin's Green Zone, so the Marines reasoned it was possible the transition to fighting season could begin there first.
"Right up until the harvest started, we were taking contact almost every day and seeing people on radios and cell phones all the time," said 1st Lt. Todd Sturgill, 3rd Platoon's commander, in late April. "We're expecting it to pick up soon."
Insurgents meet regularly in the nearby village of Zard Regay, a few miles to the southeast. When a Marine helicopter interrupts a Taliban gathering, the fighters scatter in all directions — something Marines call the "Afghan star."
Marines also contended with a series of insurgent attacks before poppy season farther north, in the Upper Sangin Valley. Some of them were initiated by a sniper, who was eventually wounded by a Marine in the village of Potay.
On April 28, Marine Corps Times joined a reinforced squad with Dog Company 1/7's 3rd Platoon on a long patrol through villages and poppy farms in the region. The Marines pushed out from Forward Operating Base Tabac early in the morning, sweeping through muddy fields, rocky trails and murky canals for more than eight hours.
The purpose for the patrol wasn't solely to check on security in the region. The harvest annually brings an influx of migrant workers into the Sangin Valley. Some of them will return to their villages afterward. Others take up arms against coalition forces.
To combat uncertainty about the workers, Marines actively collect biometric information in the field. They use a hand-held device known as a HIIDEs, or Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment System, to compile and compare fingerprints, DNA, photographs and iris scans, each of which can be used to see if an individual has a sinister past.
The Marines also set up a security checkpoint on a dusty trail running south from the Helmand River along a shallow canal. The route is barely large enough to fit a car, but is called the "Taliban Highway" by Marines in Sangin because insurgents frequently speed along it on motorcycles before disappearing across the river on rafts.
"All they have to do is jump on a boat and take off," said Sgt. Anthony Garbo, a squad leader. "They do it all the time."
For the next hour, Garbo's squad stopped close to 20 civilians traveling by motorcycle, car and even tractor. They took biometric information from each of them, but the patrol remained otherwise quiet. Overall, the Marines collected information from more than 40 men that day alone.
Dog Company's commander, Capt. John Collins, said it's important to keep things in perspective when looking at the history of Sangin. In 2010, he served as the Force Reconnaissance platoon commander for Pendleton's 1st Reconnaissance Battalion as the unit arrived in Upper Sangin. Violence may spike this summer, but Marine officials will be tracking how that compares with previous fighting seasons, rather than just previous months this year, he said.
"We're preparing for the worst now, but I think the important thing to look at is, 'Does it spike as much as it did in the past?'" Collins said. "When we came in then, we arrived on helicopters and borrowed people's compounds. There were no friendly positions."
That doesn't stop attacks like the one on Bisek and Buzalsky, however. Neither Marine wanted any time off, but they both acknowledge being a lot more weary of ambushes now.
"We're suspicious of everything," Bisek said. "I'm always looking out for spotters now."