The Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers dodged roadside bombs. They took sniper fire from housing compounds and machine gun fire from mosques. Taliban fighters attacked them from crowds filled with women and children.
One insurgent dressed in a burqa and passed himself off as a female bystander before firing at troops.
Enemy fighters repeatedly tried to exploit NATO troops’ restrictive rules of engagement throughout the 3 1/2 weeks the Stryker soldiers fought as part of the largest operation of the Afghanistan war, Lt. Col. Burton Shields of the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division told The News Tribune this week.
“They fired from compounds, from mosques to try to get us to create civilian casualties,” said Shields, the commander of 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. “They were trying to create that rift between us and the local population.”
But Shields, a 43-year-old North Carolina native, said in a phone interview that his soldiers “showed a tremendous amount of restraint and discipline” in such situations.
The Stryker unit evacuated five of its own for medical reasons: two from gunshot wounds and three from injuries sustained during roadside bomb strikes. All are expected to recover, Shields said.
An Afghan soldier fighting with the battalion died from a gunshot wound to the stomach.
Shields estimated his soldiers killed about 30 or 40 Taliban insurgents; the battalion’s snipers alone killed 15.
His battalion of about 700 soldiers and other elements of the larger 5th Brigade had the task of clearing the area northeast of Marjah in Helmand province. They restricted enemy movement between two neighboring areas being secured by U.S. Marines.
The operation, launched Feb. 13, was called “Operation Moshtarak,” after a word in the Dari language that means “together.” It involved 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops who targeted the Taliban stronghold around Marjah. Troops were sent in to clear the area and provide security while reconstruction and civil-affairs projects poured in.
Moshtarak was launched amid a major effort by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to restrict rules of engagement in an effort to minimize civilian casualties.
The specific rules are classified, but it is widely reported that someone must commit a “hostile act” or show “hostile intent” before a NATO service member can fire.
Similar directives from McChrystal have included restricting air strikes and curtailing nighttime raids by Special Operations forces.
Operation Moshtarak was the 4-23 Infantry’s third major mission change since it deployed from Lewis-McChord in July. The battalion began its yearlong tour in Zabul province and moved to Helmand in December, where it was assigned the task of clearing the province’s highways.
To prepare for the offensive, troops from three other battalions of 5th Brigade and officers from the British and Canadian militaries were attached to 4-23 Infantry. The battalion itself fell under the command of a Marine task force and was paired with an Afghan army unit for the push into the Marjah region.
The Lewis-McChord unit launched its mission three days before the official start of Moshtarak. It took about three days to secure the road near a strategic canal and another nine days to clear the area.
Unit members found themselves locked in daily firefights, some lasting as long as eight hours.
Soldiers also came under attack from bombs aimed at their vehicles and dismounted patrols. Eight bombs detonated near the battalion’s soldiers; another 23 were found before they exploded.
It was largely during this phase that soldiers dealt with insurgents trying to exploit the rules of engagement.
“The most difficult thing is to pinpoint where the fire is coming from,” Shields said. “Once you figure it out, then you can apply the appropriate amount of firepower to destroy the threat – whether it be in a compound or a mosque.”
“But we do it in a way that we create minimal or no collateral damage.”
The battalion shifted into a counterinsurgency mode after securing the canal area. Soldiers met with local leaders and set up humanitarian missions, such as sending medics into villages to diagnose sick Afghans.
About 31/2 weeks later, the Lewis-McChord soldiers handed over responsibility for the area to a battalion of Marines.
During Operation Moshtarak, the battalion had a chance to fire almost every variety of its weaponry, including mortars and the Mobile Gun System.
The only weaponry that went unused was its anti-tank missiles.
“It was a tough mission,” Shields said, “but it was the kind of mission you train for as infantrymen.”